Friday, June 5, 2015

The Role of the Teacher

This is something I've been mulling over for a couple of weeks now, but after reading Jonathan So's post Is Our Job as a Teacher Obsolete?, I wanted to try and get my thoughts down on virtual paper. My immediate answer to the title question was obvious, but it turns out I was more conflicted than I thought.

Let's start with a bit of an exercise: When you picture a teacher, what do you imagine? Take a moment to close your eyes and imagine it one step further: when you picture the ideal super teacher, what (or who) does that look like?

If you're like me (and I freely admit to this), I immediately picture students sitting quietly, pencils down as they *listen* to the super teacher engage them with a well-spun story linking various aspects of the curriculum. He or she is paused in the middle of a note, and explaining the connection between something tangible and something obscure, the discussion interspersed with both humour and little factoids that you know the students will take with them and share with friends and parents before the day is over.

The hour-long class just flies by because the students are genuinely interested in what the teacher is saying, engaged in the lesson, and inspired to solve the world's problems. Throughout, the students are in the palm of that teacher's hand not because they're forced to be, but because of their respect for the teacher and the (sometimes hard-won) love of the subject.

Taken from
For a long time, this was the teacher I aspired to be. If someone was to ask me how a class went, I would usually base it on how well the note went. And every now and then, when giving a note, things would fall into place just right, and I would feel a little like that super teacher. Super teacher equaled super content delivery system. It's not just me - I think a lot of people have the same idea when it comes to teaching, and teaching well.

In this lens, it troubles me, then, to think about what I've been doing lately. I've been trying really hard over the past two years to change the focus of learning in my classroom away from me and toward my students. In fact, this semester, I haven't given a single lecture-style note in any of my classes.

I am a firm believer in letting my students choose their own adventures, letting them dictate the pace of learning and having them struggle a bit before pointing toward the answer. My students are getting better at finding their own way through the material, discovering new ways of learning, and sharing what they know in innovative ways. They are learning less from me and more from the world around them. My stories are told one-on-one or in small groups, and I am no longer the centre of attention.

My students are becoming better "21st Century learners," and I feel I am becoming a better teacher overall. Yet I look nothing like the super teacher in my imagination. And that imaginary class I mentioned looks nothing like my noisy, scattered (some may say chaotic) grade 9 science class, where there are any of five different activities on the go and students literally all over the room.

Taken from
There's a stereotype that we, as a society (including myself), need to change. School is changing; we're making school different. The traditional role of the teacher is changing too. We are no longer just put in a classroom to deliver content. We facilitate, encourage, inquire, model, assist, guide, clarify, reflect, demonstrate and walk around, talking with students constantly.

The sage-on-the-stage may indeed be becoming obsolete (though one could easily argue that there is still a place for this in education), but the role of a teacher is certainly not. At least not the way I hope to move forward.


  1. Absolutely agree! It's hard to get the image out of my head of the highly academic "perfect" classroom where the Socrates-like teacher is so engaging in the delivery of the content that the students just sit and listen in amazement, and go away knowing and understanding everything...which is funny, because that's not at all how I want to teach!

    I would love to hear how parents, other teachers, admin, etc., have reacted to your changing teacher style! As a new teacher, that's one thing I worry about.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Alyssa! I'm glad I'm not the only one who feels this way! :)

      I haven't heard anything negative from most parents and other teachers, and my admin has been very supportive (I'm so thankful for that!). I do get some flack from parents of students who are very unmotivated, and don't take the initiative to start any kind of learning in class. But once I tell the parents that this frees me up to go over and sit one-on-one with the students and give them more individualized help (should the student ask for it), they're more accepting. Imagine getting 20-30 minutes of extra class time to be working with the students every day... that's what I found when I stopped teaching from the front! :)


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