Who or what is a teacher?

Christine Sinclair  Teaching a class of 27 at the same time as a MOOC inevitably encourages me to ask what being a teacher means in both cases.  Are the students teaching themselves?  Well, yes, in the sense that they’ve having to manage and regulate learning (their own).  Are they teaching one another?  Yes, in the sense that they offer resources, feedback, support, encouragement and challenges.  Is the software teaching them?  Yes, in the sense that it will present and sequence material and offer alternative ways of displaying, aggregating, curating and storing ideas.  All these might be regarded as functions for the teacher – and all can be seen happening in both courses.

On the MOOC, the students are using peer review to assess and grade products of learning.  This happens on some smaller courses too, though not on the one I am currently teaching.

So what is left for me to do? What is it that gives me the identity of a teacher?  I’ve been a student on an earlier version of the first course in our Masters programme where I’m now teaching, and also on a MOOC, so I am aware that there is a difference.  As a student in both courses I was conscious of teacher experience and their expertise.  I was aware of their presence and of my pleasure in catching their attention.  I was also aware of a concern of catching their attention in a ‘bad’ way, by not being the right sort of person for the course  (although as a teacher, I don’t see it as a bad thing that some courses don’t suit some students).  I was aware that there was an intention behind the course, based on their knowledge, and that by completing it successfully I was in some way fulfilling the intention of the teachers.

On both courses, the teachers intended to expose the students to ways of thinking about the world: the MOOC I took did not go much further than that but in the Masters course it was clear that the teachers wanted to create experiences that encourage critical thinking on the topic.   (The latter, is, of course, easier to say with hindsight now that I am a graduate of the programme and teaching on it!)

All of the highlighted expressions might provide a useful job description for a teacher.  The fact that another person or machine could complete them does not abrogate the teacher’s responsibility that they should happen.  However, even that responsibility could be shouldered by someone who designs courses rather than teaches them (I have had such an identity in the past).

I careI have come to the conclusion – assisted by some reading over the years that I’ll now want to revisit – that what is essential to the identity of a teacher on any specific course is that they actively care about all of the highlighted expressions.  And they care about them throughout the duration of the course and also before and after it.

There may be people who have ‘teaching’ in their job description who don’t care about any of these things.  Though they might be an expert or an authority, they wouldn’t fall into my definition of ‘teacher’ here.
About the blog

This blog was previously published on the Teaching ‘E-learning and Digital Cultures’ website.  You can find it here.

About the author


Christine is a Lecturer in Digital Education in the School of Education.  She tutors on ‘An introduction to digital environments for learning’ and leads ‘Course design for digital environments’.  Christine also tutors on the E-learning and Digital Cultures MOOC. She can be contacted on christine.sinclair@ed.ac.uk or http://twitter.com/cmsinclair


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