Monday, March 11, 2013

Need a New Word?

I can't recall exactly or find (no, not even via Google) the John Updike quotation I want. I read it many years ago in a collection of quotations from writers. So please pardon the paraphrasing. Updike compared a word to butter in the refrigerator in how it absorbs various smells and flavored from all the other contents. He reminds us that a word's real power lies in its connotation more than its denotation.
I start with Updike's wonderful metaphor because recently I have been thinking about the word teacher. It's a beautiful word, one which conjures notions of wisdom and sacrifice and love. Despite the problems with our larger educational system, for most teachers hold a revered place. Most of us can recall at least a teacher or two who inspired us in some special, intensely personal fashion. Many romanticize the role and thus the word. I hope that never changes.
Meanwhile, we hear and call for exciting changes in the way schools work. For my point here, the particular model doesn't matter. What does matter is that for meaningful innovation to occur in schools, we have to re-imagine the role of the teacher. In fact, we may even need a new word. After all, new ways of thinking require new words.
As stated above, I don't want to lose the positive aspects of how we think about the word teacher. I have written many times that powerful education is essentially a human, relational endeavor. I don't worry about that changing if we were to change the word we currently use for teachers. But finding the right word may fell foster how we think of the role.
Consider the traditional notion of teacher. Where do you see that person? What is that person doing? My guess is the person is at the front of the room, somehow in total control, perhaps lecturing or modeling. The person is the expert, the one who poses the questions and arbitrates the correctness of the answers, even when the idea may be totally subjective.or the person is drilling students in basic content and skills, perhaps in preparation for some sort of objective, perhaps even standardized, test.
But let's move beyond the worst of the cliches and consider aspects of the word itself. In typical fashion, dictionaries define teacher as one who teaches. Teach means "to impart knowledge of/to or skill in/to; give instruction in/to." It has the same root as token. I wonder if this suggests the idea of a teacher distributing tokens of knowledge. Notice how closely this resembles the description in the previous paragraph. In a modern education, one that empowers students in ways that prepares them for their futures rather than our pasts, is that the image of teacher we want.
Realistically, changing the multi-faceted suggestions of a word is incredibly different. To use Updike's analogy, it would be like trying to restore the original and pristine qualities of butter once it has absorbed things from the other foods. It's why I wonder about all this talk of making failure more acceptable, even desirable...but that is a different post for another time. Meanwhile, I wonder if we need a new word to replace teacher, one which captures how the role needs to change.
Let's consider some of the common replacements:
  • For some people, educator has become almost a synonym for teacher. Better choice, I think, given its roots in educare, "to lead." But the definition still rankles: "to develop the faculties and powers (of a person) by teaching, instruction, or schooling." Also, while I don't really agree, I remember a former colleague who always argued that teachers calling themselves educators sounds pretentious.
  • Facilitator has become more popular recently, and I like how it suggests the teacher setting up the students for optimal learning. I have some trouble with the word because of its sharing common etymology with facile. We shouldn't really be making things easier, should we?
  • Coach is another word with almost sacred connotations, particularly how we bestow the term in such respectful ways when we refer to someone in that position. It's up there with doctor and reverend/father. Depending on the sport and style, this might work. But too often a coach can be a control freak, and players are overly scripted in many sports.
  • Lately I have heard people use the term co-learner. That sounds nice, and teachers should be learning all the time, often with their students. But a teacher also must have a higher degree of knowledge and abilility that the students if he or she is to help them, and this term puts them on too equal a footing for my taste.
  • I have heard of a few other terms: guide, mentor, friend, supervisor, learning manager. I'm sure there are others. None of these strike the right chords. You can probably figure out why from previous comments.
Since none of these options seem to work well, I have allowed my thinking to put me in a position for which I lack much patience: complaining without a real solution to offer. I will have to keep thinking. I also would appreciate any suggestions. In the meantime, I will try to surround my butter with nothing but delicacies, those which truly nourish young people. Perhaps in time we won't need a new word, for all teachers will be what we need. What each kid needs.

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