What is the Role of the Teacher in the Modern Classroom?
From the perspective of a teacher trainer, one of the fundamental questions I find being debated again and again is what is a ‘good’ teacher, and how can one become a ‘good’ teacher. This question inevitably leads to a multitude of opinions and suggestions, some based on solid pedagogical theory, some on years of hard fought classroom experience, while others still on classroom research and reflection. I will not attempt to provide any sort of concrete answer to these questions, merely ask more questions around the topic, designed as much to provoke discussion as to perhaps annoy! When listening to the responses offered to these questions, it often strikes me how, regardless of how far apart some of my colleagues may be in terms of agreeing on common ground, the debate seems to centre round a fundamental disagreement on the role of the teacher in the language classroom. So this may be as good a place as any as a jumping off point for enquiry.
Any discussion of the role of the language teacher in 2016 and beyond has to take into account the wide variety of teaching contexts and situations abound in the world of language education today. From the perspective of ELT, we might talk of the role of the teacher in a private language teaching organisation in an English-speaking country where classes are multicultural 14-student families, where rolling enrolment ensures a steady flow of fresh students. Alternatively, we could talk about a state school class in a non-English speaking country where the class sizes reach north of 30 (and beyond) and the students are a veritable captive audience for a fixed school-year. How, with such a wide variation, can we talk about ‘the role of the teacher’? Let’s approach it from a different perspective, rather than taking a macro look at the context, let’s take a micro look at teachers’ behaviours and relationships within the class. What commonalities can we find across the language teaching spectrum?
- How does the teacher structure the room?
Or perhaps this could be posed as ‘what are the possibilities and limitations regarding classroom interaction patterns available to the teacher?’. Often, the very nature of the rooms we teach in can influence our lessons far more than any particular style or approach we chose to adopt. If we are lucky enough to teach in an airy, well-lit, colourful environment, we may notice that our students are receptive and refreshed, hanging on our every word. but a favourable environment does not guarantee this, and teachers that maintain this level of engagement tend to exploit different interaction patterns and seating arrangements for learners on a regular basis. On the other hand, if we are teaching in a sweaty sardine-tin, with a small white board and the drone of construction work vibrating through the walls, we could hardly be surprised if even the very best of teachers finds the going tough. And yet learning can happen even here. The key in each case is surely how the teacher can respond to, and exploit, the available space to push learners beyond internally scripted classroom routines, though it’s fair to ask the question: how is this reasonably done in a sardine tin?
- How does the teacher ‘relate’ to the students?
Without getting into too much into the realm of cultural awareness, what can be said to be the key components of the ideal student-teacher relationship? Respect, of course, is key, and should be a two-way street, but how is it best encouraged in a language classroom? How familiar should the relationship be? Should there be a massive difference between how the teacher treats learners of different age groups? Too often teachers are left to their own intuition to decide these things. Adequate addressing of these questions should be factored in a considered way into the professional development programme of a quality language teaching organisation or department to ensure that there is at least an ongoing conversation on the importance of ‘respect’ in the language classroom.
- How does the teacher ‘utilise’ the materials available?
And what materials are available? There is a danger, as in all walks of life, that we consider every new advance, every change in the way content is packaged and delivered, as essential to our daily lives, something ‘better’ than what we had before. This, of course, isn’t always the way, as a huge number of teachers who have struggled to fully utilise IWBs in ELT will attest to. A serious consideration of how any new piece of technology, for example, would actually fit into a teachers current practice and, indeed, enhance the education process, is needed. From a course book, to a whiteboard, to an online learning platform, shouldn’t these ‘tools’ be treated as just that: ‘tools’? They cannot replace teaching, rather supplement it, and they are best exploited with adequate training based on both the needs and abilities of the teacher and the students.
- External facts and their impact on the teacher’s role
What time is the lesson? Does the role of a teacher change as the day goes on? Anyone who has had the experience of teaching morning, afternoon, and evening classes in the one day will observe the changing dynamic which exists in a class as the hours tick by.
How long is the lesson? How long are you required to teach for and what are you expected/expecting to achieve in that time? Think about any lessons that you have done which have lasted around the hour mark versus any lessons you have done lasting around the three-hour mark. Did your role, relationship, classroom dynamic remain the same across both of them?
Of course I could go on adding to these categories, and indeed go on adding more categories but perhaps I am wrong to even begin discussing aspects of the ‘role of the teacher’ in a universal way. Perhaps what I’m calling the ‘role of the teacher’ here is just the behaviour of the teacher in a certain context and the overarching ‘role’ never actually changes in the minds of the learners. Or perhaps as the teacher develops, the role necessarily evolves and that is a natural thing, influenced by their own development rather than the factors listed above. Or is there even such a thing as a ‘role’ for a teacher or should we instead focus on how the relationship between teacher and student is managed on a case by case basis?