The Importance of Teachers

Summer vacation has started in most parts of North America for millions of teachers and students. Usually this is a time of immense joy. The pay off for a long hard year of academic pursuit; however, this break feels noticeably (and understandably) different. Due to the impact of COVID-19, the connection between teachers and students has been greatly affected with much of the learning taking place online. With everything taking place through chat groups, video conferencing, online calendars and a myriad of other digital tools- the very face of education change. In a very brief period of time. We went from going to places of education (schools), to transforming our living spaces into schools. Now, I am not the person to measure or assess the level of success that this had; however, I can tell you that this had mixed results. I believe it has much to do with the relationship between the teacher and the student.

Looking ready to tear up the afternoon Monday Math Meeting on Zoom. Photo by Julia M Cameron on Pexels.com

I should begin by stating my bias and why I have immense respect for teachers. I started my career as an elementary teacher before becoming a counselor and am still an employee of a school district. I work alongside teachers, students and families every day. I see the importance that a positive connection can have on an individual. (I also see the consequences of what a negative connection can have with a young learner). Connections are best established and maintained in person not online. That is not to say that you can not do this successfully online, it is just much more difficult and requires a lot more work and time. Something that we don’t have readily available in our ever increasingly busy lives. I have seen amazing examples of thriving online classrooms with lively conversations among teachers and pupils. I have also seen teachers provide tutorials for students who are struggling with specific concepts or one-on-one support for students who request it. The potential is there but there is still something missing.

Humans are hard wired for connections. Read any book on evolutionary biology or behavior. We got to where we are today by cooperation and competition. We did not enter the 21st century through isolation; however, there is growing concern that this is the direction we are heading. I am not against technology (I am using a blog to communicate this) but I do have concerns. I have previously written about the importance of positive adults in the lives of children and I believe that schools are wonderful places for this. I admit I am an optimist as schools can also be places that inhibit individuality and happiness. Buildings full of people but no personality, where “weaker” kids become easy targets for bullies. However, this has much to do with school culture and community that impacts the overall environment. Having a healthy school ethos or philosophy that encourages individuality as well as social-togetherness will develop happy and healthier minds (more on this on another time). The point is that environment, that is the setting and the place, plays a huge role not just in the learning of young minds but also in their well-being. Being stuck at home all day and trying to remember you have a math lesson at 10 is not easy for adolescent minds [1]. They need someone to be there to help them navigate the routine and the daily structure. This is what teachers do.

The focus on 21st century education isn’t on the “what to think” (or the acquirement of information) but rather on “how to think” (strategies that will help us decode, determine, argue, and acquire our own information based on the vast amount of information available). This is why we need teachers. It isn’t so much about memorizing information or facts anymore because anyone can do a google search. The focus is rather on developing the strategies and tools to think critically and openly as well as to express information constructively. It doesn’t take much researching to find that conversations on internet forums are often lacking in their ability for democratic discourse in many participants. We need teachers to help us develop the skill-set to navigate the world ahead. A world of information overload.

There is also a second major avenue that teachers help and that is in the well-being of the individual. What other profession can have such a profound social-emotional impact (either negatively or positively) on an individual? Almost everyone can recount either an uplifting story and/or a Dickensian archetype (the evil Grade [insert number here] teacher) of an educator at some point in their lives. I wonder/worry about those who can’t recall a memorable teacher. My success, not just in terms of career path but also in perspective, I owe in large part to a teacher who was there for me when I was a troubled teenager. Teachers make a difference especially the ones who develop a connection with their students. Humans are hard wired for connection but to establish connection you need presence.[2] It is much easier to do this when you have everyone in the room rather than individually seeking them out (I hear it also makes attendance a lot easier). Research also shows that the more involved a student feels, the more successful they become.[3] It is a lot easier to feel involved in something when you are already there and have someone to help you be accountable than sitting at home on a computer.

In conclusion, teachers make a difference in the lives of children and adolescents. It is difficult to argue otherwise. Contemporary education is not perfect. [4] And while there is much room for growth, it does provide an environment for many individuals to thrive, if used appropriately. I believe that school is not a place to do menial work, it is a place to develop the hearts and minds of the future. Yes, I know I am an optimist. I said that already.

R.G.

Please feel free to comment on this thread with additional insights. This was a very brief article and I know there is a lot more to this subject. My aim is not to do it harm but to hopefully do it some small semblance of justice. Thank you for reading.


[1]Individuals benefit greatly from routine. The establishment of routines is associated to executive functioning which occurs predominately in the prefrontal-cortex of the brain. This part of the brain is not yet fully develop in children and adolescents until their early twenties. Thereby making self-directed accountability very difficult for many young minds. For more information see Behave by Robert Sapolsky.

[2] Think Wilson in the Tom Hanks classic Castaway. He had to give an inanimate object sentience so that he kept his sanity. Therefore, we are hardwired for connection.

[3] There is much research available on this. I gathered this information from John Shindler’s Transformative Classrooms: Positive Strategies to Engage All Learners (2010).

[4] It is important to note that I am talking about Western 21st century education here. A system that like many others has historical and cultural associations and implications, often negative ones. Look no further than the impact of Residential Schooling on First Peoples (Inuit, First Nations and M├ętis) in Canada to see how education has caused cultural, often labeled genocidal, harm.