The Role of the Teacher
By Michelle Shin
Teaching is a great responsibility. I teach English and believe that the ability to communicate, at a personal and societal level, is what builds strong communities and ensures ownership over one’s future. Thus, it’s important that we teachers spend a lot of time on our craft—deliberating the best ways to teach and make lessons fun, interactive, and relatable to students. Professional development thrives on discipline pedagogy and school departments meet to align goals and assignments and to discuss data assessment. What we teach is certainly of the utmost importance, how we teach, however, and our role in doing so, can be simultaneously less defined and quite standardized.
I spent ten years teaching in a public high school, and have just transitioned to a new job at a community college. The books are different, the technology is better, but the role of teacher transcends levels and remains a pivotal part of being effective. College can sometimes carry the inaccurate stigma of the uncaring professor who unloads knowledge in long lectures, but who doesn’t engage. It simply isn’t true. Who we are as people and how we interact with students is relevant at every level. At my college, we explore questions such as: how does who we are or how we present ourselves combined with the role as teacher help or hinder our students learning? Should we be their friend? A facilitator? Should we be the person they dislike, at first, but may begrudgingly or readily admit was the person to push them toward the greatest leap in their learning?
Of course there is no one way to be, though it sometimes feels like a certain identity is being prescribed due to the climate of today’s culture and necessity for political and social awareness. We must never forget the role of a teacher is constantly changing—we can inhabit all the aforementioned roles within the span of one year, or one period. It depends on the particular class, the particular student, even the particular day. Some classes and students need flexibility, some structure. Every teacher must be adaptable, in how they teach and how they respond to students. Teachers must intuitively apprehend the different approaches that students need and know when to push, when to joke, when to stand strong, and when to relent.
Sometimes it feels like we are being given a handbook on how to interact with students, but there should never be a prescribed role for a teacher—no definitive way to teach or to be. Otherwise, we would be doing our students a disservice. We would be denying them exposure to the many personalities and expectations they will encounter in their lives and in the job market. We would be denying them one of the greatest lessons we can teach: how to adapt. We must know how to be flexible to achieve our goals, but so must they.
It doesn’t mean we can’t have a favoured persona. The teacher can be someone who is a cheerleader and friend to whom every student knows they can confide. The “tough love” teacher can be someone students complain about, but also revere and respect. The outrageous and eccentric teacher can also be someone who shows up in scuba gear, shaves her head, or eats a jar of peanut butter if it applies to the lesson or motivates the students. Or, the teacher can be someone who rarely cracks a smile or gives a compliment. When they do, it is something a student remembers for the rest of his life. Teachers should embrace what works best for them while never forgetting that our chosen persona is written in pencil, not permanent ink.
Michelle Shin lives in Hawai’i with her husband and son. She received her doctorate from the University of Hawai’i with an emphasis in creative writing and contemporary American literature and was a public high school teacher for ten years. She currently teaches at Kapi‘olani Community College.