Why a 21st Century Teacher Isn’t Just a “Guide on the Side”
The great fiction that a teacher today has become a “guide on the side” is now hardwired into nearly every conversation about the future of teaching and learning. Teachers don’t deliver information any longer; they act as co-constructivists and facilitators, sitting shoulder to shoulder with students.
Why raise objections to this new narrative? First, it’s disingenuous. Teachers still stand at the front of the room. They teach, using traditional tools and tapping their repository of information to share with students. They lecture. Yes, sometimes too long, but a competent teacher knows when to sit down or ask questions.
The second objection is aimed at education’s habit of settling for shiny new terms when the facts demand a deeper commitment to truth telling. The truth is that in the emerging era of project based learning, personalization, 21st century skills training, commitment to social emotional growth, and attention to equity and social challenges, the complexities of teaching can’t be captured by a simple ‘You’re now a guide on the side’ mandate. Teaching in this ecosystem calls upon a rich, demanding skill set that has transformed the profession into one of the most complex, creative, and (potentially) rewarding jobs on the planet.
Given the numbers of teachers expressing dissatisfaction with their jobs, leaving the profession, or reporting burnout, one might conclude the opposite. But the turmoil can be traced to the system of pacing guides and testing that forces compliance. Educators are tired of teaching inside the lines. In schools focused on innovation, the job may be challenging, but it’s also energizing precisely because it invokes deep purpose and reward.
Acknowledging the new state of the profession is critical. With standards obsessed systems backed by high stakes testing wilting under the increasing pressure of on demand, self-directed learning, schools will yield to more flexible curriculum, online options, and strengths/skills outcomes supporting the journey of learning, not the final degree.
As systems change, inevitably a teacher’s role will have to be reconceptualized as a new mental model evolves around what it means to ‘teach.’ Evidence shows how difficult this mindshift will be. Despite the decades-old ‘guide on the side’ conversation, no corresponding attention is paid yet to developing the facilitation skills and coaching protocols that teachers need for effective people management. The focus instead remains on classroom management and traditional behavioral tools.
Preparing teachers for this new role amplifies the challenge. Under industrial rules, a teacher is trained (‘prepared’) to implement a skill—to follow a pacing guide, roll out a reading program, deliver content, and ‘manage’ a classroom. But already complex professions operating in dynamic environments foresee ‘training’ as obsolete. There is an increasing demand for the ‘T-shaped person’, who has both the breadth and depth to respond to variety and novelty.
The observational and relational skills necessary for deep facilitation and mentoring in inquiry environments meet this standard of complexity. Rather than being prepared, teachers will need to prepare themselves. Techniques will matter, but true competency will derive from experience, practice, and agile learning within an ecosystem of constant growth.
This sounds a bit theoretical compared to the seat time and one size fits all approach to teacher preparation. But transforming our mental model of a teacher is not really that difficult. First, stop relying on the one stop category of ‘guide on the side’ and start identifying the skill sets necessary to be a ‘future ready’ teacher. Undoubtedly the nomenclature will change over the next decade, but projections on digital learning, personalization, creativity, and contribution indicate at least five categories of teacher skillfulness:
- Practitioner. No matter how much Google or AI invades the classroom, teachers will still deliver knowledge. But in inquiry classrooms, teachers mainly deliver on the fly with ‘just in time’ information in response to student questions and wonders. Since knowledge can’t be easily scripted, prepackaged, or confined to shopworn lessons, teachers will need to do a deep dive into their subjects and know not just the subject, but the field. More important, they will need to master a new skill set focused on project-based learning and inquiry practices.
- Facilitator. Threshing out the true roles of the guide on the guide is the next step. A facilitator’s prime job is to set up the conditions for optimal learning by building safety, community, and relationships into the environment. Setting challenges, building successful teams, monitoring deeper learning, and combining design thinking with high quality PBL practices come next. In many ways, the required skill set is to know how to put all the pieces in place for deeper learning—and then getting out of the way.
- Coach. In a world with infinite paths to success, personalization is inevitable. Each student will start at a different place and end in a different place; each will bring unique talents and perspectives to the journey. A coach teaches and models skills, listens deeply enough to know individual needs, and realizes that coaching is not just conversation but an exchange that succeeds through respectful protocols. The skill set? Teachers will need explicit skills in offering feedback and techniques across thinking, creating, designing, collaborating, and communicating domains.
- Mentor. The Mentor shares the skill set of the therapist. However daunting, teachers will need to expand their comfort zone and be willing to teach, assess, highlight, value, and offer support for empathy, curiosity, perseverance, and the range of positive strengths identified as successful behaviors in today’s world. This extends the Coach’s role into a much more personal and engaged relationship with students, requiring deep observational skills backed by empathy, deep listening, attentive presence, and an attitude of openness and nonjudgment.
- Changemaker. Students will not remain silent or standards compliant as the globe contends with climate change, inequality, or migration. As the innovation meme intensifies, they will want to find purpose, put the sustainable goals into action, and in general move way beyond the four walls of school. For teachers, resistance will be futile. Rather, the new skill set of the future-ready teacher is to become a co-learner and co-creator, working with students on service learning projects or finding ways to apply classroom knowledge to authentic issues. This trend is already visible; expect it to accelerate.
The next step? Let go of seat time metrics to certify teachers. Instead, focus on the professional journey and full immersion in a digital and face to face ecosystem that invites deep collaboration, on demand knowledge, shared practices, high quality feedback, and teacher-led systems leadership. In other words, start a rich conversation and keep it going through every means possible. That’s the way forward for teaching in the 21st century.
About the Author
As a PBL pioneer, thought leader, global educator, and founder of PBL Global, Thom blends inquiry, positive psychology, creativity, wellbeing, and 21st century skills into a strengths focused model of PBL designed to help students become flexible, resilient, purpose-driven thinkers. He has shared his expertise with over 6000 teachers and 400 schools worldwide, and now offers a breakthrough set of affordable mobile learning experiences that can prepare educators in every country to be ‘future-ready.’ Thom is the author of the Buck Institute for Education’s Handbook on Project Based Learning and the Project Based Learning Design and Coaching Guide: Expert tools for Innovation and Inquiry for K – 12 Educators, as well as Redefining Smart: Awakening Students’ Power to Reimagine Their World, which forecasts the attitudes and beliefs necessary for young people to build a positive vision for the future.