Does the Word ‘Teacher’ Still Describe What Educators Do in the Classroom?

Professional Development

Does the Word ‘Teacher’ Still Describe What Educators Do in the Classroom?

By Jenny Abamu     Jul 13, 2017

Does the Word ‘Teacher’ Still Describe What Educators Do in the Classroom?

In 2008, Heidi Williams, author of the book “No Fear Coding,” began asking herself some retrospective questions about her role as a teacher at an International Baccalaureate School in Racine, Wisc. These questions led her to the conclusion that the career she thought she entered was not the one she was experiencing, and it was time for her to refine her role and mission.

“I don’t call myself a teacher anymore,” says Williams. The title she prefers is “stretch instructor.” Williams adds: “Even as an administrator, I am a stretch instructor. I strive to reach every child.”

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary the word “teach” comes from the Middle English word techen, meaning “to show or instruct.” To Williams, that definition had built up too many negative connotations over time, including the implication that she was simply standing in front of a classroom dictating to children—something she felt was an inaccurate depiction.

“Teaching in our country has [misunderstood] on so many different levels. We have been beat-up because we are not just teachers anymore,” explains Williams. She says the teaching practice has changed and the expectations put on teachers are vast, noting that they are expected to pre-assess to gauge where students are beginning from, learn multiple technology tools, differentiate their instruction, finding out students’ interests and habits, personalize their instruction and ensure continued growth.

All these responsibilities, Williams notes, are different than simply showing and instructing a class full of children. “So how do we elevate the status of teaching and educating in this country so that people really understand what we do?”

Williams is not alone in her questioning. Today, schools require educators to perform many roles outside the traditional understanding of teaching. There is the information technology instructor, who might help support an entire school’s technological infrastructure while also teaching a few computer science courses. There are titles like “digital learning coordinators” whose responsibility is to identify and implement technology to support classroom instruction and monitor learning results. Then there are “classroom facilitators” and “coaches” who help guides students in virtual and blended learning spaces, encouraging self-directed learning.

One of the organizations looking deeply at the evolving role and meaning of teaching is Columbia University’s Teachers College. Founded in 1887, the institution is highly regarded as a leader in researching pedagogical practices and defining of education’s role in American society. Departments span across different disciplines, touching policy, neuroscience, and psychology. Its president, Susan Fuhrman, agrees that the name “Teachers College” does not publicly reflect the breadth of its offerings. “People don’t think that we have exercise physiology or speech pathology because we have a historic name.”

She notes that many who attend have no intention to teach in classrooms.

“No more than a third of our students are preparing to be teachers,” says Fuhrman.

Still, Fuhrman doesn’t believe that the institution or educators should do away with the word “teacher.” Instead, she feels that the public’s understanding of the role should evolve as researchers and practitioners better understand learning—something she says the college is trying to do through its website and other outreach activities.

“The meaning of what teaching and learning are is evolving as we have new knowledge,” says Fuhrman. “We have to educate the public about what teachers have to do to capitalize on learning and what we know about learning rather than change the word.”

Teaching is not a fixed course with a defined curriculum; interdisciplinary skill set and understanding is necessary for proper preparation. None of this, Fuhrman notes, is new. But she acknowledges that technology has accelerated the pace of change and practice.

For her, the problem lies in educating the public and in rebuffing policy rhetoric that is not grounded in research. She points to countries, such as Singapore, where the teaching profession is highly paid, well invested in and respected.

“There is a thought that because people went to school, that they know what school is [and] how teachers should teach and how students [should] learn,” explains Fuhrman. “It is like having a housing secretary who lived in a house. It is not the preparation that you need. It is a great disservice to the knowledge base underlying education.”

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