Facebook changed its friendship icon to promote gender equality. But how do you make an icon for a teacher?
Here at Flocabulary, we have different plans for teachers, schools and districts. But as we started thinking about what icons of teachers we should use for a redesign of our pricing page, we ran into a problem: Teacher icons on educational websites almost always look like this:
Even astronaut teachers, surely in ownership of state-of-the-art space technology, make sure to pack their pointers on their mission to Mars.
So what's the problem? This default representation of a teacher is misaligned with the current role and expectations of a teacher. Modern pedagogy denounces the “sage on the stage” model, but icon after icon is reinforcing that idea.
What’s In An Icon?
Icons matter because they make things easy to understand, immediately. An icon reduces something to its most basic element, and if that element is wrong, it can lead to misperceptions.
Facebook just re-designed its friendship icon to reflect gender equality, making the female and male symbols equal sizes (and fixing a crazy old haircut).
The Accessible Icon Project redesigned the international symbol for accessibility to represent agency and empowerment. The organization sees this as a subtle but important way to change the perception of people with disabilities, from a representation of passivity to displaying an active person navigating the world.
Meanwhile, those working toward gender equality have made a variety of creative gender neutral bathroom signs, avoiding the oversimplified options of the man with legs and the lady with the triangle dress.
A Picture Is Worth a Thousand...Roles a Teacher Plays
The people behind these design movements realized that when you see an icon many times a day, it will inform the way you perceive whatever the icon is representing.
Which leads us back to the problem of the teacher icon. The role of the teacher is in flux like never before. With 1:1, flipped classrooms, and countless educational technology products at their disposal, teachers are being positioned as personal guides for students, who give just-in-time guidance where students need it. Some schools go so far as having individualized lesson plans for each student every day; there are now even new school buildings to facilitate blended learning experiences.
Even in less extreme models, teachers are working hard to differentiate for their students with a variety of learning needs. They are sitting beside students and working out problems together. They are leaning over a student to look at her computer screen to check in on progress. They are walking around a classroom to check in on groups. They are sitting at a small student desk that barely fits their adult legs while students lead the class. They are sitting on the floor in a circle.
And yet, for people outside of the world of education, when they think of a teacher, they think of someone standing at the chalkboard, likely with horn-rimmed glasses.
An effective icon would communicate the essence of the rich learning experiences teachers create, and help the public to understand the evolved role of educators. Like the campaign to change how people with disabilities are visually represented, this could help improve the perception of teachers, who today are scrutinized like never before.
Schools and districts are looking for tools that will enable teachers to assist students in guiding their own learning. A product that promises teachers will be able to point at a chalkboard with ease simply doesn’t fit in with the current paradigm of engaged and interactive learning. At Flocabulary, we’re focused on making resources that create engaged moments in the classroom--in small groups, on the rug, and even sometimes at the front of the class--and we want to communicate that diversity of experiences.
In the short-term, we decided to drop icons altogether, and stick with the word "Teacher." But we're still thinking about how to display the dynamic role of a teacher in a simple image. So I ask educators and students: What does teaching, at its core, mean to you? And how should we represent that? Together, as the teaching profession continues to evolve and be re-imagined, we can also re-imagine its icon.