February 15, 2009

Defining “Teacher”

This post was last updated on December 12th, 2011 at 03:16 pm

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