Those who can, do; those who can’t…

So, a lawyer and a teacher are at a dinner party. The lawyer is gesticulating wildly and holding court when he says the one thing that sears the ears of every teacher:

“Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.”

This slight unleashes the teacher into a non-stop, vein-popping rejoinder that is Taylor Mali’s Slam Nation poem “What Teachers Make”. It went viral. A comic strip version of Taylor’s poem went viral as well. And, when it was shared with me, I almost shared it with others. But I didn’t. And, if you haven’t seen it and want to before I explain why, here you go:

            Taylor Mali – What Teachers Make (Zen Pencils Comic)

Now that you’ve seen it, here’s why I didn’t share the comic:

Students are echeloned in neat and tidy rows of orderliness. All of their eyes are focused on the teacher who sits behind a desk at the front of the room. There’s a clear distinction between the one who knows and the ones who have yet to know. It is the teacher who knows. It is the teacher who anchors the center of the room.

When students come to the teacher (they have to), he is elevated above them, towers over them. For students, knowledge, direction, answers and expectations flow in one direction – they flow from the person behind the desk at the front of the class and not those next to, across from, behind or diagonal to them.

The focus is on silence, seeking permission, and the raising of hands. The focus in on making students do things like write, read, spell, show their work and more. And, how does the teacher make his students do these things? Grades. Their motivation to work hard, harder than they ever worked before, comes from the teacher wielding his pen. Not from within and not from some historically and culturally-centered standard of excellence held by their peers.

Taylor ends his vehement rejoinder by saying “Teachers make a goddamn difference!”

Teachers make their students:

  • Wonder
  • Question
  • Have heart
  • See themselves for who they are and what they can be

And, I say “yes” to all of these things. However, the classroom in his poem is represented as a system of control that is hierarchically structured and designed for the effective transmission of information and the issuance of orders. Now, this may be suitable for an industrialized world that is changing slowly, manageably. But that is no longer our world. And, that “goddam difference made” Taylor refers to flows from teacher to student and not in reverse. We all know that that is not true.

Now, is it unfair to ask a poem (or comic) to capture the entirety of what it means to be a teacher? Yes, of course. And, don’t get me wrong. I still enjoy the poem. But there’s more (so much more) to teaching than what it represents. Indeed, in my Rewilding Pedagogy, I do not make my students do any of the things that are in that poem.

What do I make?

I make:

  • Codes of honor
  • Cultures of accountability
  • Costly rituals for screening prospective students
  • Communities committed to excellence
  • Conditions for transfiguring my students into vital human beings

But I do not make any of these things alone. I co-make them with my students.

And, in order to do that, I had to give up:

  • Power
  • Control
  • Decision-making authority

And, by doing that, I also had to give up the:

  • Stage
  • Podium
  • Having the final word
  • Ego boost of having my students come to me for answers
  • Rush of being the elemental font of wisdom, knowledge and expertise

And, yes, sometimes, the classroom got:

  • Messy
  • Cacophonous
  • Unpredictable
  • Unruly

And, yes, I was:

  • Challenged
  • Questioned
  • Pushed to justify any decisions that I may have made

But I got to teach them about:

  • Courage
  • Honor
  • Selflessness

And, I got to teach them how to:  

  • Meet their inner-fears and commit to a course of action in the face of great uncertainty

And, I gained:

  • A level of trust that allowed me to drape my arm on their shoulder as they exited the Arena a bit bruised and beaten and say to them “You did good.” 

And, I also gained:

  • Authentic, deep, life-long relationships with my students. So, deep and authentic that even after they have long graduated, we still gather at the house. They bring their partners and pets and put up their tents in the backyard and we spend the weekend stretching our imaginations and making one another better over dinner and bourbon and bonfires.

That’s the more I am talking about.


I’m writing a book on my pedagogy called Rewild School, blogpost-by-blogpost. This is one of those blogposts. You can learn more by visiting Rewild School.

Thanks. – shawn


Photo by Ivan Aleksic on Unsplash