Can teachers really do it all?

By:

May 9, 2017

Many teachers feel a need to go beyond their regular responsibilities to support and nurture their students. I’ve written previously about the heroic lengths we often expect teachers to bridge. Recently, I was impressed by how Dominicca Washington, a teacher in South Chicago, described the lengths she and other teachers undertake to make a difference for their students: “We become family counselors and trusted advisors all while still being administrative assistants, custodians, physicians, lawyers and, the one thing that we signed up to be, teachers.”

A bigger-picture reality explains why teachers often find themselves bridging these needs of their students. Traditional classrooms were never designed to prepare all students for academic success nor to meet students’ social, emotional, and non-academic needs. Instead, schools were designed to train students for work in an industrial economy of the past. The basic tenants of this design were to group students by age; provide them with standardized, one-size-fits-all instruction; rate them based on how well they responded to the standardized approach; and then sort them into different academic and career tracks. Today, when teachers try to differentiate instruction or do things outside of their teaching duties to support students, they do so contrary to the intended purpose and design of the traditional model. Back when tracking students for industrial or agricultural jobs was acceptable, teaching was a reasonably manageable job. But being an effective educator today often requires teachers to lay down their lives to bridge the gap between the heightened needs of their students and the deficiencies of an outdated model.

Fortunately, we live in a time when new technologies and blended-learning models allow us to redesign the roles and tasks of teachers so that teachers can be there for their students and still have a balanced life outside the classroom. As I discussed in my latest paper, “Teaching in the Machine Age,” innovations that streamline or automate some teaching tasks can amplify teacher effectiveness. New technologies increasingly allow us to offload some teaching tasks—such as being the sole source of direct instruction, administering and grading all assessments, and creating differentiated lesson plans from scratch—so that teachers can focus more on the needs of their students that go beyond pure academics. In short, combining the power of online learning with the skill and passion of great teachers has the potential to multiply teachers’ abilities to serve their students.

This is not to say that blended learning automatically makes teaching easier. Many teachers who have made the shift report that blended learning initially makes their work more challenging as they figure out how to operate in a radically different instructional model. But as those teachers begin to see the fruits of their labor, many express that the extra effort was worth it and that they would never switch back. With blended learning, they find they are better able to both identify and address their students’ individual learning needs and get to know their students on a more personal level.

Teaching will never be easy. Humans are complicated beings, and working with young humans to help them achieve will always require hard work, dedication, and expertise. But in the years ahead, technology will increasingly help teachers streamline or even automate some of their work so that they can allocate more of their energy to the activities that matter most for their students while also maintaining a healthy work-life balance. As we recognize and celebrate the skills and dedication of incredible teachers—not only during teacher appreciation week but throughout the entire year—let’s also focus on pushing forward innovations that help teachers make a greater difference in the lives of their students.

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Thomas’ research focuses on the changing roles of teachers in blended-learning environments and other innovative educational models. He also examines how teacher education and professional development are shifting to support the evolving needs of teachers and school systems.