What is a good interpretation of what constitutes a teacher? That was the question of interest a few days ago in an email conversation between a friend and I. He was looking for an abstract answer, and I realized quickly that this was a case when I could take advantage of my tendency to be straightforward about things. I decided to frame the challenge by asking some basic questions.
What is a teacher when we are young?
On the most basic level, a teacher is some entity that demonstrates knowledge. When we are very little, teachers are people, including our parents, and our siblings. As kids the role expands to include these funny looking people that exist in strange classroom places. They draw with chalk, tell us to march in lines and mind our manners, and try to shove knowledge into us. How is this knowledge? It is a static set of facts and things to memorize, and we always can know the right answer. This time of life is passive in that learning is the responsibility of this other person, and not ourselves. The teacher when we are young is a person of authority that directs our attention, and makes choices for us.
What is a teacher when we are teenagers?
As we get older, the role of teacher takes on greater responsibility. We start learning less from our parents, and these teacher people (possibly) become friends, mentors, or annoying drill sergeants. At the beginning of college, all of a sudden the role is reflected back on us and we become responsible for some of our own learning. Teachers become our peers, our life experiences, and finally, a little bit of ourselves. As children we were showered in political correctness and told how wonderful we are, and in college we face the reality that failure is not only possible, it is definite. Coming to terms with that is a challenge in itself, and many just can’t. At some point, a subset of us crash into an epiphany like bullets through glass that there is strength in being able to take risks, fail, and get up to try again. During this time we learn how to learn, and how to be responsible humans and take care of ourselves. There are still authority figures and rules, however there is a shift from learning that the world is static, to realizing that everything is gray and must be challenged. Our little pyramids of certainty are questioned, and then collapse, and we must make new sense of the world.
What is a teacher when we are young adults?
Beyond college the transition is complete, and there no longer exists an entity that cares whether or not we learn a thing. It’s all up to us, and some people choose to learn nothing more, and to plaster their pyramids of knowledge into an again static structure. They might still be terrified of uncovering things that they don’t understand, or living in a world where questions are unanswered. They also might covet the abilities and achievements of others, and become addicted to what they can get and claim. The world isn’t fair, and they will devote their energy to complaining about that. The other type of individual has found empowerment in the uncertainty, and dives into the task to ask more questions and accumulate more knowledge than when someone was compelling them to. They take on the majority of their responsibility for learning, and perhaps even take on the responsibility for others. Rather than focusing on what they do not have, they identify what they want to achieve, and the careful steps needed to do exactly that. They are addicted to what they can build and become.
So, what constitutes a teacher?
So the interesting thing about the role of the teacher, for me, isn’t some specific quality in a person, outcome, or goal. It is the change between different states of taking ownership for learning, being aware of those states, and understanding the beauty and limits of one’s own understanding.