What makes a teacher and why does it matter?

Close your eyes and picture a teacher. The chances are that you are thinking of someone leading a primary or secondary school class. This is because the term ‘teacher’ tends to refer to educators working in schools. If you search for news items about ‘teachers’ then this is what you will get. I asked Google to define ‘teacher’ and it returned, “a person who teaches, especially in a school.” So it does not have a strict and technical definition – commonplace words rarely do – but the inference is clear.

“Teaching” is also a verb and many groups of people could potentially be engaged in it. As a parent, I do a lot of teaching. However, there is already a good noun to describe that role – ‘parent’. Similarly, academics in universities will spend time teaching their students. But again, there are nouns for this role already – ‘lecturer’ and ‘professor’. To flip it, many teachers could be described as doing social work but you would still call them ‘teachers’.

The fact that it is not strictly defined does leave the door open to some interpretation. What should we do if a teacher educator working at a university identifies as a teacher? Should we seek to deny him that label? What if he identified as a potato or as Napoleon? How far can we take this idea?

And perhaps this discussion is all a bit silly. Does it really matter? What’s the harm?

The nature of education system coercion

To understand why this might be a problem, it is worth examining some of the structures of education. Plenty of academics working in education subscribe to theories and approaches that are poorly supported by evidence. This ranges from the silly – education schools that are still teaching about learning styles – to the more subtle – a commitment to constructivist teaching practices or ill-defined concepts of ‘differentiation’. And the literature is full of studies that try to change teachers beliefs about these ideas or bemoan the fact that teachers have not implemented them properly.

Without fail, when educationalists gain a position of authority over teachers, they use this authority to promote their ideas. We have seen it in schools of education, but also in examination authorities, Ofsted in the UK, the Australian Curriculum and the AITSL standards. Anywhere where teachers and teaching are regulated, educationalists will appear to suggest exactly what it is that teachers should be doing and then, once the regulations are duly in place, they will cite these regulations as evidence.

It is clear who is doing what and to whom. Therefore, obfuscating the notion of a ‘teacher’ serves a purpose. Rejecting a ‘binary’ that separates teachers from academics – ‘we are all teachers here’ – makes it harder to describe what is going on.

The college of teaching

The most recent break-out of the ‘what is a teacher?’ debate was provoked by the College of Teaching debacle in the UK and it demonstrates that this seemingly semantic argument has real, practical implications. The idea was sound in principle: teachers should have a professional body to represent them. However, the debate soon became one about who should be allowed to participate. Educationalists, sensing an opportunity to perhaps define teaching standards, argued that the definition of ‘teacher’ should be a loose one so that they could join. The failure to properly deal with this issue was, in my opinion, the key reason why the whole project was met with monumental indifference by actual teachers and why its crowdfunding campaign failed.



12 thoughts on “What makes a teacher and why does it matter?

  1. Although I’m a university professor I actually identify as an attack helicopter.

    An aside: our university is very progressive. We have these … I think they’re called “trans-janitor” people. You know, ladies who come into the men’s room. And clean things up. They’re very nice, and good at making conversation.

  2. Greg, I appreciate you teasing out your points here about defining teachers. I have some wonderings about what I see as some potential complexities around ‘being a teacher’.

    Do I have it right that your definition of a teacher is based on what the person does now and where they do it? I.e. a teacher is someone currently employed as, and enacting the job of, being a teacher in a school.

    Is there room in your thinking for some fuzziness of boundaries? For instance, is a parent who home schools their children a teacher? Or are they parent who teaches? Or not a teacher at all? Does the answer change if they are a qualified teacher who home schools their children? Is a principal a teacher, or only if they still teach a class? As teachers who do research, are we teachers who research or teacher-researchers? Is someone who has moved from the school classroom into another professional role (edu-organisation, think tank, university) immediately no longer a teacher? Who gets to decide who is a teacher, or who is allowed to see themselves as a teacher?

    I laughed out loud at your line about someone identifying as a potato or Napoleon, but I can’t imagine that my teacher-ness would be erased if I stepped out of the classroom. My teaching beliefs, practices and experiences would remain things that have formed me. So I don’t think it’s silly to think that academics who have trained as and worked as teachers identify as teachers.

    A variety of voices (students, teachers, leaders, academics) are valuable in debate and decision or policy making. It’s one of the reasons researchED is such a good concept; it brings voices and perspectives together so we can learn from each other and engage in moving the education of our students (and those who teach the students) forward.


    • Ultimately, there is no fixed, technical definition of a teacher. However, I think it’s quite clear how it is usually used ie to refer to someone who teaches in a primary or secondary school. I think the key test is whether this is a more apt noun than ‘teacher’ to describe someone’s job. For instance, a headteacher/principal who teaches could be considered a teacher but, if not, I’d probably call them a headteacher or principal. Teachers who do research are teachers. If I ever give up teaching to pursue research full time then I’ll call myself a researcher and perhaps add that I am a ‘former teacher’, a useful phrase that could solve many of the issues you raise.

      • Hi Greg
        I’ve explored my thinking around identity a bit more here: https://theeduflaneuse.wordpress.com/2016/03/15/teacher-identity/. I know personal identification isn’t your focus (if I have it right, you’re concerned about the role/label of teacher being subsumed by non-school-teachers in terms of voice, reform, policy etc.?) but I thought I’d add a layer to the discussion that’s been going on. Teaching is personal. Teachers see their teacher-ness as deeply embedded at their core. Maybe that’s why discussions about who gets to see themselves as a teacher are fraught.

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