MY ROLE AS AN EDUCATOR IN THE 21ST CENTURY
A PERSONAL PERSPECTIVE
BRADLEY C. STOTT
EDUC 533—FINAL EXAM
The role of teacher in the 21st Century is at the heart of a great deal of debate in our country. Should teachers impose their personal philosophies or value-based ideals and opinions on students? Should teachers act as an agent for social change—or a defender of the status quo? Should teachers be leaders, cheerleaders, spiritual guides, professionals, hand-holders, dictators, activists, or friends to the students they teach? These are complex, often divisive questions—questions teachers must ultimately answer for themselves. The fact is, that teachers do (knowingly or unknowingly) transmit personal values, opinions and viewpoints to their students. Teachers must make decisions regarding what’s important to them, their society, and the students they teach—setting a course allowing them to be true to all concerned. There are myriad reasons why teachers choose their occupation. They may wish to make a difference in the lives of children or simply want a steady paycheck. I have a personal vision of my role as an educator, but understand that in order to make this vision a reality, there will be challenges to overcome.
I believe a big part of my role in the 21st Century hinges on an ability to provide students with a reason to learn and to prepare students for citizenship in America. I will now discuss what I believe to be my role as an educator, the significant challenges I will face and my plan to meet those challenges.
As a teacher, I must be able to help students make connections between material presented in the classroom and their own lives. History is not a collection of events and dates unrelated to the student. It is a way of connecting to members of a great and common humanity. In many ways, the experiences of one are the experiences of all. We have all felt fear, fury, pain, loneliness, joy, sorrow and a great many other things common to all. We have the ability to empathize, sympathize and connect with those who have come before us. We can appreciate the accomplishments and failures of those who have come before and learn from them—even keep ourselves from repeating some of the mistakes of the past. This common thread of humanity serves as a personal “inspiring narrative”, as described by Neil Postman in The End of Education, for me. Although Postman does not use this particular “common thread of humanity” narrative, he maintains that in order for students to become motivated and inspired, they need to have a higher purpose or “reason” driving them to pursue knowledge. He makes a distinction between this higher purpose and motivation, stating that motivation “must not be confused with a reason for being in a classroom, for listening to the teacher, for taking an examination, for doing homework, for putting up with school even if you are not motivated.“ (Postman, p. 4) I heartily agree with Postman and believe that if students don’t have a clear and higher purpose behind what they’re doing, they will not be moved to interact meaningfully with the subject matter. Postman states there are “gods that may serve” teachers in creating these important narratives. He proposes that students have been given “gods” like “Consumerism, Economic Utility and Technology” (Postman, p. 60) and it is the teacher’s job to replace these shallow, unproductive narratives with “gods” that will serve far more meaningful purposes for the student.
My experiences tell me the subjects we study in school are great things—worth studying for their own sake. These “great things” are endless in their depth, larger than any individual understanding and intriguing by their very nature if one is open to their nuances. So, how do teachers open the minds of students to “great things”? Personal experience again tells me that students are best moved by the passion of the instructor. My best teachers were intensely passionate about the subjects they taught. This passion is contagious and can move students to read, think, and even love the “great things” taught in school. I believe this is power behind “gods that may serve” and “meaningful narratives” proposed by Postman.
If teachers can hook students through meaningful narratives, they can better mobilize students to action—making them the active American citizens described by the likes of Thomas Jefferson. Students of the same age and grade have similar futures and must necessarily deal with the same issues. If teachers can make students aware of the challenges of American citizenship and persuade them to meet those challenges, they have given them a gift to be used throughout life—the ability to take action and have an impact on the forces shaping their lives and futures. For example, I was given the opportunity to teach a group of students about the importance of voting in one of my observation experiences. I was able to hook them with a story about a fictitious 21-year-old Australian who failed to vote and was given a ticket. The students were shocked to learn that it is against the law not to vote in Australia and they listened intently to me as I made my case for the importance of voting. I was able to make it real for them by using specific examples of issues that should be important to them—“Do you care about the rising cost of tuition?” “Do you care whether or not you get Social Security in your old age?” It is possible that, because of my lesson, more young people will vote and more attention will be paid to their issues by the American government as a result. Although this is a bit of a stretch, this general understanding of the possibilities of education re-energizes me as a teacher and renews my passion—creating a cycle of success and renewal for both teacher and student.
I understand there will be significant challenges to my envisioned role as an educator. Influences which may prove challenging to me as a teacher could take any number of forms. Society’s expectations of its teachers are often different from place to place, and there can be large philosophical differences regarding the role of teacher. Expectations of teachers are often determined by the varying philosophies and viewpoints of local governments, administrators, and parents—which are based on generally shared values. Some issues that might prove to be challenges to my vision of myself as an educator include a lack of student motivation, the influence of commercialism, church-state separation (I believe in strict separation for public schools), the value of character education (I don’t see how it can hurt), the issue of inclusion for disabled students (I’m for it up to a point), the value of technology in education (a fantastic tool for learning, but not an end in itself), uniform curricular objectives (I feel teachers should have some freedom in what the teach) and an overemphasis on multiculturalism.
As a future history and social studies teacher, I believe the issue of multiculturalism in schools is an important one. I have chosen to focus on multiculturalism because it could change education in a way that would make it difficult for me to realize my dream of teaching in the 21st Century. Multiculturalism seeks to give equal time and emphasis on instruction to “all cultures”—the belief that all cultures are equally valuable and that we should not teach or emphasize a distinctly American cultural ahead of others. Multiculturalists stress that the United States is united politically and that teaching multiculturalism does not change that basic fact; that multiculturalism does not oppose a Western Tradition and that it does not divide our Nation. James A. Banks points to the “impressive successes” of multiculturalism and decries the attack on multiculturalism stating, “Ironically, the successes that multicultural education has experienced during the last decade have played a major role in provoking the attacks [on multiculturalism].” (Noll, p. 96)
However, there are those who believe that multiculturalism emphasizes differences and can lead to a “balkanization” of our society—threatening that which has held America together for 225 years. Critics of multiculturalism express that cultural unity is delicate and an emphasis on pluribus over unum could have drastic consequences. It seems to me that there are many problems with multiculturalism—best described by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. in The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society. Schlesinger skillfully argues that teaching distinctly American cultural values is important, acting as the glue holding America together (where many other countries have failed). He states, “Countries break up when they fail to give ethnically diverse peoples compelling reasons to see themselves as part of the same nation.” (Schlesinger, p. 14) Schlesinger uses Canada (a nation which very nearly split into two nations as of recent) and Yugoslavia as examples of the potential effect of the multicultural perspective. Schlesinger and Neil Postman make a clear distinction between cultural pluralism and multiculturalism. Multiculturalism is different because it idolizes differences instead of commonalities, rejects the importance of a common American culture, and has attempted to rewrite history (often falsely). Postman denounces the tendency for members of a distinct group to create false histories for themselves. He says these include “claims that black Africa is where science, philosophy, religion, medicine, technology, and other great humanistic achievements originated; that ancient Egyptians were black; that Pythagoras and Aristotle stole their mathematics and philosophies from black Egypt; and that the enlightened parts of the U.S. Constitution were based, in some measure on political principles borrowed from the Iroquios.” (Postman, p. 55) Schlesinger and Postman agree that if one can control the past, one controls the present. I fail to see how teaching lies—at best half-truths—to our nation’s students will provide them with an accurate view of their past or future. Additionally, multiculturists have argued that without a glorious past specific to a particular group, children of that group will lack self-esteem and confidence. Postman rejects this as well and points out that research has never been able to provide a link between self-esteem and curricular content. Multiculturalism is a challenge to the American culture—something we need in order to tie our society together.
Additionally, as a social studies teacher, I will be teaching in America to a great many students that do not have any knowledge of American history or culture. It is important that they understand the cultural perspective of the United States. It is not necessary that they agree with and American perspective on things, but it is important that they have some understanding of it.
There are as many different cultural perspectives as there are cultures. There are literally thousands of cultures and perspectives from which one could teach. If we are to give all cultures equal time, we could never educate our students—there simply aren’t enough days in the school year to do this. I feel there is nothing wrong with teaching American culture and, according to Postman and Schlesinger, the majority of students and parents see nothing wrong with it either (including the parents of minority children). Multiculturalism is an important issue, one that may be a challenge to what I plan to accomplish in my career.
My plan to meet such challenges rests on my ability to confidently and proudly be myself, encourage students to use critical thinking skills, involve students in the subject matter and pursue lifelong learning and personal growth—encouraging students to do the same.
As a teacher I must be myself and project a professional demeanor that encourages the respect of students. Teachers should not try to make students believe everything they believe, nor penalize them for having differing opinions—but teachers should not be afraid to assert their interpretation of the subject matter. Teachers must be tolerant, flexible when necessary, and encourage the joy of learning and discovery.
Teachers must allow students to form their own opinions, presenting both sides of an issue—encouraging students to be critical thinkers. The ability to filter events and information and form one’s own opinion through critical thinking is a necessary skill for members of society in the 21st Century. Students must be taught to see their world as clearly as possible, so that they might make good decisions for themselves. For example, I will teach students to know when someone is trying to sell them something (commercials for example) and know when to be critical of what they’re seeing or reading.
Involving students in the “great things” of the social studies goes along with my personal narrative of the “common thread of humanity” and a passionate interest in the subject matter. Maintaining a dialogue with the subject and teaching students to create a dialogue with the subject are important ingredients in the generation of student involvement and motivation.
In conclusion, I have a vision of my role as a teacher in the 21st Century. I understand there will be many challenges in attaining my goal—multiculturalism, student apathy, Commercialism in schools, inclusion and more. My plan to counter these challenges consists of projecting professionalism and honesty (being myself), replacing shallow and unproductive narratives, like “Commercialism”, with deep and lasting narratives, like the “common thread of humanity”, and involving students in the subject matter. I plan to teach students critical thinking skills so that they may see an issue from both sides—allowing them to make form their own opinions and ideas. Additionally, I will model lifelong learning and encourage it in my students whenever possible.
Noll, James William. Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Controversial Educational Issues, Ninth Edition, Guilford: McGraw-Hill, 1997.
Postman, Neil. The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School, New York: Vintage, 1995.
Ravitch, Diane. The Troubled Crusade: American Education, 1945-1980, Basic Books, 1983.
Schlesinger, Arthur M. Jr. The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society, New York: W.W. Norton, 1998.