Defining “Teacher”

We hear a lot about the changing role of teachers (I’m tiring of the phrases “sage on the stage” and “guide on the side”) but in reality students are still looking at the teachers as authorities. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but unquestionably it’s not all that sustainable considering the possibilities of disruptive education.

Content is Everywhere

So when sites like this emerge it simply highlights the reality that students should never have to settle for  second rate educational content.  If I were teaching Physics, I would be crazy not to invite Walter Lewin into my classroom at some point.  An economics or political science class could utilze the works of Alan Blight.  And while it might be easy to say, textbooks also provide a level of expertise, a well-crafted lecture or better yet a live Q and A with the author is a game changer.

So as I ponder what this should and could l00k like, I think about how that changes my role as a teacher. Again, this is not a new conversation but when you have to live it, it truly changes how you feel about education.   I still love to teach, which can be defined as direct instruction or lecture. There are times when that’s important and the right approach. But I don’t need to feel compelled to prepare a session on web-based storytelling, or podcasting or educational gaming. Others are much better qualified and passionate to teach my students. So while I often brag about being a lazy professor, I’m not all that lazy, just resourceful.

Content isn’t Everything

But again, simple access to great content in a variety of formats is not the only thing we need. Wes Fryer’s review of Bill Gates recent Ted talk addresses this issue:

In his speech, think Bill made a contradictory error in asserting that through access to digital videos of “the best teachers” our students “can have the best teachers.” Simply having access to high-quality video content will not provide our students with the GREAT teachers which Bill Gates correctly asserts our students need and deserve. In addition to good content knowledge, what makes great teachers great is their ability to cultivate relationships with their students. Certainly there are many students who don’t “need” a professional relationship with their teachers or instructors in order to “do well” in academic terms in school. But how about those students in “the lower quartile?” How about those students in alternative educational settings, for whom the “traditional school system” has not worked? Do you think those students simply need access to Academic Earth online? Having more choices about the ways they access content and demonstrate their own mastery IS an important part of differentiated learning, and students at all levels should have those options. Providing great teachers for our students means far more than simply providing access to high quality video lectures, however. It means investing in and supporting teachers who care, understand, and relate to their students so they can encourage, challenge, and support them in their own individualized journeys of learning.

What was formerly seen as nice, but not necessary, must now be first and foremost: teachers who care and relate to students. Teachers who will seek out what specific needs each student has and leads them in the right direction. What great lectures and content can never provide is relationship and caring.  I don’t necessarily define caring and relationship as a seen in the movies, but rather someone who recognizes that their job is to create opportunity for students to not only learn content but pursue and find their passions.  While that may seem like rhetoric, to me it’s become my mantra. I see all my students as desiring to be teachers,  I see all the teachers I work with as teachers desiring to be better.  I realize that may not always be the case, but that’s the premise I begin with.

What Should I Call Myself?

Clarence’s metaphor of teacher as network administrator gains relevance for me many days. My inbox is full of questions from students and teachers wondering how to do this and where to find that and I regularly lead them to others in their current network as resources.  I’m quite pleased with the ways I’ve been able to find mentors for my students. They will learn so much more from the teachers that I could possibly offer on my own. In addition, I’m the lead in providing feedback, not the only one as I encourage and require my students to provide feedback and critique for each other. Will’s theme about being a learner first has also captured my imagination. “Lead learner” is something that feels right but not sure it depicts exactly how I see myself.

I’ve already admitted I do many things that may not be according to the textbook, but I feel like I’m more comfortable in my role. While some reading this might find it fluffy or inconsequential, it’s important for me to provide a definition and title to what I do. Teacher, brings with it too many perspectives to which I no longer subscribe.  Again, I still “teach” but it has to be more than that. I teach, I lead, I learn, I share, I encourage, I critique, I monitor, I connect, I care, I model.

I’m still looking for a name for what I do. Teacher is okay, but as I redefine what it means to teach, I’d like a different title.

Graph by Jessica Hagy

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  • Tracey

    I think you nailed it. When I first started teaching, it seemed to be about the lesson plans and delivery of new material, Then it evolved into a way to tie the classroom into real life. The next big focus was technology. After nineteen years in education, I’m getting more than ever that it is essential as a teacher to worm my way into the student’s life somehow and develop some sort of bond with them. I sure wish somebody had told me that when I started. At some point, it was really even discouraged to become too close to your students. Its easy to watch the success of the kids who just get it, no matter what it is, or the kids who have great parents who have already set them up for success. It’s the ones without anybody else expecting anything from them that need somebody to care how they do in school. It’s also too bad that some of those kids can be the most challenging to work with. I’m with you, though, I’m not so sure I’m a teacher as I might be a cheerleader or a therapist, or a network administrator.

  • nycrican2

    Wow, I just checked out and listened to a lecture from Harvard Univ on, ” Introduction to Computer Science”. The professor demonstrated amazing activities that I can use with my students. I also noticed that the level of student participation and the answers that they provided for the professor were on the same level as my community college students.

    This was really an eyeopening experience for me. I always wondered what it would be like to teach students that were scholars and if it would be any different than teaching the students that I teach. Based on this video lecture, I would have to say that it would not be much different. Thanks for the link. I will be watching more videos from this site and I hope they will make a big difference in my style of teaching.

    So, in answer to your question, perhaps what students really need are educators who continue to educate themselves by sharing and learning from other educators through Personal Learning Networks and through websites like these. By doing so, they can bring the best of the best into their own classrooms and enhance the quality of their student’s learning experiences. Therefore, perhaps the title for this kind of educator should be,”Learning Coach”.

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    • @Tracey Cheerleader is certainly been something I see very much of late. In part, I’ve facilitated this with social media and leveraging these tools to promote and showcase both student and teacher work. Just as the bulletin boards and trophy cases were used in the past, social media has much more power in highlighting the work we do.

      @Nelly, “Learning Coach” is pretty good. I’ve always loved the coaching analogy as it seems to project ideas of encouragement with a healthy balance of pressure and support.

  • Fabulous post. I also had the chance to read your referenced post from October, the one where you talk about all the things you’re doing wrong! 🙂 (Please!) Honestly, your reflections really struck a chord with me. I particularly relate to your focus on the teacher being someone who cares; someone who spends the time getting to know his students so as to allow opportunity and growth. “I don’t feel accountability as much as I feel responsibility” (from old post) perhaps defines what all sincere educators know. We should all be doing things “wrong.” How ideal the world would be if all teachers’ primary concerns were the well-being of their students. (And I think that’s the case so often!) We can use content as a means to accomplish the bigger goals, as a means to help students find their voice, find value, figure out who they are and what they’re made of, a way to provide opportunities for students to build confidence and explore, to connect with others.

    And the title you’re looking for? Well, looking at all of the descriptors you’ve chosen…”I teach, I lead, I share, I encourage, I critique, I monitor, I connect, I care, I model.” Like it or not, it comes very close to being a “parent.” (I understand there’s a difference, of course! I’m a parent! And the big descriptor that’s missing is “love.”) BUT when you have an educator who cares as much as you do about the students, about their opportunities, about their growth, you are exactly the person any parent would want for her children. You are the “parent” we want them to have during the day.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing such wonderful thoughts. It’s an inspirational post and I appreciate the time you took to put it together.

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  • Kia ora Dean

    I suspect that the culture of the authoritative teacher will be around for a few decades yet. After all, even Bill Gates’ vision of a teacher tends towards the authoritative. We cannot have hundreds of years of teachers who have been lauded as authorities, and expect that all this cultural imagery of the teacher should change with the flick of Harry Potter’s wand.

    It’s in the books and in their poetry, it’s in the films and on the videos. This authoritative icon we call a teacher is visible and taking a battering today. Kids in some schools, recognising this iconic figure of the past, are reacting to it in a way that brings some present-day teachers to their knees. Postmodernism is as prevalent as the historical image of the authoritative teacher. But this image only serves to feed the raison d’être of the postmodernists who eschew all that’s happened in the past. Things like books and practice and rote learning and logic. They look to things to replace those tools, yet they don’t quite know what to replace them with. But they will still get rid of the old stuff without regard to the effectiveness or efficiency of the vapour-ware replacements.

    So the poor present-day teacher, who only wants to assist to impart and facilitate learning in the young, and in the best possible way, has to contend with a coarse and ever changing role, where expectations are almost mystical, looking to a future that no-one can visualise, coming up with all the correct pedagogical answers to questions that are themselves paradoxical.

    I’m not suprised that you are hard pushed to find a description for the teacher.

    Catchya later
    from Middle-earth

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  • I think the quote from the image at the bottom of your post says it all, and despite what we call ourselves, those of us who can do that successfully– give students what they care about and care about them in the process– are the ones who are making strides and helping shift education. When we care about our students and want them to care about their learning, we find ways to connect with them– on their level, using means that are engaging to them. I see this in my building. There are teachers who believe they are just here to impart information, and they are the ones who complain about how terrible their students are, but the ones who see their students as people, with dreams and hopes and wishes and fears, and connect with that are the ones who are able to see the rewards and the purpose for being a “teacher,” “network administrator,” or any other metaphor you can devise.

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  • Very interesting post. Thank you.

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  • Chris Fancher

    You have said it wonderfully and many of the comentors have added more to the mix. An anecdote from my first year of teaching (after coming from the military): I was standing at the door of the school waving to the buses as they left for the summer with a teacher of 19 years. I sighed and said ” boy, I’m glad that is over – what a miserable year.” He looked at me, standing there with 4 wrapped presents in my arms, and said, “no, you had a great year.” I was shocked and asked him how he could say that. He said, “look at my arms (he wasn’t carrying any presents from his kids).” He continued, “you made connections this year that some of those kids may never get again. They cared enough to get you something to say thank you for all that you have done in their life.” Every year I retell myself that story so that I never lose focus about what it means to be a teacher.

  • For me, the point that resonated the most was the graphic, Dean. Teachers that are the most powerful understand how to connect students—and help students connect to—-learning opportunities that are readily available but poorly understood. Teachers who can’t do this work are really nothing more than “jailers,” aren’t they? Trapping their students in a box where the learning possible is severly limited?

    But is this kind of teaching possible—-maybe I should say probable—-when we still rely on multiple choice tests as indicators of success and accomplishment in education? Are the kinds of sophisticated learning experiences that can be facilitated by connections even necessary when all we do to measure learning is check over scantron sheets once a year?

    I think what’s heartbreaking to me is that this view of a teacher is much more likely to be common in suburban schools where students are going to pass “the test” no matter what, giving teachers and principals wiggle room to explore, connect, create and communicate. In poor schools that are always dancing on the line between public success and failure, that wiggle room is pretty much non-existant. The stakes—-at least “the stakes” as defined by policymakers—-are just too high.

    Any of this make sense?

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  • @Chris What a powerful story to keep you on the straight and narrow.

    @Bill It makes perfect sense. The strong ties to accountability and assessment can be crippling factors for teachers. Your analogy of “jailer” might be very useful. Fortunately, I’ve been able to work in spaces where assessment is seen as tools for learning not punitive or only as summative and ranking tools.

  • Dave

    A stronger teacher-student relationship certainly helps the learning process, but I worry that if we decide that teaching is first and foremost about building that relationship, then we set ourselves up for echo chamber situations: we’ll learn from people we like, and ignore learning opportunities from people we don’t like or don’t know.

    I’ve had teachers who were brilliant masters of their subjects and could answer any question in several ways until every student understood, and I treasure what I learned from these role models. I’ve also had teachers who would gladly have given me a hug and a high-five every day of the next two years I spent catching up after learning nothing.

  • Dean,
    I lke the sentiment of this post and the comments others have made. I disagree with one thing though. You don’t need and I don’t want another name. I am a Teacher. A teacher is defined as one who teaches. I teach. I think you are more uncomfortable with the term because the perception of teach for so long has been to dispense knowledge, but to me it has always embodied all the things you describe and all the things I strive to do. Teaching is about relationships, it is about debate, critique, mentoring, guiding, disagree. Teaching is about sincere relationships that cultivate, motivate and accelerate the learning of both teacher and student. (Although there I actually do prefer the term learner) I don’t want a new title. I am a teacher. I want more respect for that title.

  • B. Wolper

    I could not have set it any better than Jorgie. Thank you for your words.

  • Wow, you said that well, Thanks so much for the post and please continue your great work.

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