George Lucas Educational Foundation
School Leadership

Rethinking the Teacher’s Role

One of the greatest goals of a transformative school leader is working to update perceptions of what the job of teaching entails.

June 24, 2019
Teacher sitting at student's desk and reviewing an assignment
Michael Dwyer / Alamy Stock Photo

When people hear the word teacher, mental images of their own student experiences often come to mind. In a Google search of the word, 26 out of the first 30 images were of an instructor in traditional teaching mode: standing in front of the class talking, writing, or pointing in front of a chalkboard or whiteboard.

That idea of the teacher as a dispenser of knowledge is not, as we know, what teachers do these days. But because so much tradition and social history are connected to the word teacher, I suggest that we give serious thought to using a different term, one that fully describes what we do as teachers.

I propose we consider instead the term learning engineer.

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More Than Just a Title Change

Many forward-thinking educators have been trying to break the pervasive and persistent image of the traditional teacher. How can educational leaders do this? We can begin by continuing to change the culture on our campuses. Aside from supporting and maintaining high-quality faculty, working to transform the perception of what teacher means is one of the greatest goals (and at times, challenges) of a transformative school leader. And it can only be done by creating a school culture that focuses on student learning as the center of everything.

For me as an administrator, it’s vital that student learning be at the center of all we do on the campus where I serve. I will be continue to challenge myself in the following four ways—with some effort and action already put forth.

1. This coming year, on my campus, I will break out of the traditional use of the word teacher and call our teachers learning engineers. I am realistic enough to recognize that solely substituting a title with another one without altering ways of being will result in little improvement. This we saw when schools started referring to pretty much all teacher meetings as personal learning communities (PLCs).

I envision that this new title will shift our thinking away from the traditional and toward incorporating the incredible skill, planning, imagination, and creativity required to design incredibly effective learning opportunities for students. For our learning engineers, creating learning environments that inspire students to discover and apply what they learn will be a priority.

2. This new perspective on learning has to extend to our classroom para-professionals. At my school, we previously changed their title from teacher’s aide to teaching assistant, and these additional adults in the classroom began taking their role as extensions of the teacher more seriously. I worked closely with our teaching assistants to help them better see that all that they do must be focused on helping students learn. (Any additional tasks, such as making copies, were no longer their charge.) For this coming school year, they will be called learning assistants.

3. The transformation continues by changing the term lesson plans to learning plans. I know that when I was a high school Spanish teacher, in my best learning plans, students willingly and eagerly did the heavy lifting of building knowledge and skills. In my work now as an elementary school principal, I ask my teachers to answer this question in each learning plan: “What are students doing to engage their heads, their hearts, and their hands?” I discovered long ago that art, music, and movement will nearly always help answer those questions in any content area.

Additionally, I have found that when we help students become expert with the tools of learning—often-overlooked soft skills such as analysis, critical thinking, creativity, persistence, flexibility, curiosity, and expression—they enthusiastically use them to take charge of their own learning, which also works in disrupting the traditional model of teacher.

4. As an administrator, I strive to establish that learning is the most important part of a PLC—both for adults and students. The most effective PLCs that I’ve seen follow Richard DuFour’s six pillars of an effective PLC and discuss data on a routine basis to determine the effectiveness of the learning plans. Perhaps renaming PLCs to communities of learning engineers will further inspire them to increase their own knowledge, skills, and effectiveness in inspiring learning? Something to consider.

Working to transform embedded and long-standing traditions of what a teacher is perceived to do is perhaps the most difficult thing a transformative administrator must do. Though part of the solution may be changing terms to include the word learning, the true cultural shift occurs, I believe, when we focus on deliberately designing learning opportunities with the mindset of an engineer.

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  • School Leadership
  • Personal Learning Network