The Teaching Cogs
In recent years, education has become a hot topic. Investors see it as the next bubble to burst. Students criticize their own educational achievements. People all over promote better, faster and/or cheaper ways to educate oneself. Traditional, institutionalized education is going through a crisis, and today’s immediate communication tools are making us all aware. I’d like to continue with this trend and target a specific component of this flawed system: the teacher.
I believe that education, once a student-teacher relationship has been established, always comes down to the teacher. You can have the best system, content and students, but a bad teacher would hamper the results. On the contrary, a great teacher can overcome many obstacles and, at least, install curiosity in the student (I believe this is the best accomplishment education can hope for in general terms, rarely achieved in our institutions).
I must clarify: when I say teacher, I don’t only mean someone giving a lecture in a classroom. Teaching goes far beyond that broken context. For example, the internet has made a teacher out of many of us. The amount of individuals with different interests and skills trying to show the rest of the world what matters and the best way to learn it has sky-rocketed in recent years. This is a responsibility we must assume. However, we must do this with caution. Bad teaching is worse than no teaching.
For example, I’ve been working with Josh Kaufman for a while now. I reached out to him, offered to help him with his work, and asked to learn from him in exchange. We now have a beautiful master-apprentice relationship. The reason I went to Josh after looking at his work, was because I saw the marks of a great teacher. I saw knowledge, energy, wisdom and kindness. Yet, what I believe makes the difference between good and great (and what Josh has plenty) is awareness. Awareness of the never-ending change that surrounds us. People that are exceptional at their jobs excel at being aware of their fluctuating context, and adapting to it (which does not necessarily mean accepting it). This lack of awareness in the teaching community scares me, and it’s even worse when combined with passion.
Silent or Passionate
If present education is a broken system, then bad teachers are the cogs that keep it running, and they fall in two categories: silent cogs, and passionate cogs.
I can tolerate the silent cogs. They are doing their job, and they don’t care about what you do as long as you don’t get in their way. You can listen to them or to your iPod. Maybe they used to believe in a bigger educational purpose, but not anymore. They see it as a job instead of a mission. They are just there for the paycheck.
There’s two reasons I’m fine with this kind of teacher. One, it’s easier to overcome. Just open your laptop and read that ebook that you believe is more interesting than the class. Being productive is up to you. Second, it makes it clearer to the student that the system is broken, and we need more people rising from within, more students having valid reasons to criticize it. Silent cogs give us that.
Passionate cogs are more dangerous. Their blind belief in the what they are told to do, and their reluctance to inform themselves or embrace change, makes them the hardest cog to overcome for the unarmed student.
These teachers promote and impose the old ways, even when they recognize their inefficiency (and believe me, I’ve heard many recognize this). Problem is, they refuse to see what else is out there. Maybe it’s because of very well camouflaged insecurity or laziness, maybe it’s choosing to stay in their comfortable illusion of good deeds. Whatever the case may be, these teachers are doing a big harm to countless students by ignoring the fire outside of the classroom bubble. There’s a harsh competition out there, and they are actively making it worse for their pupils.
Teaching and passion are two things that should be held to higher standards. This assumption that everything falling in those two categories are always a positive thing is what I’m calling out here. I fear that our society worships passion to an extreme, to the point where we don’t realize when it’s being harmful, when a bad or old message is being forced down our throats. And where could it be more harmful than in teaching? Like a virus, passionate but misguided teachings spread, and it’s rarely observed, rarely criticized.
Because of its purpose and consequences, teaching is a mission first and a profession second. The latter can’t compromise the former.
Let’s all be doctors
Josh told me that if I was going to criticize something, I should also offer a solution. Fair enough: I propose we emulate the medical community. They are a great example of how expertise should be approached, especially education.
To practice medicine, you need to do two things. First, become an expert, which means you have to learn the material. But second, and more importantly, you need to remain an expert. You need to update yourself on new discoveries, tools and systems. If you don’t do this, you can’t practice. The reason medicine works this way is because of the importance of our health, and how critical medical mistakes are. Ignoring change and sticking to the old ways could mean, plain an simple, killing someone.
Why is education different? We should treat it with equal severity. Education is innovation’s diet. We’ll have to be creative to solve our problems in the world, and it depends on what we feed our youth whether we’ll achieve that or not. It depends on teachers realizing that they must update themselves constantly on the best ways for people to learn. They must do this even if it means teaching outside the institutions that provide their safe paycheck, or realizing that they too must go back to learning because times have changed.
I don’t know what the exact shape of this adoption would look like. The reach of bureaucracy in our institutions escapes me. However, I do know that the details could be easily figured out if we wanted to. I also know that this problem becomes drastically simpler in the case of independent teachers, because of their flexibility. This is why becoming an independent teacher should be considered as an option too.
This goes for all teachers, it’s independent of fields of study. If you’re teaching in any way, you need to think about this. Teaching is a craft on its own, one with a critical responsibility that is being avoided by many. Let’s own this responsibility, let’s be aware of the need for change, let’s stop ignoring the educational fire.
Let’s do it before it’s too late and we have to ask our doctor friends not only for their methods but their services as well.
PS: I’m a college dropout, but it would be ignorant and unrealistic of me to suggest that path as the ideal one. First of all, every situation is different and the best way to achieve one’s goal may vary from one person to another. Second, the schooling experience is not composed only by cogs. This post is an attempt to point to the cracks, not to destroy the building.
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