See one, do one, teach one

See one, do one, teach one.” That was the mantra of an old boss of mine, a successful and focussed surgeon who had risen from the working classes in New Zealand to study medicine in the USA, dishwashing his way through his degree. He was not great with people, but he was an excellent teacher.

I see the word “teacher” used in opposing ways these days. From the educator community, there is constant pressure for professional teachers to be regarded as superhuman, performing seemingly impossible tasks in the face of ever-increasing adversity. From the policy makers (and dare I say, from populist news outlets) we hear words like “illiterate”, “low quality”, “poorly trained”, always with the suggestion that people go into teaching for one of two reasons: they didn’t get high enough marks to study anything else, or they failed at their real job and need something else to do.

The usual thing, when constructing an argument, would be to say something cliched like “the reality lies somewhere in between” — but in fact neither of these perspectives bears any semblance to reality. While it is certainly true that there are teachers who do nothing to improve the profession’s reputation, there are significantly more whose determination to operate at a level of excellence is gradually eroded by a deeply flawed society.

The perception of teachers has polarised because of failure to teach. It is the job of the policy makers, politicians and leaders of a nation to teach leadership, to teach selfless representation of the community, to model exemplary behaviour and to be transparently free from corruption. In 2015, Australia ranked 13th in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, down 6 places from 2012 — this is failure. It is the job of law enforcement, the legal profession and the courts to teach that all people, from all socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds, have equal access to fair hearing under the same laws and have a right to expect that penalties are the same regardless of race, fame or fortune. When we consider that indigenous children are 24 times more likely to be locked up than white children, this is failure. It is the job of parents to teach their children that the wellbeing of a dependent is more important than self-gratification, that “no” is not the end of the world, and that to succeed they must first attempt, then practise and get used to failure. Time and again, no matter how good the parents’ intentions, we see evidence that many children have a skewed perception of their entitlement and, in seeming paradox, frighteningly low self-image.

A professional teacher must therefore somehow encourage and improve students who have been damaged by several layers of society, and a professional teacher will do so because a professional teacher is, above all, not a superhero but a professional. It is what they are trained to do, and continue to be trained to do for their entire professional lives. The best teachers — just like the best community leaders, legal professionals and parents — don’t just cope, but excel. And live in hope that the world they’ve taught your children about, the world where people are fundamentally good and honest and selfless, will one day come to pass — because they have seen the example in the classroom, they will live the example themselves and they will teach their own children how it ought to be.

See one, do one, teach one.

Originally published as See one, do one, teach one,21 May 2016,