In 2019, What’s REALLY the Definition of a Teacher?

Perspective
By: 
LeiLani Cauthen

Are you a teacher? If so, are you also a classroom work foreman, logistics manager, guide, drill sergeant, discipliner, cheerleader, data entry clerk, cultural advocate, or analyst?  Maybe you are all of these things and more.  Maybe, we need to look at educators in a new context of what teaching really is in most schools, and whether it should be given cultural, economic and technological change.

First of all, let’s go to the core definitions and dispense with ideas of teacher intergalactic dominion, and whether you use Jedi mind-control to herd cats and sit atop mountains dispensing the wisdom of the ages.  The scope-creep of abilities and roles of teachers has grown to mythological proportions, making the job perilously prone to crushing expectations.  We’re talking about humans here, after all.  No disrespect to the fabulous among you, but getting real about what you can do and should do means the possibility of a return to sanity in the profession.  And maybe getting home to relax once in a while. 

Merriam-Webster’s says “teach” is a verb, with several simple definitions that repeat themselves but ideologically are these five things:

  1. to cause to know something
  2. to guide the studies of
  3. to make known and accepted
  4. to impart the knowledge of
  5. to conduct instruction regularly

It’s important to note that right off the bat, none of these say “lecturer,” “discipliner,” “instructional designer,” “whole group manager,” “data entry clerk,” or any of the other things that teachers are doing daily.  In fact, the weight of teaching jobs today is mind-boggling with regard to the sheer number of duties.  Plus, Teachers are supposed to be maestros of all technologies and personalizing separate paths for every single one of their students.  Some of those students may have just arrived and are two grades ahead or three behind in any one subject or all subjects.  Meanwhile, the teacher’s job and reputation depends on a total pass rate, which honestly may be the hidden reason why some kids get left behind.

Definition #1 - Causing to Know

Outside the school biz, “causing to know something” is done in myriad ways.  Advertising does this, the news does this, so does professional mentoring, documentaries, books, videos and of course mothers and fathers.  All of these are steeped in the same professional complexity as education, even if it is merely the perpetuation of parental ideas like, “Wait a half hour after eating before swimming or you’ll get cramps.” Causing others to know something is, in fact, at the core of every single industry.  One must communicate prices, display goods, hold meetings, put up menus and generally relay knowledge from one person to another or many others.  Causing a transfer of ideas underpins literally the entire life experience for humans.  You could even say that it is the exchange of ideas and causing others to know things that defines being human. 

While the dictionary is simplistic, the public mind considers definition #1 as a role that earns the label “teacher” for formalized and specific knowledge transfer to students in educational settings.  It’s apparent that this is the more correct way to think about “teach” and “teacher”:  a formal exchange of specific knowledge in organized settings.  This is because we do not commonly think of advertising executives, newscasters, and waitresses and so forth as teachers.  They are outside the context of a formal exchange in an organized setting.   

Definition #2 - Guiding the Studies

This is not usually something teachers today consider as their purview.  They deliver specific chunks of knowledge that are outlined by academic standards and required by school policy in the curriculum, not random tangents of knowledge.  It’s librarians that are supposed to curate and guide further studies and deeper dives or sideways jumps to secondary topics.  It’s the job of curriculum directors to plan out the general areas of knowledge that teachers take and sort into their calendars to stay on schedule with the pacing guides of the district.  The teachers already have to do all that work for the academic standards in that week’s pile to narrow-cast what chapter or software module, discussion questions, what to write a paper on, etc.   All the additional work of guidance in what else to study is probably only one or two picks in case it’s needed to fill time.  It’s usually not a whole array of alternate paths with defined scope and sequence of materials.  The definition ofguide” by many teachers is really “to help through” the prescribed content, get to the right web link, read the right chapter and do the right worksheet or essay.  In business, coworkers are constantly telling each other what folder to look in for what document and guiding the discourse of business.  Business is just like the classroom in that annoying coworkers can never find the right document in the shared cloud repository and want you to email it to them. This definition, then, is also not a very clean definition of teacher since it is something that, like definition #1 is clearly shared by other professions. 

With adaptive digital curriculum now on the scene, imparting whole sequences of study, teachers are guiding students to take the next module in the software – or not, if it’s self-guide courses like those found on Khan Academy and hundreds of other publicly available sites.  However, professionally created adaptive digital curriculum doesn’t always need a guide so much as it needs supervision and interpretation of the data so that any student who just isn’t getting through will get teacher help. This is possibly a new sort of area to define the word “teach.”  While a lot of software in this adaptative digital curriculum space has been built around a required teacher “gating” or designating which units, even more of it does not because it is aimed directly at the private consumer.  In professional adaptive digital  curriculum, algorithms continue to present alternate views of the same content or concepts until a student finally answers the questions right, the same as games that don’t allow you to move to the next level unless you accomplish the earlier task or gain enough points.  It’s important to distinguish this new tech area because, again, it could be birthing a new definition for human teachers like “interventionist,” meaning to help unravel why a student is stuck in a module and can’t pass incorporated assessments.  This sort of work is similar to customer service agents in other fields who must be topic experts. 

It’s the adaptive digital curriculum arena that tends to scare teachers because it is doing the teaching – and here teaching is defined narrowly.  Sadly, this is similar to taxi-cab drivers being angry at the Uber App and salespeople who heavily resisted customer resource management systems vacuuming in all their contact names and phone numbers because it meant a “loss of power” for sales reps back in the early 2000’s.  As a teacher, it’s a natural tendency to resist anything that steals your knowledge stage and/or offers organizational efficiency.  All humans do this. Note that once salespeople nearly everywhere were bullied into data entry, suddenly what could be done for the customer had exponential gains.  Customers like that.  Students will like that.  It’s what tech does.  As teachers, tech should not only be doing some of the heavy lifting in parts of your job, but it most definitely should be doing something for your students.  Denying that to students in the age of Uber, Amazon, Google and more seems sort of an awkward and wrong-headed thing to do.

Definition #3 – To Make Known and Accepted

This is the role that would typically be used for accepted facts like multiplication tables and vocabulary lists that will be used as the building blocks of other learning.

Definition #4 – To Impart the Knowledge of

 This is the usual, classic definition.  One envisions the professor presenting the news that Saturn is really a red dwarf star and was once our Sun only about 2800 years ago according to the Plasma Cosmology theory at Stanford University (who actually did have courses on this trendy area of science after agreeing with the controversial theories of Immanuel Velikovsky).  Students take furious notes and raise hands to eagerly ask how this contradicts gravitational theory and a robust discussion ensues.  Students feel part of the discovery moment, not passive recipients. Imparting of knowledge by definition usually is accompanied by the idea that it is a special, useful, current and state-of-the-art lecture or whole group discussion. 

Imparting knowledge doesn’t have to be any of those things and is too similar to definition (1) to make it useful to define teaching unless there is less reliance on the Internet and more on of-the-moment research-generated knowledge such as some college’s convey because they are research universities.  Some K-12 schools today convey this when students are allowed to code and create models in virtual reality, exploring fresh new areas of technology they know are not fully resolved and commercialized areas yet, but frontiers.

Definition #5 – To Conduct Instruction Regularly

This definition is really more in tune with what teachers actually do for the majority of the day-to-day job than anything else.  They are conductors of exposure to formal knowledge in an organized setting.  This is a similar role to a foreman, a supervisor, a manager, a guide, or a boss.  If one analyzes the traditional classroom-style orchestration of learning, a great deal of time is spent in bringing order to the young humans -- conducting. A lot of time is also spent organizing the scheduling, the content, the back-and-forth between teacher and each/all the students.  The conducting of instruction is all these things:

  • Knowing several instructional design theories and applying any of them at any time, including any/all special needs and English-Language Learner needs
  • Lesson plans (curation of content, assimilation of existing assigned content from higher authority in schools or districts and using it in the schedule, scoping for time, sequencing)
  • Calendaring and schedule
  • Managing time and staying on pace for any class/course
  • Publishing and pushing content digitally and answering all messages
  • Assignments digitally or verbally, plus reminders of what to do and requirements
  • Formative and summative assessments
  • Grading
  • Data entry
  • Managing any special needs and English Language Learners within a class/course
  • Discipline
  • Triaging and juggling student need (being incentivized to focus on getting the best whole-class result, which may mean letting one or more students “go” and not make it because it would usurp too much time from the others to catch those up)
  • Communication with parents, administrators
  • Ongoing professional development
  • Live leading the whole group (capturing attention)
  • Lecturing as needed
  • Posing questions for discussion, answering questions
  • Pairing students for small group work
  • Separating students by abilities into other working small groups
  • Paying attention to group dynamics
  • Following all school, district, state and federal policies
  • Writing lengthy individual student reports
  • Managing request workflow up to procurement officers
  • Managing paper/printer and other supplies in a classroom
  • Sourcing project ideas
  • Sourcing project resources
  • Staging projects
  • Cleanliness of classroom as needed
  • Recognizing and acting on student illness or classroom threats
  • Setting a good example
  • Being a content expert, including keeping up on new subject advancements
  • Knowing multiple systems and apps for user interface and all function
  • Using multiple systems and apps
  • Debugging software and hardware issues on-the-fly
  • Being emotional support, inspiring
  • Being social and engaging students through expression of interest
  • Giving students gold stars or digital badges
  • Participating in annual, weekly and sometimes daily professional development
  • Parent meets, graduation ceremonies, sporting events
  • New themes, directions and/or technology rollouts annually if not more often
  • Union meetings
  • Participating in evaluations and live (nerve-wracking and intentionally critical) look-ins

It’s important to note that only a few of these things depend on the teacher’s professional subject knowledge.  A great deal of them are logistics work and require a whole set of skills most teachers have little training in.  In all, a teacher’s job today is huge. 

In fact, it’s an interesting exercise to take this list and do these steps:

  1. Add or delete items from your own experience, and
  2. Organize them into categories and label those categories with job titles. 

Look at this as a fun exercise, and then try to determine if these roles might naturally diverge into teams (like those below), now that technology has created changed circumstances including mobility, immediacy and the ability to totally personalize: 

  • House Leaders  (running the physical environment where students spend up to 40% of their time on screen learning)
  • Guides (analysts and instructional designers doing all the individual lesson plans and inserting algorithms that auto-schedule things like classroom lectures, hands-on projects, etc.)
  • Project Managers/Stagers who set up the lab experiments and hands-on activities and also flank the teachers doing data entry to allow for in-the-moment personalization
  • Teachers/subject experts delivering direct instruction, working cross-curricular with other experts even beyond their team

About the Author

LeiLani Cauthen is CEO of the Learning Counsel, and author of The Consumerization of Learning.

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