Why does just teaching a class scare so many people?

By: | September 28, 2018

I read recently that experts in any field do not often make the best teachers. It was the opposite of the old “those who can’t do, teach” and the writer, Adam Grant in the New York Times, was suggesting that, often, “those who can do, can’t teach.”

That took me back to April 1972, when the Vancouver Police Department established a school-liaison unit.

The notion was for police officers involved to deliver safety and crime-prevention lessons to students, staff and parents, and to serve as a liaison between schools and the criminal-justice system. To my knowledge that, or a similar program, still exists.

The other expectation for the officers was that they would also speak to classes, as well as talk informally with students.

In addition to the school liaison program, the VPD operated the school-safety patrol that taught primary-school-age children about safety issues as well as checking on the preparation of school-crossing guards.

I was invited, as an elementary-school principal, to speak to the group of VPD and New Westminster officers who had volunteered, or been volunteered, to take on the role of school-liaison officer.

My “class” included officers whose background included time with the drug squad and the gang squad. These were men and women who had faced down and arrested the worst of the worst — armed and dangerous offenders with violent backgrounds.

Yet the risks and challenges of this kind of work did not, in the minds of many of these officers, compare with the scary prospect of facing a classroom of elementary- or secondary-school kids and delivering a lesson on school and street safety.

So, in working with experienced policemen about whose world I knew virtually nothing, I decided to rely on the initial technical basics of teaching a class, about which I at least knew something.

I went back to the fundamental instructional philosophy I knew from the military training manuals I had read so many years before: “Tell them what you are going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you told them, then ask them to explain some of that back to you.”

Sound advice never gets old, and later on, Madeline Hunter, former professor of education at University of California-Los Angeles, rewrote her version the military lesson plan into a successful seven-step lesson design called Instructional Theory into Practice.

It should be a bible for newbie teachers facing their first practicums.

We had several sessions that focused on lesson construction and timing, classroom management, lesson content and checking for understanding.

When the program began in my school, the officer who was assigned came into my office after his first lesson and said: “I can’t believe you guys do this every day for 190 or so days a year — it’s easier out on the street.”

At the secondary-school level, I’ve had the same reaction from businessmen, sports figures, newspaper editors and local politicians who had come to speak to Grade 11 and 12 kids about careers: “You do this every day?”

In his New York Times commentary, Grant, an organizational psychologist, suggested that “the best experts sometimes make the worst educators.”

Grant cited Einstein, who, in his second semester as a teacher at the University of Bern, was able to attract only one student to his class because of his reputation for delivering barely comprehensible and disorganized lectures.

“He was not a fine talker and never an inspired teacher” wrote Einstein’s biographer Walter Isaacson.

Part of the problem seems to be that the more sophisticated an understanding an individual has about his or her area of expertise, the more difficulty he or she might have in communicating even the basics of that knowledge to those ignorant of the world of teaaching.

But if teaching is just a matter of following the lesson steps, why can’t anybody, especially someone who has been outstandingly effective in some other field, just walk into a classroom and teach successfully?

Why, for that matter, does the prospect of teaching a class just once scare the heck out of normally unflappable people?

Is it because teaching demands the ability not just to follow the steps in a lesson plan, but to create solutions, to innovate and adapt hour by hour while being challenged by the unique needs of individual kids and their circumstances — all this while 20 to 30 sets of critical eyes watch your every move?

Is it the frustration of knowing more about the learning capacities of the kids in your class than standardized tests will ever reveal?

Or maybe it is none of that. Maybe it’s just because of the relentless determination required of a good teacher who must, every day, be able to put him or herself in the place of those who find learning hard and lead them along a path to success.

Geoff Johnson is a former superintendent of schools.