What makes a teacher and why does it matter?Posted: March 12, 2016
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.