The Role Of The Teacher

May 23rd, 2010 by Sergio de Biasi

After seeing how far from ideal most teaching environments turn out to be in practice, I decided to write down some thoughts on this subject. So here it goes.

First and foremost, I believe that the most important role that a teacher can and should have in the academic life of any student is that of providing guidance, inspiration and encouragement.

This is a statement which could very easily be misunderstood, so let me start by explicitly dispelling what I don’t intend to say. I definitely don’t think that teachers should strive to take the role of charismatic messianic figures or personal gurus in the minds of students. They should absolutely not teach as if they were preachers, and they should not encourage students to develop any kind of personality cult. Although such an outcome is sometimes actively pursued by some lecturers, I don’t believe it is pedagogically useful or even morally and psychologically sound.

That being said, I also strongly reject the notion of a teacher as an impersonal conduit for pumping information into other people’s brains. If this were an effective teaching method, textbooks alone would suffice and people would simply need to pay regular visits to a library to be able to eventually master any subject they wished, which is of course patently not true for the vast majority of the students. There is a folk saying in college life which states that “Trying to get an education here is like trying to get a sip from a fire hose.” I always keep it in mind and strive to avoid all the practices and habits that lead to this being such a frequent feeling among students. I believe that drawing from their personal experiences, connecting to their reality, understanding their difficulties, addressing their particular needs, this is the real and most needed and useful role of a good teacher. The snappiest snazziest lecture on this hemisphere will never top one which actually addresses the actual needs of a particular class of students. This is even more relevant today where mere access to raw information is overwhelmingly easy and universal. If teaching was just about making information available, it would be enough to give students a pile of great books, unlimited internet access, a syllabus and then tell them to come back in a month to be tested on the material. It seems to me however that the current trend towards an increasing commoditization of academic services often works to aggravate these issues instead of mitigating them, and that includes some of the worst aspects of traditional teaching, such as a one-size-fits-all framework.

But if all of the above is what a teacher is supposed to avoid, what should be done instead? This takes us back to the opening statement : a teacher’s most appropriate and useful role is to provide guidance, inspiration and encouragement. Let’s expand on what is meant by that.

Guidance. The situation where having physical access to knowledge was an issue is well behind us. Today, essentially any person can have very easy access to more information than any human being can possibly hope to learn or understand in many lifetimes. There was arguably a time when a teacher’s main role would have been as a primary source of raw information. Nowadays, however, even in state of the art research fields this is less and less true. It’s certainly not at all the case in standard undergraduate college courses, and this holds even in most graduate level courses. So the role of a teacher is to a large extent not to repeat information that is universally available, often already in elaborate and very well presented detail, but rather to point and direct students to what is worth learning, and just as importantly (this is a point which even great lecturers frequently fail to address), to argue and explicitly explain why such topics are relevant and worthy of being studied. The privileged position of experience and mature understanding that a teacher possesses (or should possess) allows for a holistic view that a newcomer can’t match, and which is immensely more valuable than the minute mechanical details of any particular topic. To use an analogy, a map of the streets of an unknown city, although very useful, is something easily reproducible and readily decodable by any reasonably capable human being. Knowing which places are worth visiting, however, requires much more insight, especially given that for any major city an exhaustive tour is utterly unfeasible, and even more so when we consider that this is absolutely not a question that admits a single answer for all visitors. Too many teachers insist on taking the role of taxicab drivers, when their most excellent roles would be that of cicerones.

Inspiration. Another critical role of a teacher is to provide inspiration. Again, I don’t mean here that a teacher should become an object of worship or to which critical thinking is delegated. What I do mean is that a teacher should on one hand show and instill enthusiasm and love for the subjects being taught, and on the other present them with a no-nonsense “see, if I can do it you can too” attitude. Dry technical proficiency alone will consistently fail to engage the students, and this is not just a minor detail. It’s very unfortunate that (often for a collection of perverse structural reasons) lecturers many times fail to show any enthusiasm at all about what they are teaching, or (in a variation of the same problem) they do show personal enthusiasm about it but do so in an almost (when not explicitly) apologetic way. If you don’t believe (or don’t convey) yourself that what you are teaching is relevant, interesting or important, then how can you expect the students to dedicate the amount of intellectual and emotional energy necessary to venture into and feel comfortable with what for them is uncharted territory? Competence, confidence and a positive attitude go a long way towards helping them overcome this very natural psychological barrier.

Encouragement. Finally, it’s not only a matter of engaging the students intellectually and emotionally. It’s not unusual that the most difficult impediments to learning are not really about the lectures, the course or the subject itself, but lie instead in each person’s individual shortcomings of all sorts, ranging from insecurities about one’s own capacities, shyness to ask questions, inability to focus, lack of commitment and so on. Of course a teacher can’t and shouldn’t try to be an impromptu therapist who will solve a student’s personal issues. But this doesn’t mean that this dimension of teaching and learning should be ignored, or that a teacher should not take in account that such issues exist. They are there and they have a very important impact on a student’s performance, and the reaction and attitude of a teacher towards a student will very seriously affect not only the student’s ability to learn, but also the student’s emotional well-being. One should never forget, especially in degree programs, that a teacher is in a position of both power and authority with the potential to interfere with the student’s academic, professional, personal, intellectual and emotional lives. This position should be held with great care and responsibility. But conversely, it can also be conductive to an enormous amount of good if it creates an environment where the students feel safe and respected.

Unfortunately, the point and attitude that the lecturer is there mainly to actively help the students to learn is not always the prevailing one. I have attended my share of courses (and even courses on education and teaching) in the past and too often the approach (and the implicitly perceived problem to be solved, even from very well-meaning academics) seems to be “how can we best force the students to learn”. Both in theory and in practice, I believe this is a very deficient, erroneous and damaging stance to take on education at any level. The job of a teacher is absolutely not to harass and terrorize students into doing whatever is believed to be “good for them”. Learning and understanding is not some kind of sour medicine that will have the same effect on all people as long as they take it. In fact, in my experience, quite the opposite happens; it’s remarkably difficult to force someone to learn something. People are indeed capable of remarkable achievements under pressure, but this may come at too steep a cost, not only in terms of psychological balance and well being, which one might feel tempted to rationalize as justified, but also in terms of true understanding. If the demands placed on the students are arbitrarily draconian, all too often learning anything at all about reality will be altogether ditched in favor of learning to display any behavior that will most efficiently result in being left alone – which almost always does not involve spending valuable time pondering critically about the topics under consideration.

So in the end, for a variety of reasons, I hold that forcing people to repeat or recite things they don’t understand, believe or agree with is akin to intellectual rape. It destroys dignity and it is antithetical to the development of critical thinking. Relentless brainwashing can’t be justified either morally or pedagogically, especially not with the argument that “it works”. The purpose of education regarding anything more sophisticated than very basic skills is thus absolutely not to “train” or compel the individual to uncritically behave in a prescribed way when fed some standardized stimulus. It is indeed almost the opposite. True education should cooperatively change who we are, how we think and what we believe is true. If we enforce a framework which systematically compels students to “deliver” formulaic answers whose meaning or relevance completely escapes them, and which ultimately leaves them essentially unchanged as autonomous thinking human beings, we have done worse than failing in our role as teachers. In such a system, we are actually encouraging a generation of intellectually blind automata who will perform poorly when confronted with anything but artificial problems. This is a disservice to them, to the society around us, and to our own consciences. Our role, our duty as teachers is not to create robots, but instead to help human beings overcome their limitations and fears, to serve as guides and protectors so that they can feel safe and supported to venture into what for them is uncharted and mysterious new territory, eventually feeling confident enough to use and rightfully trust their own judgement in matters where they would previously not dare. Our ultimate and eventual job is to empower our students, not to judge, boss or control them.

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