Are You a Teacher or an Educator?
Sam Irving, an experienced elementary educator, discusses and reflects on his own experience of what sets a teacher and an educator apart.
In my early career, I used the terms teacher and educator interchangeably. In everyday life, I was a teacher. If I called myself an educator, it was only to add much-needed grandiosity to a CV that leaned far too heavily on my university achievements and school grades to be taken seriously. Incredibly, my claims to being an educator were never properly scrutinized, which is fortunate as I had failed to grasp how profoundly distinct it is - or rather can be - from being a teacher. Upon looking back, I was a teacher long before I became an educator.
Occupation vs. Vocation
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a teacher as ‘one whose occupation is to instruct‘ and an educator as ‘one skilled in teaching; a student of the theory and practice of education.’ Trying to visualize the professional captured by each definition, it becomes obvious how wildly contrasting they are. Teaching is an occupation that prioritizes instructing others - it conjures the image of a ‘sage on the stage,’ imparting knowledge, telling students what, where and when but too often failing to address how and especially why as rigorously. Educators, meanwhile, actively seek to adapt and improve practice in line with research as well as their own continuous learning and reflection. They’re perhaps more likely to view education as a passion or even a vocation as opposed to a means to an end. More elegantly put: education is not what they do, it is who they are.
Content vs. Learning
I recently had lunch with a colleague who has - to his evident dismay - been in education longer than I’ve been alive. He offered a compelling viewpoint on the difference between teacher and educator. A teacher, he posited, is focused on and led by content - “how do I get all this information into my students’ heads?” Educators, in his view, possess an acute awareness of the development of the whole individual - a broad concept often referred to as the Whole Child Approach - ”am I creating a holistic environment in which this young person can develop into a well-rounded, healthy, engaged and fulfilled learner?” One way educators might work to empower learners is through the integration of social-emotional learning (SEL) into daily planning. While there are countless ways to do this, my own international school has seen SEL development grow markedly this year through the intentional design of assignments that celebrate the diversity of learners’ assets, abilities and cultural perspectives. Another important step educators take towards promoting a conducive social-emotional environment is individualized, student-centered instruction, as opposed to generalized, didactic lessons.
Blueprint vs. Individual
The very first student I tutored earned a scholarship to Harrow School. I can recall a very appealing simplicity to the path we took: study hard, perform on tests, open doors, repeat ad infinitum until you get wherever it is you’re going. But when we parted ways and he went on to Harrow, he had an awful time - the school was not a good fit for him, and he begged his parents to leave. We had the grades, but we had neglected something essential in the process: the individual. At no point had we stopped to discuss his needs as a young person, instead committing unquestioningly to a formula that seemed to have worked well for thousands of students since 1572. I had fulfilled my duties to this boy as a teacher but not as an educator, for I had failed to consider the bigger picture. Perhaps no one could’ve foretold with certainty that Harrow was not the right environment for him, but an educator would have at least asked the question.
Grades vs. Growth
Recent figures from the UK shows that one in 12 teachers left the profession last year, with the heavy workload cited as a primary driver. This picture is fairly consistent internationally, with teachers under immense pressure to complete syllabi, mark piles of coursework and prepare students for exams understandably feeling their inner educator give way to the demands for tangible success on paper. In doing so, we inadvertently fall into a weak-kneed fixed mindset, prioritizing outcomes over learning. But promoting student growth does not necessarily mean more work or worse outcomes. A growth mindset praises the process and individual development over results, encourages learners to ask for and act on feedback, and seeks to cultivate a sense of curiosity in the classroom. The best part for under-pressure teachers? Research suggests a link between growth mindset and grades, especially for struggling students. A recent study that looked at 1,136 students in South Africa from Grade 4 – Grade 8 found that educators embracing a technology-enabled growth mindset consistently outperformed those who did not, an effect which remained consistent despite the disruptions occasioned by irregular student and staff attendance, and socio-political unrest in the country. Grades or growth is a false dichotomy; an educator will foster both.
Nouns vs. Verbs
It could reasonably be said that the very act of labeling oneself as a teacher or educator in the first place is to pigeonhole oneself. Stephen Fry once said “we are not nouns, we are verbs.” We are not things - teachers, educators. We are people who do things – we teach, we educate, we encourage, we excite, we inspire, we champion, we share, we build, we create, we support, we care and we learn. We surrender a lot of potential richness and discovery when we box ourselves into any prescribed notion of what we should be. Of course it would take an unhireable kind of contrarian to apply to a job with a nounless CV, but we might do well to ask ourselves: which noun best encapsulates my purpose?
Of course one can be a teacher and an educator; the terms are not mutually exclusive. In fact, I would say the vast majority of teachers I’ve worked with aspire to be educators. But as fallible adults, we are susceptible to falling into routines and neglecting to ask that most quintessentially childish of questions: why? Why do we learn about maths and science? Why is it important to read and write? Why did I become a teacher? Asking why gives learning a purpose, and implicit in the term educator is a purposeful commitment to the learning process, whether that transpires under the identity of a teacher or otherwise.
Sam Irving is an elementary educator who has worked in the UK, Russia and Uruguay as a homeschool teacher, and is currently serving as Deputy Head of Primary at International College Punta del Este.
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