Learning is a lifelong pursuit, whether or not we are aware of it. Everything, every event, and every person with whom we come into contact, adds something to our understanding of life. In the large scheme of things, our ultimate teacher is life itself.
Yet, much of this learning occurs not because life events intend to teach us. An accident, for example, does not happen so that we can learn from it. Learning is a response to unfolding events, in the way we experience them, as they affect and influence us.
In contrast, living beings – humans, animals, and even plants (according to recent research) – have in their nature the explicit intention to teach. While animals and plants “teach” their offspring or young a variety of skills mainly to obtain food, or ensure security and survival, humans teach for skill as well as informational learning.
All humans have the intention to teach other humans, and in some cases, other life forms, too.
A human being with a particular skill or specific information will often have the urge to communicate it to someone who might benefit from acquiring it. In day-to-day situations, much teaching happens spontaneously. Nearly all of us assume that we know something others should know or that we can show someone else how to do something better. That tendency, I might add, often annoys the taught. Humans share an important trait: in non-professional settings, if we notice, the teacher in each of us nearly always gives lessons or lectures only on things we value, believe in, and are passionate about. Our hope is to improve things for the taught.
What about the professional teacher?
A teacher by profession is a special subset in the human population. The teacher is a repository of information and knowledge, who communicates what s/he knows to groups of humans to advance their skills and knowledge.
Three distinctive characteristics of a teacher deserve a closer look in this context.
- A teacher by profession, being the repository of information and knowledge, is responsible for gaining mastery over the discipline s/he teaches. This requires on his/her part a deep interest in the discipline or area of knowledge s/he sets out to teach. Without sustained interest in the discipline, a teacher cannot be an authority on what needs to be taught (the content), because knowledge is continuously evolving and the knowledge base is forever expanding. A teacher also understands and appreciates the importance of his/her discipline within the larger enterprise of education itself. Areas of knowledge are interconnected, as every discipline contributes to the outcome of education as an endeavor.
- A teacher in a formal setting has a responsibility to select, order, and deliver relevant knowledge or skills to meet explicit objectives. This means that the teacher has an understanding of the learner’s motivations, limitations, and, above all, needs. While much of the content of disciplines remains largely stable over time, the need for knowledge in a discipline changes as society evolves. Confucius said it well. “A true teacher is one who, keeping the past alive, is also able to understand the present.” (Analects 2.11) Confucius is suggesting that we ask, for example, if a child needs to memorize times tables today. Or, how much time needs to be devoted to penmanship in elementary education, given the dominance of keyboards in our lives now. A teacher tailors the content and remodels the methods of acquiring skills to suit the context of changing times.
What I have said here relates directly to the teacher’s interaction with the learner. In planning and delivering the content, a teacher’s decisions are driven entirely by the defined needs of the learner. Delivery of content is a vast effort that includes not merely decisions affecting what to include as content, but in equal measure decisions that have to do with the social and psychological circumstances of groups of learners and even individual learners. Curriculum development and curriculum delivery, as well as interaction of a teacher with learners, is the subject of a significant body of literature, one that engages every teacher’s attention.
- Putting the learner at the center – as I have stated above – requires the teacher to be a subject specialist as well as a trained professional with a sound foundation in education as a discipline. A teacher acquires such professional expertise mainly through active peer interaction, through workshops, professional development programmes, and regular day-to-day communication with colleagues in the workplace. Teaching is a community activity, and a teacher contributes to the building of that community while constantly drawing on its resources.
To sum up
- A teacher by profession is a repository of knowledge. The teacher places a high value on this knowledge and strives constantly to gain from it, understand it better, and contribute to it.
- A teacher communicates knowledge by relating it to a context that is relevant and meaningful to the learner, keeping in mind the learner’s needs. In this, the teacher understands the present without disregarding the past. What does this mean? For example, at a very obvious level, how the teacher gained a body of knowledge is significantly different from the ways in which a later generation of learners acquires the same body of knowledge. A teacher uses judgment in choosing content and methods of delivery that answer the needs of the present.
- A teacher functions as a member of a community of teachers, keeping in regular and active touch with peers and colleagues to gain professional expertise. Because education is a wide and vast area of human activity that directly influences the life of communities, societies, nations, and ultimately the life of our very earth, a teacher is keenly aware that s/he does not function in isolation, and that s/he is a member of the teaching community, advancing value-based knowledge.
All human beings are teachers in an informal sense, and that makes it necessary to explain how someone who chooses teaching as a vocation is distinct from the spontaneous teacher in all of us. In attempting to identify the distinctive characteristics that define a teacher, I have discussed what I consider the essence, without differentiating the “good”, the “inspiring”, or the “eccentric” teacher, etc. Whether you are an inspiring teacher of yoga or a demanding teacher of calculus, as a teacher, you share all the defining characteristics that I have examined, characteristics that make you a member of the community of teachers.
(Disclaimer: Everything I have said in this article is based on experiential observation. I cannot offer any research-based evidence to support my claims. I would, therefore, be most interested to have views that add to or contradict my views.)
Kamakshi Balasubramanian is an educator and writer with significant experience teaching at secondary and tertiary levels. She can be reached at [email protected].