A Teacher Is

Redefining the Role of the Teacher: It’s a Multifaceted Profession

Photograph courtesy of Mark Ulriksen
Consider the possibility of a school where teaching is regarded as a profession rather than a trade. The role of teachers in a child’s education — and in the culture of the United States — has shifted dramatically in recent decades. In the same way that modern medical techniques differ from practices such as the application of leeches and bloodletting, teaching differs from traditional “show-and-tell” practices.

Rather than simply lecturing to students who sit in rows at desks, dutifully listening and recording what they hear, instruction provides each child with a rich, rewarding, and individually tailored learning experience that is tailored to his or her individual needs. The educational environment is not limited to the classroom, but rather extends into the home, the community, and the rest of the world. Information is no longer primarily contained in books; rather, it is available everywhere in the form of bits and bytes.

Students aren’t interested in facts as consumers. They are active contributors to the advancement of knowledge. Schools are more than just brick-and-mortar structures; they are also hubs of lifelong learning for students. And, perhaps most importantly, teaching is widely regarded as one of the most challenging and well-respected professions available, and it is essential to the social, cultural, and economic well-being of our country.

As of right now, the seeds of such a significant transformation in education are being planted. Schools across the country are slowly but steadily reorganizing themselves as a result of massive revolutions in knowledge and information technology, as well as public demand for better learning.

Innovators in this field include thousands of teachers who are challenging themselves to reconsider every aspect of their jobs — including their interactions with students, colleagues, and members of the community as well as the tools, techniques, and methods they use; their rights and responsibilities; the form and content of the curriculum; what standards to set and how to determine whether or not they are being met; their initial preparation as teachers and their ongoing professional development; and the very structure of the schools where they work. In a nutshell, teachers are redefining themselves and their profession to better serve their students and schools.

Relationships and practices that are new
Traditional teaching consisted of several tasks, such as disseminating information, supervising children, and sorting out academically inclined students from those who were less inclined to learn. The underlying model for schools was that of an education factory, in which adults were paid hourly or daily wages to keep similar-aged children seated for standardized lessons and tests while they worked.

Teachers were told what to teach when to teach it, and how to teach it. They were required to educate every student in the same manner and were not held accountable when many students failed to learn their lessons. They were expected to teach using the same methods as previous generations, and any deviation from traditional practices was discouraged by supervisors or prohibited by a slew of education laws and regulations. They were also expected to use the same methods as previous generations. A large number of teachers simply stood in front of a class and delivered the same lessons year after year, growing grey and tired of not being allowed to change what they were doing as a result of this policy.

A growing number of teachers today, on the other hand, are being encouraged to adapt and adopt new practices that recognize both the art and science of teaching and learning. Educators recognize that the essence of education is a close relationship between a knowledgeable, caring adult and a secure, motivated child (or children). This group understands that the most important part of their job is getting to know each student as an individual to better understand his or her learning style, social and cultural background as well as his or her interests and abilities.

This emphasis on personal characteristics is becoming increasingly important as America continues to develop as the most pluralistic nation on the planet. Teachers must be committed to building relationships with students from a variety of cultural backgrounds, including those who, as a result of traditional teaching methods, may have dropped out — or been forced out — of the educational system.

Ultimately, their job is to guide students through their development and maturation, aiding them in integrating their social, emotional, and intellectual growth so that the union of these sometimes disparate dimensions results in the ability to seek, understand, and apply knowledge, as well as the ability to make better decisions in their personal lives and value contributing to society.

They must be prepared and given the authority to intervene at any time and in any manner necessary to ensure that learning takes place. Teachers increasingly recognize that they must do more than simply impart knowledge of the subject matter, such as history, mathematics, or science, and that they must also instill a passion for learning in their students.

In practice, this new relationship between teachers and students manifests itself in the form of a new approach to instructional methodology. Due to their increased awareness of how students learn, many teachers are abandoning teaching that is primarily lecture-based in favor of instruction that requires students to take an active role in their learning.

In their minds, they are no longer the king or queen of the classroom, nor are they the benign dictators who decide what is best for the powerless underlings in their charge. They’ve discovered that if they take on the roles of educational guides, facilitators, and co-learners, they can accomplish more.

Through project-based, participatory, and educational adventures, the most well-respected teachers have discovered how to turn students into enthusiastic participants in the instructional process. For students to truly take responsibility for their education, they understand that curriculum must be relevant to their lives, learning activities must engage their natural curiosity, and assessments must measure real accomplishments and be an integral part of the educational process.

Students are more productive when teachers involve them in the decision-making process about the form and content of their education — by assisting them in developing their learning plans and determining the methods by which they will demonstrate that they have learned the material they agreed to learn.

In the modern classroom, rather than simply broadcasting information, teachers are increasingly responsible for creating and guiding students through engaging learning opportunities. The most important responsibility of an educator is to seek out and create meaningful educational experiences that allow students to solve real-world problems and demonstrate that they have learned the big ideas, powerful skills, and habits of mind and heart that are required to meet agreed-upon educational standards. This is the educator’s most important responsibility. When students participate in the creation and extension of new knowledge, the abstract, inert knowledge that they were previously taught from dusty textbooks comes to life, transforming it from something inert to something alive.

New tools and environments are being developed.
New technology is one of the most powerful forces reshaping the roles of teachers and students in educational institutions. The old model of instruction was based on the assumption that information was scarce. Teachers and their books served as information oracles, disseminating knowledge to a populace that had few other avenues through which to obtain it.

However, in today’s world, there is an abundance of information available from a variety of print and electronic sources. In today’s world, the fundamental job of a teacher is no longer to disseminate facts, but rather to assist children in learning how to use them by developing their abilities to think critically, solve problems, make informed decisions, and generate knowledge that is beneficial to both the students and society. Teachers will have more time to spend working one-on-one or with small groups of students now that they are relieved of the responsibility of serving as primary information providers.

The restructuring of the relationship between students and teachers necessitates the transformation of the school’s organizational structure as well. Teachers are increasingly being isolated in cinderblock rooms with age-graded students who rotate through classes every hour throughout a semester — or throughout a year in the case of elementary school — even though many schools still adhere to the traditional model of providing teachers with the time, space, and support they need to do their jobs.

Longer instructional periods and school days, as well as reorganized yearly schedules, are all being considered as alternatives to cutting learning into often arbitrary chunks based on time constraints. Furthermore, rather than rigidly categorizing students into grades based on their chronological age, many schools offer mixed-age classes in which students spend two or more years with the same teachers.

The ability groups from which those deemed less talented are rarely able to break free are also being challenged by the recognition that current standardized tests do not accurately measure a wide range of abilities or take into account the various ways in which individuals learn best.

When it comes to instructional organization, one of the most significant breakthroughs has been the development of team teaching, in which two or more educators share responsibility for a group of students. This means that a single teacher is no longer required to be everything to all of his or her students. This approach allows teachers to use their strengths, interests, skills, and abilities to the greatest extent possible, confident that children will not suffer as a result of their weaknesses because there is someone else with a different set of abilities to back them up in the classroom.

To truly professionalize teaching, we must further differentiate the various roles that a teacher may play. An appropriate mix of associates, junior partners, and senior partners should be found in a good law firm, just as an appropriate mix of teachers who have appropriate levels of responsibility based on their abilities and experience levels should be found in a good school. Also, just as much of a lawyer’s work takes place outside of the courtroom, we should recognize that much of a teacher’s work takes place outside of the classroom.

Professional Responsibilities Have Changed
Teachers are not only rethinking their primary responsibilities as directors of student learning, but they are also taking on additional responsibilities in their schools and within their field. It is their goal, in collaboration with colleagues and family members, as well as politicians, academics, members of the community, and employers, to establish clear and attainable standards for the knowledge, skills, and values that we should expect in America’s children to acquire. They are actively involved in the day-to-day decision-making processes in schools, working together to set priorities and resolve organizational issues that have an impact on their students’ educational outcomes.

Numerous teachers also devote time to investigating various questions of educational effectiveness that help them gain a better understanding of how people learn and develop skills. Also increasing in popularity is the number of teachers who devote time to mentoring new members of their profession, ensuring that recent graduates of education schools are truly prepared to face the complex challenges of today’s classrooms.

Redefining the role of teachers inside and outside the classroom can result in significantly better schools and better-educated students as a result of this transformation. However, even though the seeds of such improvement are beginning to take root in today’s schools, they must be nurtured to mature and truly transform America’s educational landscape. It is also necessary for the rest of us — including politicians, parents, superintendents, school board members, employers, and education school faculty — to be willing to rethink our roles in education to provide teachers with the support, freedom, and trust they require to perform the essential job of educating our children.