Chalkboards to Message Boards: The Changing Role of Educators

Written by Eric Nentrup

Recently, I reconnected with one of my own high school English teachers. We found each other on Facebook and I enjoyed our quick back and forth. However, calling her by her first name still caused a hitch in my typing. It’s amazing how ingrained it is to have that Mr./Mrs. LastName inclination even though for me it’s been twenty-four years since I was last in her classroom.

Proudly, I told her I’d made a mid-career change into teaching English and progressed on into eLearning and instructional technology and now working for the Student Information System, Alma. Debbie asked me why I left the classroom in favor of eLearning. The response I wanted to give her was much more verbose and philosophical than the more pragmatic and shorter option I sent back. I told Debbie about how my wife had to step away from her career for health reasons and we couldn’t pay the bills on a teacher salary. Not a unique reason for leaving the classroom. She responded asking more about my interest in eLearning contrasted with a face-to-face classroom and I realized she was fearful I was trying to avoid interactions with students. Which couldn’t be further from the truth. We wrapped up talking about her grandkids and that she was glad to free from all the district, local, and state politics as it impacted her later years in the classroom. I wished her well in her retirement and now we’re following each other’s feeds and learning through “likes” what we share in common.            

And though both of us shared the title of “English Teacher” at one time, professionally, we worked in a capacity that wasn’t very similar, as my memory of what it was like to be a student in her classroom stayed with me that night. Debbie was a classroom management champion. You did NOT fool around in her room. You did NOT come to class unprepared. And yet, this particular teenage boy couldn’t help himself then. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one.

My conversation with Debbie wasn’t the first time I’d spoken to either a retired teacher I’d crossed paths with or a former one of my own teachers curious about what the job is like in the present. In fact, there are plenty of practicing teachers today that wouldn’t recognize the value of a blended or fully online curriculum and how it frees up the face-to-face interactions for far more valuable exchanges between teachers and students. They may not realize that with technology as their sidekick, students can build the confidence and independent learning skills that will set them on the path to a bright future.

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The profession of teaching has changed drastically this past generation. We know this. And lately, there has been plenty of bad press about these changes. There’s a new headline each week. But I’m not so sure we all understand that these changes aren’t just superficial or the inevitable replacement of older processes with more technologically advanced ones. From chalk to dry erase, from overhead projector to SmartBoards, from pen and paper to iPads or ChromeBooks. Those changes are easy to grapple with, even if there is an adjustment period or learning curve. You still have bells, classrooms, chairs, and so on. And there has been plenty written about the tactical ways to disrupt those staid fixtures of school or how to get the most of our bleeding edge technology. What I’m more interested in is understanding how we consider how much the field of education has changed broadly and how it is putting pressure on the individual roles within our learning communities to adapt as well.

The very nature of the teacher’s role is changing drastically, too. It is incumbent upon us as educators to get ahead of this by making room in our practice for drafting our own job descriptions in such a manner that restores the role of teacher as irreplaceably valuable to the schools, districts, and communities in which we serve.

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