A long time, ago, I came across a poster which indicated that teachers were responsible for engaging their students in their lessons. I put it on the staffroom noticeboard, and was verbally attacked about it by a couple of colleagues before the school day ended. The basic gist of their disagreement was that students had a responsibility to behave themselves and learn. I had no problem with this, but pointed out that what the poster was saying was that teachers had a responsibility to prepare and deliver lessons that were likely to encourage students to fulfill their side of the bargain – if teachers provided lessons that did not stimulate students, then we would expect that some students, at least, would become disengaged, possibly to the point of being disruptive.
Fast forwarding to now, I would add several more teacher responsibilities to that poster:
Firstly, teachers need to be aware of what is going on in the world around them, in order to link their lessons to real life. Without such links, the lessons lose relevance, and students, particularly teenagers, work this out very quickly. Students might still study hard, and achieve good academic results, but this doesn’t mean that they like it.
Secondly, teachers should have some idea about the world that their students live in – what do young people watch, listen to, play, read, etc? The world is changing at an increasingly rapid pace, and young people actually are in a different universe to many of their teachers. They come to school with knowledge about so many things, and many teachers do not even know this, much less acknowledge it. Mutual respect comes from mutual understanding, and teachers who still feel that they deserve respect because of their position rather than their actions are doing themselves and their charges a grave disservice. And, at the end of the day, young people know and do some really interesting stuff.
Thirdly, teachers have a responsibility to keep up with what is happening in education. They don’t have to become experts, but they can be following pedagogical conversations in the media and on the internet. Technology gives teachers many teachers instant, easy access to information to help them improve their classroom practice, and some take advantage of it. There are TED Talks, other videos, professional learning networks, blogs and Twitter, to name some resources, that provide inspiration and information about how to do it better. If teachers have access to technology but do not use it to improve their professional practice, they are choosing to turn their backs on ways to enhance student learning.
Related to this is the issue of development as a professional. A former principal relayed a story from another principal: An angry teacher met with this principal in his office, and, during the exchange, banged his hand on the desk and said “I’ve had 20 years’ experience!”. The principal told my principal “I didn’t have the heart to tell him ‘No, you have had one year’s experience 20 times’”. So, if teachers are still teaching in essentially the same way as they were when they began their careers, it is very likely that what they are doing is not the best they could do. The sad fact also is that most teachers teach the way they were taught, so, unless a teacher was influenced by an exceptional educator, they are likely to spend their entire career directing the students from the front of the classroom and dispensing “wisdom” to them. Those teachers who introduce group work and collaborative practices into their classrooms are far more likely to have the time to get to know their students as both learners and people, and invite genuine respect and engagement.
Finally, teachers have a responsibility to recognise that education is about the students, not the teachers. It is about learning, not teaching. Output, not input. “Learning” also means much more than knowledge. Students who learn that academic achievement comes before all else may become personally successful, and, perhaps, may even make positive contributions to their society, but this is less likely than if they first learn good attitudes to life. Then, they are equipped to develop learning skills and, therefore, be able to discover knowledge and meaning themselves. They become independent, life-long learners, able to make wise choices for themselves and others.
So, any educator who comes across this post has the resources to make a very positive difference to the learning of their students. We can only hope that they have already chosen to do so, or will now.