To understand what being a teacher means, we resorted to wikipedia (the ultimate teacher…google scholar might be more accurate… okay you should probably go to a library):
A teacher (also called a school teacher or, in some contexts, an educator) is a person who helps others to acquire knowledge, competences or values.
There are, of course, many sub-divisions under this, such a:
...a learning and development partnership between someone with vast experience and someone who wants to learn...
...One skilled in teaching.
... someone who has a prolonged or intense experience through practice and education in a particular field. Informally, an expert is someone widely recognised as a reliable source of technique or skill whose faculty for judging or deciding rightly, justly, or wisely is accorded authority and status by peers or the public in a specific well-distinguished domain.
Similarly, we have people who rather than imparting information, simply are protecting it, as in the case of a:
A preceptor is a teacher responsible to uphold a certain law or tradition, a precept.
... They help a group of people understand their common objectives and assists them to plan how to achieve these objectives; in doing so, the facilitator remains "neutral" meaning he/she does not take a particular position in the discussion.
...the person who leads or commands a group, organization, or country.
…one consulted for their special skill or knowledge representing mastery of a particular subject.
Let’s be honest, some take these labels and bastardise them for their own requirements while others who probably have one or more of these specialty skills just refer to themselves as a teacher.
There are, in fact, entire schools of thought dedicated to these distinctions; to the different theories of how we can impart knowledge. This discipline about “learning about learning” is known as Pedagogy. What remains consistent across these varying definitions is:
• An exchange between the knowledgeable (teacher) and the un-knowledgeable (student)
• an exchange made in the spirit of improvement or betterment
Essentially you teach to help others. But how you define helping and betterment is probably the step that we often overlook. This part is way too complex to deal with here, but essentially, we’re talking about the melting pot of perspective, judgment and individual priorities that exist in any environment (of which, realistically, the student and the teacher are a very small part). But let’s chat about that another time.
Back to teaching.
There are many ways in which knowledge can be packaged. Teaching styles can be collaborative, didactic or experiential. When it comes to imparting it, there’s the expert approach (what do I know), or a constructivist approach (what do You know). How you share the information, the form that it actually arrives in, ranges from passive learning through to active discussion, and at the other extreme, enacting behaviour – and again even when it comes to passive learning, there’s text versus visual learning.
Then on top of that, there’s the content itself...
As teachers, we try to help people improve from where they’re at right now. This assumes that we, as teachers, can fill a gap between their current state and a future, slightly better state. It’s easy to frame teaching as an exchange in which the teacher is superior; that we are endowing the lucky other with our special gift, and often we are. However, one of the most important skills as an effective teacher (see the countless definitions above) is knowing when to relinquish your power and hand the reins to the student to guide what happens next, AND when to take them back.
But, who is the person in this exchange who is actually lucky? Could it be the teacher who gets the most out of it?
As education has changed we have been encouraged to re-frame the educational process as learning (what do they get) rather than simply teaching (what do we give).
For one, if we look at the exchange of information and knowledge as a power differential, it is easier to apply a hierarchy in which the teacher is actively superior and imparting the knowledge, and the inferior student is passive, an empty vessel just waiting to be filled.
Whilst this relationship has uses in certain contexts, it doesn't acknowledge that the student, however their intellect or knowledge may differ from the teacher, brings their own complex set of understandings and experiences into the room that will not only inform how they receive new information, but will also transform this information into something unique. Engaging the student as an active participant in the knowledge exchange is a way of honouring that they bring their own experiences, facts, creativity and imagination to the playing field.
Then, we have to take into account that there are also many different ideas of the value of learning - from surface learning, to deep learning, to conceptions of learning. Basically, this is about how the student wants to engage with the information. It’s vital to contextualise the learning content, and make it relevant to the student. It is what makes something relevant to the individual that is the interesting question here.
Considering there are so many factors, and teachers already have a lot on their plate, some might argue that they’re being asked to be superheroes with multiple powers and to be fair, many haven’t been trained in all of these different skills. However, the right and responsibility of calling yourself a teacher as opposed to an expert is the ability to flexibly take on all of these factors. Someone who knows how to use just a hammer isn't an expert carpenter, but they are an expert hammer-er. Both the expert hammer-er and the carpenter are useful, just as didactic learning versus collaborative (and the plethora of other types of) learning are useful in different contexts.
There is, of course, a limit to how much we as teachers should be responsible for: learning is a two-way street, after all. But, unless we are dynamic to these changes, we will be unable to safeguard the gateway to learning. In order to teach, we must be able to adapt, achieve balance and be flexible. First and foremost - a learning relationship requires respect and trust so both people feel comfortable to go on this journey… together.
The successful teacher is the one who can harness all the skills we have talked about to enable others to grow. The lucky teacher is the one who gets to watch this happen.