May 16, 2008

Does the word 'teacher' create a barrier these days?

Barrier School of Everything have been pondering how they get across the idea that some people will learn and others will teach through the service, when the word teacher is, apparently, so loaded with negative connotations:

We want to help professional teachers advertise their services, but it's pretty clear from the general feedback that the word "teacher" also puts off many people with skills and experience to share. We think everyone has something to teach - but how many of us would call ourselves teachers? And is calling some of our members "teachers" and others "learners" just reinforcing unhelpful divisions, or respecting teachers for their skills in passing on what they know?

The balance between respect for the role and enabling learning by reducing the perceived barriers is hard to achieve. As adults we rarely refer to those who teach us how to work better as 'teacher'. We've invented a plethora of other words to avoid this: coach, mentor, facilitator...

My guess is that it shows mutual respect to use these not-teacher words, so does this mean that we use the word 'teacher' in schools to reinforce some kind of 'them' and 'us' attitude? And, having read Don and John's convincing arguments, do we really want a 'them' and 'us' approach to teaching and learning? About time, perhaps, that the organisation I work for changes its name simply to Learning Scotland.

Update: David Warlick has a nice take on this, where the differentiation is important, but with the nuance that learners are sometimes teachers, and teachers are learners.

Pic: Free like a bird


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Pejorative language can be a barrier, but given the breadth of the English language and the range of sensitivities that apply to so many words; I think if we focus on this we will be bogged down in the minutia and miss the bigger picture.

Really interested in the direction in which you and David have taken this discussion!

The starting point for us at School of Everything is that the only way for users to be visible on the existing version of our site is to define themselves as "teachers" - yet we're convinced that there are lots of people who wouldn't self-define as teachers, but who have all kinds of under-used skills, knowledge and experience. So the question is, how do we find a language that encourages people to share those skills?

We're coming at this from outside the world of formal education, but it occurs to me that there is a parallel question for schools about how to draw on the skills, knowledge and experience that exist within the surrounding community. (I've thought for a long time that most children and young people would benefit from contact with a wider range of adults.)

Part of my hope for SoE is that we can offer a platform for community skills mapping (on an Asset-Based Community Development model). I'd love to hear about examples of schools that are figuring out how to involve the community more in this way.

I tended to describe myself as a school teacher. That's what I was. Now I'm often in the position of being a pupil again - and that's fine by me, as long as the 'teacher' knows her/his stuff and isn't a bore.
But didn't you realise why teachers tend to marry other teachers? No-one else would take them on!

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

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School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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