Hey Teacher, What Shall We Call You?

Voices from the Field   09 July 2019
By Jim Rickabaugh, Institute for Personalized Learning


Despite growing vacancies and career opportunities in education, fewer young people than ever before see education as a viable career choice.

Jim Rickabaugh
Senior Advisor

When I was growing up, I saw education as a noble and desirable profession. I was among the group of young people who aspired to become educators as a means to build a good life, while also making a difference in the lives of others. Teachers were often among the best educated in their communities, and while the pay was never high, it was enough to build and live a fruitful life.

Fast forward to today, and we see a profession under siege. Many educators who began their careers in the 1980’s are retiring. Yet, despite growing vacancies and career opportunities in education, fewer young people than ever before see education as a viable career choice. Of those who make the choice to become educators, a disappointingly high number leave within the first five years of service. 

Meanwhile, there is a growing gap between what the traditional education system is designed for and the needs of our economy and society. Manpower, Inc., a global talent management organization, predicts that more than half the jobs today’s students will have do not yet exist, nor have the technical skills to perform these jobs been defined. The World Economic Forum predicts that 50 percent of the paid tasks done by humans will be performed by technology within eight years, accelerating the need for re-skilling, up-skilling, and other forms of learning. Many futurists predict more change in the next 20 years than in the previous 300. 

Given this context, it is no longer enough to simply present academic content to learners and ask them to pass a test demonstrating their knowledge. Unless they develop the motivation and skills to learn, they are likely to find themselves ill-equipped to survive, much less thrive, in an ever-changing world. Yet, nurturing the skills and desire to learn has not traditionally been a focus of our education system.

Fortunately, challenging times almost always present options and opportunities, if we remain open and aware. The vision for the future of teaching is driven by a new understanding of the skills and dispositions we must nurture in today’s learners, if we hope to prepare them for an amazing but rapidly changing and unpredictable future. Here are a few elements of this new vision that suggest the nature and scope of the profession’s transformation.

Learning over teaching

The traditional practice is to plan lessons for the whole class, which ignores the needs of students who already know what is to be taught and those who are not yet ready to learn it. In the new vision, classroom practices focus more on learning and less on instruction. Educators are planning instruction to respond to learning readiness. Instruction is increasingly seen as a powerful, flexible resource to support individual learning, rather than an inflexible, whole-class activity that inevitably leaves some students behind. Learners play a role in setting their own goals, which increases ownership and persistence.

Time as a flexible resource

Semesters, pacing guides, assessment schedules, and other time-bound practices assume there is a universal and correct allocation of time for learning certain skills and concepts. Yet, we know the time it takes for learning to occur varies with each learner. In a transformed system, educators allow time to flex in response to the optimal pace of learning for each individual learner. Learning, not time, becomes the constant.

Building learning independence

In the traditional design of schools, teachers determine the learning goals and establish the learning path for students. However, learning will be a constant necessity in the future of today’s youth. They will need independent learning skills and the ability to identify and seek out what needs to be learned. Visionary educators are nurturing the strategies, habits, and desire to become learners for life. Implementing a practice of co-designing a customized learning path and setting individual goals with each student will help young people build important skills that will serve them well in the future.

Ownership of the learning process

Compliance with adult direction is a key feature of the traditional education design. Engaging learners in setting goals for their learning, creating paths to build competencies, and self-assessing their progress are becoming essential experiences. These practices will enable students to see greater purpose and relevance in their learning and develop crucial lifelong skills.

Nurturing curiosity and wonder

Educators must nurture engagement with and exploration of the world in which today’s learners live. Where it exists, it must be nurtured and grown. Where it is missing it must be ignited. It can be the lever that moves learning from passivity and compliance to engagement and commitment. Curiosity is much like radar in that it constantly probes and assesses what is happening in the environment that may be relevant or signal a need for further learning.

These shifts, and others that are critical to preparing today’s learners, suggest a different relationship between learner and educator. Learners must become active participants in and co-planners of their learning if they are to be ready to navigate the unpredictability of their work and personal lives. In response, educators must embrace new roles and develop innovative, learning-centered approaches in their professional practices.

Taking one step at a time

Over the past year, I have had numerous conversations with educators who are well into this process or have fully made the professional transformation to a learner-centered approach. They often recount their former frustration and growing dissatisfaction with a conventional approach. They felt growing pressure to perform but an absence of true engagement and investment from learners. The shift frequently began as a result of conversations with colleagues, interactions on social media, or a conference or professional development session that opened a door to a new way of approaching the learning process.

Interestingly, most of these educators did not wait until the emergence of a full school district initiative, or even a school-wide effort. Their commitment to students and learning led them to take a few initial steps, followed by reflection and more attempts. For some of these educators, informal school and district level support was already present. For others, support soon followed their initial efforts. For still others, this is work they do informally with a small group of colleagues without formal organizational support. However, all of them made the commitment to change their focus and practice in pursuit of better learning experiences and outcomes for their learners, and more professional impact and satisfaction for themselves.


These educators often express frustration with the connotations that accompany the title of “teacher” when they now see their role as so much more.

Jim Rickabaugh
Senior Advisor

When the topic of professional practice and the traditional role of the teacher surfaces, a common theme has emerged. These educators often note the term “teacher,” in its historical context, no longer fully captures their role. The role of teacher as imparter of knowledge has diminished in their practice and has been replaced by new roles such as purpose clarifier, learning readiness responder, diagnostician, co-learner, coach, curator, and talent developer.

These educators often express frustration with the connotations that accompany the title of “teacher” when they now see their role as so much more. To be clear, the general skill set these educators possess and the practices they employ each day heavily overlap with those they used before. The dramatic difference is their application. Strategies that were occasionally used before, such as conferring with students, are now utilized daily. Other skills that they employed in isolation, such as goal setting and learning path construction, are now applied with learners as partners.

As an aside, there are implications for professional preparation and ongoing professional development practices in this shift. The fulcrum of change is not in the foundational skills of human interaction. The crucial shift is in a perspective and mindset that places learners and learning at the center of planning and practice. The driving question needs to be, “What do my students need?” Not, “What am I planning to teach?”

The focus of preparation and ongoing professional development must center on how to understand what students are ready to learn and how to stimulate and support their learning. The difference is not in the skillsets. Rather, it is in the why, what, and how of their application. This is not a small change.

Educators who have embraced these new roles often speculate about a better descriptor that more fully captures what they do. Interestingly, there appears to be no readily available alternative title. A search of historical terms surfaces “artificator,” which was used in the 13th and 14th centuries to describe someone who practices their profession with cleverness and creativity. However, this term hardly rolls off the tongue.

While “personalized learning practitioner” is more practical, there are already many different perceptions of what this means, both among the public and within the education profession. Regardless, it is time to identify and agree on a professional descriptor for this new type of educator. If we ignore the opportunity, we risk continuing misconceptions, confusion, and constant pressure to conform to the traditional role and expectations of “teacher.” We know from history and experience that without new language that carries new meaning, we are likely to see emerging transformation succumb to the status quo and be reabsorbed into traditional thinking and practice.

The need to transform learning experiences and prepare today’s learners for a different and rapidly changing world presents the teaching profession with the chance to transform in important ways. This opens the opportunity to once again make education a profession to which young people aspire, practitioners take pride in, and the public respects and admires. We have before us the potential to shift the way in which teaching is viewed and how the nurturing of learning happens. We hold the potential to reinvent our profession.

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