Comedy · Foreign Languages · Why I'm a Ridiculous Person

Those Who Can’t Do, Teach the Rest of Us Coping Skills

I’m beginning to learn what the phrase “those who can’t do, teach” means. It doesn’t mean only people who are crap at something teach it. It means that if you do something instinctively, actually trying to figure out what you do enough to explain it to someone else is a process that might actually drive you insane.

So right now, I have a part-time gig tutoring. I tutor in ESL—that’s English as a second language—and I’m pretty good at it. Not because I can’t speak English (oh, my, can I speak English) but because I’ve learned other languages the hard way. I have been the person staring at lists of vocabulary long into the night wondering why nothing will stick. My time in the grammar trenches has come and gone and left me with battle scars—still do I flinch when I realize I must conjugate a verb into the “must” form. (Saseraremashita, you beautiful verb-ending bastard.)

See, a large portion of ESL the way I teach it is phonics, and because of my particular approach, that means spelling. And I suck at spelling, hardcore. Suck to the point that I’m betting if I was tested, I’d register on the dyslexia scale. So it seems pretty stupid to have me teach phonics, right?

Wrong. I know every trick, every rule, every stupid thing I’ve memorized over the years in hopes it might actually help me to not look like a total moron writing long-handed. Learning phonics in order to teach them truly helped tune my ear, and now I am a phonics master. Teach? Ha! I can teach English spelling to anyone!

And then I got a student who just plain needs help in English. Like, with high-level high school grammar and composition. A native speaker.

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I’m really good at English. I’m got-a-36-ACT good at English. I write books, I compose blog posts, I spend my days reading and writing, immersed in English. A five paragraph essay? Ha! Hand it over, it’ll be done in half an hour, no really.

Which is, of course, the problem. Essay writing has never been difficult for me. High level grammar is instinctive. I write the way I speak, almost exactly, hence the large quantity of comma splices and erratic commas.

How do I do it?

Turns out, I don’t have a clue.

As a teaching approach, you can imagine how helpful it is.

So I’m sitting with this student, going over the grammar packet I found online and skimmed through, which is full of stuff that I think will help them. We come to a page on “is this a complete sentence or not,” and the following sentence comes up:

When I forget my keys

Is it a full sentence or not?

Of course it isn’t, that seems obvious. I open my mouth to explain why, and realize right before I say it that my answer is going to be “because it feels wrong.”


English is not dousing, or palm reading. It has no element of mysticism, and so the answer “I feel in my bones this is not correct” is exactly as helpful as staring into a crystal ball saying “darkness comes, Harry Potter, oooOOOoooo.”

So I stare at the sentence for a moment. The answer is here, I can feel it. Sentences require a verb and a subject. So that’s I, and forget, and look, there’s even an object, keys, and I know this is not a sentence but WHY IS THIS NOT A SENTENCE.

Ten seconds have passed, and I still don’t have an answer. My not-well-installed ceiling fan is ticking back and forth, sweat is beginning to rise on my neck. My student is waiting for me, grammar-guru, to say exactly why this is not a full sentence, and I don’t have one flipping clue beyond the fact that I know that it isn’t. Oh god, oh god, what do I do?

Turns out I check the previous page, where it explains all this, and reach back into the long-forgotten realms of ninth grade to remember the phrase “dependent clause.” Oh, yeah. Right. Cool. Dependent clause, totally. The situation is saved and we continue working through the packet.

But for one terrifying second, I’d realized something: I have no blithering clue how grammar works. I’m like that person who cliff dives and then the moment someone goes “what’s the trick?” they accidentally jump straight onto a rock.

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How do you do it? Dunno.

And that is why the phrase should not be “those who can’t do, teach.” Rather, we should say: “those who can’t do it instinctively should teach the stupid thing, because they actually have a clue what the rules are without sounding like they use a divining rod every morning.”

Instinct is a pretty cool thing—it’s just not an effective teaching tool. Because the one thing in the world that isn’t teachable?

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