What teachers do
To continue to teach well into the 21st century, our teachers who began teaching in a kinder, gentler time have to rewire their brains to respond to the structures, functions and connections presented by technology. How else can they teach their students the literacies that education experts say are needed to be successful in the modern world?
On top of that, our teachers have to blend the new skills into the core curriculum. They cannot simply leave their students to aimlessly wander the information highway. The order is to lead the kids down that path in the context of a lesson in math, science, economics, language, arts, and so on down the hierarchy of subjects.
The Department of Education’s list of K-to-12 learning goals, which necessarily translate into teaching goals, include basic, scientific, financial, technological, visual, information, media and multicultural literacies. Environmental literacy must be somewhere in there, too, because if it is not, we are in deep trouble.
The critics and cynics are shaking their heads. To begin with, our teachers do not even know which buttons to push. They have a lot of catching up to do because they are not hardwired for 21st-century hardware. How can teachers stay credible and legitimate when, in terms of digital developments, they are so far behind the students they are supposed to be guiding? This is a brand-new leadership challenge to our teachers. Used to being the authority in the classroom, they must now be a lot more willing to listen and be reverse-mentored by younger teachers, or even by students. Imagine their frustration when the gadgets they finally learn to operate suddenly become obsolete.
Not only are our teachers tasked to impart content in a certain knowledge area, they are also expected, first and foremost, to focus on teaching students how to learn. How do teachers, who are themselves victims of rote learning, manage to transform their students into critical thinkers and problem-solvers? How do they even begin to produce risk-takers, strong communicators and good collaborators from their classrooms? Aren’t these skills cumulative? Shouldn’t parents be doing their part, beginning from birth?
There’s more: In our classrooms today, the young are supposed to acquire the skills to become adults who are self-directed and adaptable, creative and curious, socially aware and proactive, competitive and employable, as well as globally competent. Again, cumulative.
The truth is, among the experts who have worked to “enhance” our basic education program to fit the 21st century, no one has a clue what the world will look like and what demands it will present our children in, say, five years. And yet, in the face of such extraordinary unpredictability, our teachers are being made responsible for all kinds of learning outcomes.
But there is something teachers do that we trust they will continue to do well into the 21st century and beyond, something that is not explicitly stated in the K-to-12 framework or the employment contract. It is that teachers take care of and watch over each child in class in more ways than one—in any century. This self-sworn promise is what makes a teacher memorable, not just her mastery of newfangled hardware or his excellent delivery of a sonnet. The teachers who matter at any point in time are those who build personal relationships with students outside the margins of a crammed curriculum and a paltry paycheck.
And if relationships are the sinew that holds our society together, then we owe our teachers a lot. Remember that students learn the most about relationships from their teachers and classmates during the multiple years they spend in school. For the kids whose families are unable to provide adequate models of affection and kinship, these school ties are what can tide them over in the bad times.
The teachers who keep bars of soap in their desk drawers for the kids who come to school unwashed, those who plead for bikes for their students who have to walk for hours to get to class, those who shield the children with their bodies when a madman is firing away—these are the teachers who may have to do double-time to learn how to use technology in class, but they certainly do not have to be taught about becoming their highest and best selves.
Those who create everyday adventures so their students can be part of the story, those who spark imaginations into projects where all kinds of kids can interact, those who let students fail without making them feel like losers—these are the teachers who are well-remembered decades after graduation.
Today, World Teachers Day, we thank them for all that they do.
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