What Do Teachers Do?


Last night over dinner, a retired educator — still very involved — suggested that the job of a teacher today was fundamentally different from what it was ten or so years ago. “Teachers are more like coaches now,” he said. I chimed in with the view that, in the best of circumstances, teachers were explorers, and I riffed about the changed world, the internet, and the importance of adults helping kids formulate questions, not regurgitate answers. (If you’ve read The Influence of Teachers, you know the drill).

Listening quietly to us two old guys were two relatively young history teachers from an independent school. At one point one of us (finally) asked what they thought. The younger of the two smiled politely and said, in effect, “Your theories are fine, but we teach Advanced Placement History, and there’s not much time for ‘coaching’ or ‘exploring.’

Later, as I was walking to the subway, I wondered what the right word would be to describe what teachers do. If they’re not ‘the sage on the stage’ or ‘the guide on the side’ and if they’re not ‘coaches’ or ‘explorers,’ then what exactly are they today?

If you could sum up this man's job in one word...

And, if it’s true that in the best of worlds, teachers would function as coaches and explorers (guiding learning while also learning themselves), what stands in the way?

I am familiar with the complaints from teachers that they have to be social workers, surrogate parents, counselors, health care providers, nutritionists and more, and I have no doubt that is often true.

Crowded classrooms and other factors mean that teachers are often in the role of policemen, which is not what they signed up for.

New approaches to accountability also mean that teachers have to be ringmasters, whipping their unruly ‘animals’ so they will jump through the hoops of standardized tests — or the hoops of a curriculum that is handed down from on high (and designed to be ‘teacher-proof’). Someone up there still believes that knowledge is something to be poured into children’s heads, like that awful graphic in the infamous movie “Waiting for ‘Superman.’” I am reminded of John W. Gardner’s observation, “All too often, we are giving young people cut flowers when we should be teaching them to grow their own plants.”

Today’s approaches to accountability may also be turning teachers into competitors, not teammates in a shared enterprise. If keeping my job depends on my students’ test scores, then why should I help my colleagues improve?

My own belief is that most teachers would happily be teaching children ‘to grow their own plants,’ but that’s not their decision. In my experience, many of their supervisors do not have much faith in their teachers. I think of the Director of Professional Development in the Washington, DC, schools who told me in 2007 that in her opinion 80% (not a misprint) of the teachers in DC had neither the skills nor the motivation to be successful.

The sentence that precedes Gardner’s pithy observation about flowers is descriptive. “Much education today is monumentally ineffective,” he wrote in 1963, and one can only wonder at what he would be saying now.

I am still searching for the one right word to describe teachers today. Reviewing the candidates: competitors, policemen, social workers, surrogate parents, counselors, health care providers, nutritionists and ringmasters.

I happen to be a fan of well-designed charter schools, of which there are a fair number. These schools are found in systems that have refused to hand out charters like Halloween candy but instead set a high bar for approval. We’re working on a documentary right now at Learning Matters about how charters helped transform New Orleans, in fact:

(We have a lot of lousy charter schools because of low standards — garbage in, garbage out. Too many charter authorizers have made it too easy to get a charter, with predictable consequences. Therefore, no one should judge a charter school without taking a hard look. It would be like evaluating a car based on its color, as Ted Kolderie has observed.)

The schools I am writing about here have strong leadership, a balanced curriculum that includes art and music, and (most often) a strong working relationship with families. Inside these schools you find students and teachers who want to be there.

In these schools, the principals protect their teachers, enable them to be coaches and explorers, and hold them accountable for results. Learning is a team sport in these special places, as it should be. The adults in these schools recognize that the (paradoxical) goal of this team sport is to produce strong individuals, because (again quoting John Gardner), “The ultimate goal of the educational system is to shift to the individual the burden of pursing his own education. This will not be a widely shared pursuit until we get over our odd conviction that education is what goes on in school buildings and nowhere else.”

And we have to get over our ‘odd conviction’ that teachers are the problem in education. It’s not merely ‘odd;’ it’s downright destructive of a vital profession.

Given all that many teachers are called upon to do, perhaps the one best word is ‘juggler.’

On the other hand, if they are at various times policemen, social workers, surrogate parents, counselors, health care providers, nutritionists and ringmasters, then the one best word for ‘teacher’ has been staring me right in the face the entire time: teacher.

22 thoughts on “What Do Teachers Do?

  1. The inability for teachers to teach is exactly why I promote homeschooling! It is not the teachers fault that government has taken over their jobs. In a home school environment the student can be allowed to experiment, research, identify, and grow at their own rate and really absorb the needed information! Our public school system is in need of reworking for those students who are forced to attend. They are not being educated, just indoctrinated.


  2. It would be really interesting to have the two young teachers tell what they do see as their jobs – likely pouring in facts I’m afraid. The coach / explorer characterization is a really good one. My personal belief is that this approach will yield the same, likely better, results for the ringmaster duties – without the drudgery and motivation-killing test prep. Interestingly enough, most teachers i talk with feel they are mandated to test prep drills; most administrators I talk with say that’s not the case. And yet, teacher prep drills are the norm (grandchildren in Virginia are already spending much if not most of three class periods a day drilling for the “SOLs” that start late May).

    I’m presuming that the test prep drilling is in preparation for any class / school unacceptable test scores (“look here; we certainly did all we could to yield acceptable scores”). If this is the case, then the challenge is to convince teachers and their administrators to champion the coach / explorer roles – probably through vows they will support teachers and through appropriate professional development, even with unacceptable test scores. As noted earlier, I personally believe the scores will be at least comparable and likely better than through the attention to test prep drills.

    By the way, another descriptor beyond coach / explorer should be adjuster or refiner. This task is associated with honestly dealing with failure in order to use that failure in a positive way to improve all efforts involved. I realize that this is truly what a sports coach does to improve the probability of a successful outcome. But I’m not sure we educators wouldn’t do better if reminded of our role being COACH / EXPLORER / ADJUSTER.


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  3. I wouldn’t want to teach public school today, not with the way education policy is changing pretty much every year. Corporate control is moving into the schools as well. You couldn’t pay me enough to put up with all of that, but then, in a society that thinks paying professional athletes millions of dollars each year in salaries is A-okay, and cutting funding to schools while boosting funding for prisons is the remedy to all our problems, it seems pretty insane not to involve the teachers and give them a substantial voice in “reform” efforts.


  4. These comments this week are so very … sad. Teachers inspire learning; they direct kids in helping other kids; and they create exciting situations where new ideas emerge from contrasts in history, science, the arts and sports. At least that’s what I do, and they seem to like it. And it’s what most of the teachers with whom I work, sometimes on a team, sometimes as a substitute, sometimes as a trainer, and sometimes as a teacher-advisor. That inspiration is all the more critical when tech does that pouring in thing of squeezing information into kids’ heads. Squeezed right, it can be fun for kids to tease others – including parents and peers – with trivia and games. Squeezed wrong, it may come out in painful constipated A, B, C, D, or the famous F.

    That’s why I have so much fun asking kids to grade themselves, and reflect on what they know or need or want to know. The surprise is how frank, honest, sometimes critical they are about their own goals, aspirations, and achievements. But that honesty is best and most fruitful in the context of how proud they are of themselves, what and how and why they know things, and how confident they feel that they can find out what they need to know to make “things happen.” And I don’t know if that is teaching, or, more important, whether they are teaching me more than I teach them. I’m old, and know lots of stuff; they’re young and, in a group of four or more, are bound to know more.


    • Well said, Joe. Inspiration is a key element of what a teacher does. The potential to inspire a child in such a way as to launch him or her onto an unforseen path or pursuit or passion is an important part of teaching well.

      I suspect that the (sometimes subtle) moves made by master teachers in and out of the classroom to inspire their students would be lost on those trying to characterize “effective” teaching in evaluation “systems.” When faced with external pressures and the challenge of teaching so many students each day, I worry that young teachers will take a stance of “just tell me what to do and I’ll do it,” and the inspirational aspects of teaching will evaporate.


    • The couches shuold go and bring in more computer stations. As for loud there was always a librarian to ask who could decide if it was too loud or if someone else was over stressed and more likely to over react to the slightest intrusions. We’ve all done it, we overcome it through focus and knowing the course material well enough to have the knowledge to explain the concept and to express an opinion with reasoning. Yes there was some noise, but never to excess when I was there.


  5. I think teachers are becoming more like McDonald’s workers. They are given pre-cooked products and a specific “recipe” for preparing them. They are expected to follow these orders religiously in order to ensure that everyone gets the same “quality” experience. If they diverge even slightly they are told that they are negligent and aren’t doing their jobs. The actual products are designed at a corporate headquarters, by people who seldom, if ever, interact with the actual customers, and who are often more interesting in cutting costs than in ensuring a quality product. Since presumably anyone can “prepare” a pre-fabricated product, the workers are seen as interchanagable and replacable. Also, since this type of “cooking” doesn’t require specific skills or education, the company can hire almost anyone off the street and then pay them a low wage.

    Most of the “reforms” of the last 10 years have really been a back-door route to channel public funds to corporations, by requiring a market for the products that corporations like Pearson, Holt, and ETS design and provide. There are also scary parallels with the business and working models described in the book “Fast Food Nation.” This is really a movement to bring methods of uniformity and mass production into schools.

    What’s really sad is that the public is so used to mass-produced products and fast food, that they think that uniformity and mass production would be “good” for schools too.


    • What teachers are given are the bare topics to teach. In my school I am given the freedom to deliver them in any fashion I choose. The sad part are those teacher that do the “Drill and Kill”, where they hand out worksheets and do not give the students the opportunity to use their imagination and opinions about worldy topics. Studnets need to be taught to be autonomous learners, or self learners. In this age of vast technology studnets are too busy watching others imaginations, and aren’t flexing their own. Everything is instant and immediate, their problem solving skills are underdeveloped becuase they never need to. This makes it hard to do some of the great things that are out there for teacher, bnecuase we are so busy unprogramming them to become free thinkers.


  6. four of my six (yes, you read that right) classes are of AP US Government & Politics, in which almost all of my students are 10th graders. They are perhaps responsible for MORE facts than in AP US History, with the facts changing every year (with about a 4 year lag before appearing on the test), particularly with respect to Court cases. Were I to take the approach of the young teacher, my students would do much worse on the AP exam.

    It is just past midyear. Were you to walk into my AP class on an average day now, you would find two students at the front of the class leading a discussion on the material for the day with 30 some other students participating. I will jump in to clarify, to push the thinking a bit further, to make sure one or two students do not dominate the discussion. This seems to work far better than lecture in helping the students take ownership of their own learning, which to me is a major goal of education.

    I am approaching my 66th birthday, and as John well knows am now seriously considering taking my pension (I am already on Social Security) and doing something outside the classroom. I came to teaching late – when I was 49. Still, in this my 17th year I see several major differences in students arriving in my class. Far too many, even the very bright ones, have not learned how to think below the surface. They have been tested to death, primarily with multiple choice items. Some have already learned how to use process of elimination in order to do well on items for which they may in fact not know the answer. Their learning has been narrowed as subjects not tested for AYP under No Child Left Behind have been diminished or even eliminated. Some are already turned off to school. Most have little idea of how to research, evaluate sources and materials, present an organized argument verbally or in writing. Their writing skills are weak – grammar, structure, usage are alien topics to most of them.

    My frustration as a teacher is that I cannot work as much on their skills as I might want because I still have to ensure that they are prepared for the AP exam. With 129 AP students (and another 45 in my non-AP classes where the skill levels are even lower), I simply do not have the time even if could do more writing exercises to provide the individual feedback so many of them need on their writing.

    Some I know would prefer the term educator to teacher because they worry that the latter seems to imply the false model used by Davis Guggenheim in his very badly flawed movie “Waiting for Superman” of a teacher pouring “knowledge” into a student’s head, what Paolo Freire rightly dismissed as the banking model of education. I don’t like the former because it allows people with no understanding or experience of the reality of teaching to claim to be educators merely because they are put in charge of school systems – Paul Vallas, Joel Klein, Allan Bersin and Arne Duncan come immediately to mind.

    I proudly claim the title of teaching. If asked what I teach my answer is students. Persons. Note the phrasing, not people. It is my responsibility to get to know my students well enough to ensure that I know how – beyond scores on tests of any kind – what they are understanding and where they need help and support. I must build relationships with them so that they will trust me enough to go beyond their individual comfort zones in order to maximize their ability to learn while building confidence in their ability to learn. At times I will challenge, at others I will comfort. Sometimes I may need to provoke, at others to assuage. I must invite, cajole . . I will run out of words for all the different approaches I will need to use, because of all the different personalities and minds before me.

    I must simultaneously balance the students’ need to connect what they are learning to their lives and what matters to them – taking into account their interests and passions – and society’s needs (as expressed in formal curricular standards) that they learn certain things deemed essential.

    There are, as John notes, many other labels that could be applied.

    I am more than satisfied to simply be called teacher. I am honored on the days when my students, present and former, consider me a good teacher. Maybe then i deserve the label without the qualifying adjective.


  7. Thanks for important, interesting comments. A few reactions, beginning with Ken Bernstein:
    * Thanks for the description of your classroom, which sounds like it promotes a lot of learning. There are other ways for high school students to earn college credit – that do not require the focus of a class on a test give one day (the AP approach). These Dual Credit/College in the Schools) approaches allow for a more rational, justifiable approach to learning and teaching. I hope you will explore other options.
    * We have just done a new report on this which was featured on the front pages of the Minneapolis and St.Paul newspapers, and endorsed by an editorial in the Minneapolis paper. We are now working with legislators to encourage these things. More info available at http://www.centerforschoolchange.org
    * No one mandates the AP approach. At a time when many recognize the problems inherent in credit coming down to how well students do on 1 day and 1 test, I think responsible educators should encourage use of other approaches. They are currently available.
    * There are outstanding district and charter public schools where educators are allowed to use key principles that promote learning…some of which Dr. Bernstein described. We need to give more attention and recognition to such places.


    • Joe

      I do not have the option to explore other opportunities. We have some dual enrollment in math with University of Maryland for which we are a professional development school (I have had 5 student teachers from UMCP). There are some schools in our county which offer IB, which has a different form of high stakes assessment for college credit. Our school is one of two which has explored some additional options with College Board, but there has as yet been little follow up.

      I teach AP Government because (a) no one else in the department wants to take it on, and (b) I am by far the person best prepared to teach it. I could go into far greater depth if I did not have to worry about “coverage” of the testable content. It limits the depth in which we can explore some topics in depth. I am struggling to get my students willing to go into those topics which interest them and/or connect with their lives – that is usually when the discussion become most intense and passionate. I do what I can by bringing in outside speakers from relevant fields – reporters, lobbyists, congressional staff, congressmen, people in no-profits, political party figures, people in various government agencies (Energy, CIA, etc). I do have the advantage of being relatively close to our national and state capitals and our county seat, and being personally connected to enough people where I can twist arms on behalf of my students (and not just my AP students – I impose and ask guests to come for the entire school day, and many notable people agree, although with Members of Congress I can usually only get them for a few periods).

      I also teach AP because I get the challenge of teaching many of the brightest kids in the school. It keeps me interested and on my toes!


  8. Ranging from dual credit to the Early College High Schools, there are, indeed, some elegant and relatively new approaches to the problems Ken Bernstein presents so eloquently. Yet there are others that may be more accessible when you hit his – and my – age.

    I work largely with teams of teachers, of kids, and of kids and teachers. The day when I could/would remember the names of five classes of 30 students each is long past. Yet, as Montessori showed, you don’t need to know or work with every individual in order to teach that many or more. Her classic class was of 72 children, all diagnosed as “idiots” in the argot of 19th century Italy. She organized them. Kids do the teaching – as Ken’s model demonstrates. Yet they don’t teach alone.

    Some of my teaching is as a substitute – largely by choice and largely because the students continue to offer the kind of inspiration and insight that is distinctive to youth. I find it profoundly refreshing, and, in return, refresh students’ approach to history, or algebra, or health, or gym, or wherever the school drops me for a day. That’s a remarkably productive kind of therapy for early retirement.

    It is much the same fun, however, to work with some of those same kids’ teachers – in this case on a project for publication and an international conference, but on any project. In my long and eclectic career I’ve taught teachers as well as their students, and it’s not a lot of difference. One of those teachers said the other day, “Why do some people find you grouchy? I think this is fun.” I noted that I think of her the way I think of my students, none of whom find me grouchy, and that those who cross that commitment find me grouchy indeed.

    Since teaching, for Bernstein and for me, seems largely a sharing of inspiration and structuring of knowledge, it may be time to revive that older innovation of the ’60’s, “Differentiated Instruction,” where teams work together and differentiate their delivery to match their kids, while coordinating their content to make it interesting to everybody. That’s what is beginning to emerge here in Somerville, and it is leagues beyond the more traditional “pull out” day of training. Perhaps Bernstein and I should look at some of these alternative roles, since, as lovely as it is day to day, teaching five or six classes a day sustains an industrial model no longer appropriate to an internet generation.


  9. Yeah, we are all of the above. Twenty years ago, I had no idea hoow to make the split second decisions of which person to tackle and to whether I should go in high or low, and wrap up the assailants, and to keep your chin down to avoid counter-punches. But after hundreds of fights, and many riots, I now have a sixth sense. I have more than a dozen experiences with unconscious kids when I couldn’t tell, several times, if they were breathing, and I’ve dealt with several pyschotic breakdowns, and done the suicide watches, folowing the experts advice calling kids on schedule during the weekend. I’ve been to the hospital rooms and the funerals. i’ve got a sixth sense, now, who is packing, and how to identify the “G’s” talk with someone who is almost certainly armed. I’ve often wondered what my pay would be if I was paid the going rate that respected professionals were paid for my services.

    BUT, it keeps your brain sharp in a way that nothing else ever did. Nothing could be more fun. the adrenalin rush is unbelievable. And, school is family. Basically, in inner city neighborhood high schools, we are parents. And as a bonus, I’m on the East coast for business and I’ll be crashing with a student who make the leap from inner city Detroit and OKC to being a respected and influential professional, and we’ll be swapping stories all weekend.


  10. I like what John Dewey said years ago: . “Teachers will inspire a desire for knowledge, and will serve as guides in the investigations undertaken, rather than as task-masters.”


  11. Your use of John W. Gardner is spot on. A correction: Mr. Gardner (my hero since I was a junior and school reform activist in high school in 1969) did not write: “…much education today is monumentally ineffective….” in 1989, as you blogged. He wrote it in 1963. See Self-Renewal, chapter 3 (“Versatility”), p.21. But dates are really beside the point here, as John Gardner was one of a handful of TIMELESS American sages. He was a master. His wisdom needs to be renewed and applied by those of us who admired and learned from him.


  12. Taking the role of a policeman/woman just happens to come along with the job description. If every student could remain 100% focused on their own, then they could learn independently. They wouldn’t need teachers of any kind. But, very rarely are there any students who are that focused. That’s why a teacher’s role as a police person is necessary.


    • Hi Erin,You are not reinventing the wheel; you are just mankig it a little more logical. I like the way you are seeing some of the items as subordinate to the first 3. I hadn’t seen it but following your suggestion I looked and it seems to me that it would work something like this:1. (5.)2. (7.)3. (4. & 6.)9. (8.)I agree that #9. seems the juiciest in terms of what you could get the students doing and thinking about. In some ways, #9 seems like the overarching goal of the course.Not sure. We will talk more. Thanks for pulling this together.


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