10 Idioms about Teaching


You can’t teach an old dog new tricks

Teaching can be such a rewarding job!

The opportunity to help others gain knowledge and go further in their lives is one that you have to grab with both hands. The thing is, anyone can be a teacher so this is relevant for all!

To be a good teacher you have to be many things and have many qualities. That means that there is a lot of vocabulary and things to learn about this topic.

We are going to examine a few key phrases:

  1. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks
  2. Don’t teach your grandmother to suck eggs
  3. That’ll teach them!
  4. Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.
  5. Tricks of the trade
  6. To teach someone a lesson
  7. You can lead a horse to water but you cant make him drink.
  8. Do as I say, not as I do.
  9. To set a good example
  10. Take it from me

So without further ado, lets get started!

1. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks

To teach an old dog new tricks is known as a very difficult activity!

As dogs get older it becomes more and more difficult to teach them anything, let alone teach them a trick! So, if we apply that to human beings then it’s clear to see what we mean.

If you try and teach an old dog new tricks, perhaps you are trying to teach someone a skill but they cant learn it or they refuse to learn it.  This can be really difficult if someone has learned bad habits for their whole lives.

Take a look at the example:

Pete: Hi Jan, how are you?
Jan: Hi Pete, I’m a little frustrated, I’ve been at my grandmas all afternoon trying to show her how to use her computer.
Pete: Oh god, I bet that was fun!

Jan: Not at all. She just doesn’t understand technology and the worst part is she didn’t even say thank you. It was very frustrating.
Pete: Well, I guess you cant teach an old dog new tricks.

Be careful not to say this in front of the person that you are describing! It can be seen as offensive or that you are calling them old.

to-teach-an-old-dog-new-tricks-meaning

2. Don’t teach your grandmother to suck eggs

Yes this looks strange, let me explain!

There is no real answer as to where this phrase came from but yet it exists!

Its meaning today is that you shouldn’t teach someone who is really experienced to do something new, because the chances are they know it better than you.  This idiom can be used if someone is patronising you or not treating you like an adult. The idea is that (for some reason) your grandma knows how to suck eggs without needing you to tell her how to do it.

I know it’s weird, but this can be a good phrase to get rid of tension and make people laugh!

Angela: Okay, Jake, now I’ll show you how to use the present tense.
Jake: Angela, I know how to use the present tense. Don’t teach your grandmother to suck eggs.
Angela: Okay, okay! I just thought you didn’t know that yet!

Again, it makes no sense but it is a fun phrase to use in a frustrating situation.

3. That’ll teach them!

Now we move on to a more aggressive phrase about teaching!

This is to do with getting revenge or getting even with someone who has done something bad in the past. Generally, even though we live in a culture where we are told to forgive people when they do bad things, human beings love to get revenge on people!

Imagine someone has bullied you at school and you never got the chance to get back at them whilst you were at school. Now imagine that two years later, the same bully got in trouble for doing something bad, you could say: That’ll teach him.

Take a look at the dialogue:

Hamish: Hey, Tony did you see that the toyshop is closing down?
Tony: Yeah I did, I used to know the owner of that shop.

Hamish: How come?
Tony: I bought a toy off him for my son and it broke. I went to ask him for a refund but he refused.

Hamish: Oh okay, no wonder his shop is closing then!
Tony: Yeah, exactly. That’ll teach him anyway.[/blockquote]

You could also use this before the revenge happens. In this instance if Tony said to Hamish, I hope his shop closes down, that’ll teach him he would be doing just that.


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4. Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.

This is a very famous phrase for teachers everywhere, but perhaps not for the right reasons.

The phrase implies that teachers only do their profession because they weren’t good enough to do it as their main job. It’s very rude if you think about it!

Teachers generally do a good job and provide a service that many other people do not, sharing knowledge is so important and to be able to teach is an invaluable skill.
I’m sure you all agree!

Take a look at the example:

Keith: So Petunia, what do you do for a living? (what’s your job?)
Petunia: Well I am trying to be a writer, but I am a teacher at the moment.

Keith: Well, you know what they say, those you can, do; those who can’t, teach!
Petunia: I actually find that very offensive!
Keith: Oh, I’m sorry, I’m only joking!

As with many idioms, be careful when you use this. Try not to say it in front of teachers, if you choose to say it at all!

5. Tricks of the trade

Time for a fun phrase now!

Tricks of the trade are pieces of information that people learn with experience to make their lives easier. This is accomplished by putting a lot of time into whatever the trade is! You can say that the tricks of the trade help you to cut corners or save time on things that would usually take a long time.

Try to think of some tricks of the trade in your job.

One example would be when chefs make a lot of food in advance of their service time. This helps them to save time and finish things in stressful situations.

Take a look below:

Dave: Hey, Ron, I see that you have prepared lots of tomato sauce for tonight.
Ron: It’s one of the tricks of the trade, Dave! Tomato pasta is our bestseller so I want to be ready!

Dave: Ah, I see that makes sense. You’re using your experience well.
Ron: Thanks, Dave.

To teach someone a lesson

6. To teach someone a lesson

This is very similar to that’ll teach them. More revenge!

Generally this is used to indicate future revenge. You would say I’m going to teach him a lesson, but you can also use it in the past saying I taught him a lesson.

Imagine all of those times that you have been annoyed by someone and you were losing patience. You start to think that you will go to this person and either shout at them or help them realise their behaviour is unfair.

This is what it means to teach someone a lesson. It also means that because you have taught them this lesson, they will never think of acting in that way again.

For example:

Bill: Neville, did you hear what Tim said about your new car?
Neville: No! What did he say?

Bill: He said that it look stupid and that you are just trying to get attention.
Neville: Oh, is that right?

Bill: Yeah! I was really surprised, I thought Tim liked you.
Neville: I’m going to teach him a lesson about respect. You don’t talk about people like that.

To Teach Someone a Lesson meaning

If course, you could teach someone a lesson in ways other than aggression but this is something that is quite direct to say about or to someone. Use with caution!


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7. You can lead a horse to water but you cant make him drink.

This is exactly as it is written! But I will explain just when and where you can use this idiom to great effect.

Imagine that you have a horse that is in the desert. He hasn’t had any water for a long time and he is very, very dehydrated. He needs water! So you take him to the nearest river that you can find, but he won’t drink the water. You don’t know why he won’t drink but you have now done all you can do!

Now, taking that into realistic situations, including teaching. You can show people how to do things and show them what is right but you cannot make them change or do something if they do not want to.

An example in real life would be if you have a friend that won’t study. You try every day to show them that studying helps, you bring them their books and even offer to help them. The problem really is that they do not want to study!

Graham: Lisa, I’ve tried and tried but I still cannot get Chris to study! He’s going to fail!
Lisa: I know Graham, I’ve tried too.

Graham: I have written notes for him, I have offered to give him worksheets to improve and I have even offered to study with him. He just won’t do it!
Lisa: Well, you’ve done everything you can Graham. Sometimes it’s not possible to change somebody like Chris. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.

This is a really cool phrase and sounds very sophisticated when used correctly.

8. Do as I say, not as I do.

This one is straight from the parents’ handbook!

Parents can be the most important teachers in their children’s lives but it can be difficult to make sure they’re showing them correct behaviour every day. Children are clever and will be watching for any little mistakes that parents might make!

In this case, if a parent has told their child not to shout but to speak calmly and then they start shouting at the child, the child may say “You tell me not to shout, but you’re shouting!”

It’s difficult to come back from such a clear accusation!  This is where the phrase becomes useful where the parent tells the child to do what they say and not to copy their own behaviour.

For example:

Jonny: Wesley, what have I told you about eating chocolate before you eat dinner?
Wesley: You told me that I shouldn’t do it, but I was really hungry!

Jonny: If you eat chocolate now, then you won’t want to eat your dinner.
Wesley: I saw you eating chocolate before dinner yesterday! Why do you get to do it but I don’t?
Jonny: Now, Wesley, do as I say, not as I do.

Parents – you’re welcome. This can save you from a lot of trouble!

9. To set a good example

It’s really important for people to set good examples to children or students whenever possible!

Teachers and parents have a responsibility to teach a child by setting a good example to them.  This is a contradiction to the last idiom! It means that you actually have to do the things that you tell others to do.

If we use the chocolate example once more, Jonny would be setting a good example to Wesley if he didn’t eat chocolate before dinner. This will help Wesley realise that the behaviour is not correct.

Many children learn by imitating the actions of people they respect. It’s a tribal instinct!

So, it’s important to set a good example for your students!

Wesley: Mum! Dad told me that I can’t have chocolate before dinner!
Francine: Yes, that’s right, you are not allowed chocolate before you eat your dinner. What’s the problem?

Wesley: Well, I saw him eating chocolate before dinner! It’s not fair that he can do it but I can’t!
Francine: Jonny, is that true?

Jonny: Yes, but I am allowed! I make the rules.
Francine: Come on Jonny, you have to set a good example to your son! No chocolate before dinner!

Try to set a good example to everyone you meet and treat others as you wish to be treated!

10. Take it from me

This is a good expression to show expertise about a certain subject or speak with authority. You can also use it to speak from experience and help other people learn from your past.

This is a good phrase for a teacher because they can make a personal connection with their students.

An example would be if a student is constantly late for school because they are going to bed too late every night. The teacher will notice this behaviour and should try to speak to the student. The teacher will remember when they were a student and they didn’t want to go to bed or even go to school, but now they have the experience and the knowledge to know that it’s a good idea to go to bed early sometimes!

They can say something like: Take it from me, I used to hate going to bed, I thought it was so boring! But science tells us that it refreshes our brain and helps us to learn at school.

You can use this to speak confidently about a subject you understand properly.

Let’s look further at the example I’ve just mentioned:

Teacher: Mohamed, why are you late again?
Mohamed: I woke up late sir, so I missed the bus and I had to work.

Teacher: I see. Were you too tired to get up or did you just have a bad morning.
Mohamed: I was too tired, I’m always tired and I don’t know why.

Teacher: Well do you go to bed early?
Mohamed: No, I hate sleeping. I prefer staying up late and watching television

Teacher: Well, yes, we all would like to stay up late all the time! Take it from me, I used to be like you, but I realise now how important sleep is for my development.
Mohamed: So you didn’t go to bed early when you were my age?

Teacher: No! I was always up late, but it’s not the way forward, take it from me.
Mohamed: I understand, I’ll try to go to bed earlier from now on.


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I hope these phrases have helped you to talk more about teaching, even if you are not a teacher by profession. It’s so important to remember that everyone is teaching someone and you may not even realise! 

Just do your best to set a good example that people can learn from and things will be fine.

Take it from me, I don’t want to have to teach you a lesson!

Comments are always welcome!


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Written by: Anastasia Koltai

Founder of MyEnglishTeacher.eu. Ana is a fan of giving away free and useful materials both for English learners and teachers. In her free time she loves biking and playing with her dog.