During my adult years before I became a teacher, I admittedly did not have a realistic idea of what teaching fully entailed, particularly elementary school teaching. Given that I went through the elementary school system here in Canada, I based most of my opinions about teaching through my hazy perspective of when I myself was a student. My memories would often link to recesses, school plays, dances, goofy times with friends, names and faces of my various teachers and the times when the class would be naughty. At first thought, my vision of teaching and the role of teachers would mainly center around an adult presence in the classroom, directing kids to their necessary tasks and homework assignments and disseminating information using the blackboard. My perspective of teaching was definitely narrow and in many ways, inaccurate.
Since becoming an elementary school teacher and completing my Masters in Child Study and Education, my perspective of teaching encompasses so many elements I had no idea were involved in the teaching equation. I feel passionate about sharing this perspective with others, because I believe that if, as a society, we place due value and worth in the work that teachers do, then we can meaningfully and effectively contribute to the optimal development of our future society.
Teachers mould kids for half of their waking hours, during their critical formative years
Elementary school teachers help influence and mould children during their most critical formative years; years in which their personalities, values, beliefs, actions, thoughts, habits and characters are rapidly taking shape. Studies have shown that a child’s progress during these years is a strong predictor of their future success. Teachers are with these children for nearly half of their waking hours in a given week, which accumulates to over a thousand hours during a school year. Needless to say, from a quantity perspective, we are a significant component in the development of our future generation. But there’s a lot more than just the time we spend with these growing minds.
Teachers educate the ‘world’ in a classroom
I often view the elementary classroom as a richly diverse microcosm. In a given classroom (particularly in Toronto and the Greater Toronto Area), one will encounter children from a range of cultural and religious backgrounds, family configurations (single and same-sex parents are becoming more common), a wide range of cognitive abilities, skills and interests, students with differing social-emotional needs, health needs, personalities and tendencies. If one envisions these details in action, one can appreciate what this diversity translates to in terms of a teacher’s day-to-day interactions with the students in the classroom. On a given day the teacher is responsible for differentiating their teaching to each child’s unique identity and particular make-up of skills, traits and needs. With so many uniquely complex beings in one class (a typical student-teacher ratio in Ontario is 25-1), this is no easy task.
Teachers reach every unique child
Long gone are the days when teachers would stand in front of the board and spew out information to the kids in the form of one generic lesson. Today, elementary teachers are encouraged to approach their teaching in a holistic manner, by teaching the ‘whole child’. Teachers are responsible for taking into account students’ differing cognitive, emotional and physical needs and this is done by assessing and understanding what each child is all about, then creatively managing the classroom into various learning groups, each one with tailored learning tasks; tasks that foster inquiry and creative thinking suited for specific learning needs. Teachers are responsible for incorporating new technologies into their teaching and providing detailed, rich feedback for every student in order to help them flourish. We are responsible for meeting with parents to discuss and advise on their child’s development and often spend many extra hours on the phone or in conferences with parents.
In almost every elementary classroom at least 10% of the students (if not more) have diagnosed special needs. It is not unusual to have, in one single class, a child who cannot sit still at their desk for more than a couple minutes (who may be interrupting others during the lesson as a result), another child who is building solar powered construction-paper boats (the gifted future engineer), another child who has difficulty dealing with peer-relations and thus lashes out verbally or physically, or another child who is several academic grade levels behind the rest in a particular subject. In addition to teaching to every child’s needs, for these particular children, the teacher is required to modify the teaching curriculum to a greater extent and specifically accommodate their needs according to their diagnoses and psychological or physical requirements. But there’s more: in addition to these students there are many students with special needs that are not officially diagnosed. Unfortunately the reality in many classrooms is that there is a percentage of students with social-emotional difficulties due to family instability (social, financial, physical), social circumstances (peer-pressure, bullying, exclusion), or a myriad of other potential reasons. Others have particular cognitive or physical needs that are unique and evident, but not always necessarily diagnosed or labelled as such. Teachers (particularly many early years teachers) are often also responsible for helping assess students for special needs, which requires them to fill out psychological assessment forms and participate in meetings with psychologists, parents and administrators. Every day, teachers are responsible for reaching out to each and every one of these unique cases, in addition to the other ‘regular’ students in the classroom, all of whom are equally important.
It is becoming increasingly more evident that in today’s classroom, almost every child learns differently, and research in education, psychology and child development is shedding more light into these different learning styles. As a result, the ‘one-size fits all’ teaching method is no longer accepted and teachers are working hard to tailor their teaching to meet each child.
Teachers teach life skills and character
Teaching life skills and character is a significant part of elementary school teaching and is for me personally, one of the most rewarding parts of the job. During these critical years, children’s day-to-day choices and behaviours open the door for teachers to engage in meaningful teachable moments with the students, which play a large part of a teacher’s day and make a big difference in students’ lives. I often see a student’s face fill with a sense of understanding and emotion after I’ve worked with them through a personal situation.
Teachers deliberately integrate into their practice, the teaching of learning skills such as independence, initiative, collaboration, self-reflection, organization and responsibility, among others. Furthermore, they are constantly managing behaviour and teaching kids about behavioural expectations and character, through modelling good behaviours and implementing consequences, reinforcements and reward systems in the classroom, all while trying to foster intrinsic motivation and integrity. In diverse school communities, as described above, students are continually navigating their way through the intricacies involved in social interactions. In any one day, students might need assistance or mediation with their social relationships and feelings on a number of issues: whether they require assistance in coordinating roles during a group project, in resolving conflicts at recess, making friends, showing empathy for others, or dealing with more complex issues related to bullying, teachers are regularly spending a lot of their time counseling students through these issues and many of these teachable moments can have significant lasting impressions on the children.
Bullying is a serious and most unfortunately, a common issue in many schools. Research on the causes and effects of bullying has created greater awareness as to the cruciality in dealing with bullying seriously, thoroughly and effectively. Teachers now play an important part in resolving or curbing bullying situations and are responsible for doing due diligence in any bullying situations they encounter. Such involvement can greatly impact the future development of a child. Teachers are responsible for teaching all of these life skills, communicating their expectations, and following through on their behaviour management strategies. Assisting students as they navigate through their personal choices and social interactions definitely involves a great deal of psychological and social insight and skill.
Teachers build a foundation of knowledge and capacity across various disciplines
On top of all of the above, teachers are also responsible for teaching students how to think and learn, via the curriculum content. Elementary school teachers plan and mark activities that range across all subject areas from the Arts, to Physical Education, Math, Science, Social Studies, Health (including nutrition and sexual education) and Language. In doing so, they apply their professional knowledge of instructional design, learning tools and evidence-based assessment. After a busy day interacting with students, teaching them valuable life lessons, guiding them through their social interactions and orchestrating creative inquiry-based lessons, many teachers begin their lesson planning and marking. As many teachers say, their second work day starts after the students leave the building and cumulatively, most teachers fit 12 months worth of work into their 10 months of teaching. Beyond all of the above responsibilities and hours, many teachers also volunteer extra time to run extra-curricular clubs or teams, which also build important skills for the kids (and for many kids of lower socio-economic status, are the only opportunities available to them to participate in such activities) .
Educators wear many hats
Elementary school educators are not only ‘teachers’, but wear the hats of ‘life coach’, ‘mentor’, ‘motivational speaker’, ‘entertainer’, ‘public speaker’, ‘psychologist’, ‘social worker’, ‘counselor’, ‘adviser’, ‘athletic coach’, ‘manager’, ‘facilitator’, ‘program planner’, ‘creative director’, ‘coordinator’, ‘learner’. Most importantly, teachers wear the hat of ‘builder of the future generation’, and this has undeniable value.
To get a glimpse into the world of elementary school teaching, I encourage people to volunteer their time in a classroom. One will quickly see that teachers are professionals in their craft and bring a wealth of expertise to their pedagogy–expertise built upon a multitude of hours of practical application and continual professional development through higher education, seminars, courses and workshops.
Teachers teach into the future
The world is changing at an increasingly rapid rate with new technologies influencing the way we think and act locally and globally. It’s hard to believe that only a couple decades ago, computers and the internet were rarely used in schools and technology was not really part of the learning equation. One wouldn’t have believed at that time, how the internet would change the world. We can only imagine what the future holds for our future generation in terms of how they think and learn using the latest technologies and networking tools. Today’s teachers have the challenge of integrating technology into their teaching in a way that can prepare children for the world of tomorrow; a world where learning through global connections will exceed our imaginations; a world where technology will be a mere extension of one’s notion of self. The 21st century teacher is preparing the next generation for a technological society that they themselves did not grow up in and a society that no one can even presently fully foresee. This requires open-mindedness, creative inquiry and a great ability to adapt to change. This video encapsulates several aspects of 21st century teaching and learning.
I can honestly say that throughout my years of teaching, almost every teacher I have met genuinely cares about the future success (academic and otherwise) of children and devotes countless energy each day to actively tend to each child. As in any profession, there are good apples and bad ones, and most people who enter the profession for other reasons typically don’t stay in it for very long. Teaching has taught me so many valuable skills and I learn from the students every day and continually get inspiration (and often many memorable laughs) from them. Furthermore, playing such an important role in their development and seeing their growth with my very own eyes is tremendously rewarding. I care very much about the students I teach and their growth and happiness is paramount to me.
So now what?
In countries such as Finland, that rank amongst the highest for their education system, teachers are amongst the most highly respected profession in the country, with higher barriers to entry (i.e., all teachers must hold a Masters degree), an emphasis on professional development and lifelong learning, and competitive pay. Education and teaching is highly valued as one of the (if not the) most important aspects of these societies. That being said, a few things that people can do to show their support for teachers are:
- Say ‘thank-you’ to your child’s teacher or a teacher that you know and show your appreciation for all that they do
- Speak to your elected official emphasizing the importance of teachers and education (particularly early years and elementary education) as economic and social priorities.
- Pass on your awareness of the value of teachers, to others.
Take a moment to think back to your past teachers…I’m sure many of us have our own special memories of our school days and the difference a teacher made in our life.