Attributes of 21st century teachers

The IT (information technology) and internet communications revolutions of the past two decades have transformed teaching-learning norms and systems around the world — particularly in post-industrial societies of the first world — beyond recognition. With the introduction of ICT (instructional communication technologies) into classrooms of progressive schools worldwide, it is now possible to supplement and enrich chalk-n-talk and textbook teaching with live multi-media presentations on smart boards, to facilitate deeper understanding of curricular concepts and subjects. Moreover, the internet revolution has created a vast universal digital library accessible to all, enabling students to reach the worlds best teachers with the click of a mouse.

Despite the technology revolution beginning to dramatically impact learning outcomes worldwide, too many schools still continue to adhere to teaching-learning systems of the 1950s, which place a high premium on memorisation (of dates, places and facts that are quickly forgotten after formal examinations). The 21st century has heralded an era in which vast amounts of information must be assimilated and integrated by students — information they need to retain well after their exams. The human brain is a seeker of connections, and teachers focus must be on producing students well prepared to confront and manage a rapidly changing universe. Educational institutions also have a responsibility to produce not just academically qualified, but well-rounded and responsible global citizens.

The attainment of these objectives requires teachers to create enriched and meaningful classroom environments, and to revisit and reappraise their role in contemporary K-12 education. How has the role of teachers changed, and what are the emerging characteristics of a good teacher today? Would great teachers of the past be great teachers today?

This question was the subject matter of a survey in suburban Atlanta (USA) for a class project. A student interviewed 100 K-12 teachers in public and private schools. Her report throws light on the extent to which the role of a teacher in contemporary education has changed, not only in the US, but around the world.

Expectedly, the survey indicated that great teachers past and present need to exhibit integrity, ability to inspire students and display real passion for teaching. Almost every teacher interviewed remembered at least one teacher, who had impacted her significantly. Certainly, several teachers in my own experience influenced my career path and professional journey.

My experience of 25 years as a clinical psychologist and student, parent and teacher counselor in America and India, suggests that teachers of the 21st century require radical new attributes and mindsets. Among them:

• In today’s educational landscape, teachers need to think globally. Whether you teach in an international or local school, its necessary to acknowledge that the world has shrunk. As teachers we need to develop a new generation of students who think and act globally. Therefore our lessons must include examples and narratives from the world over, in addition to our daily experiences and familiar realities.

• 21st century teachers need to cultivate sensitivity to diversity and cross-cultural differences. Our students may work locally, but they connect with students around the world, even if unconsciously. Indeed many of our students are likely to travel to faraway places and work in diverse cultural environments. The ability to manage cultural differences will give them a competitive edge in future workplaces.

• Unlike great teachers of the past, contemporary teachers need to be technologically savvy. Regardless of subject areas, school settings and resource pools, all teachers need to continually upgrade their technical skills and enhance their comfort levels with changing technology.

• Its critical for today’s teachers to build alliances and partnerships beyond classrooms. To make learning effective and applicable in the real world, teachers need to enlist subject experts to teach the curriculum. For instance, while listening to a scientist lecture in a video clip may help, thats no substitute to inviting a scientist into the classroom. Creating opportunities for students to meet real-life scientists and subject experts who can be questioned and engaged directly, will make a lasting impact on students.

• Another evolution in the role of teachers is to acknowledge the importance of shared learning in classrooms. The new reality is that teachers can learn as much from students and vice versa. Although this admission challenges traditional notions of classroom propriety and makes learning a didactic and continuous process, it invests new meaning in the teaching-learning interaction and helps teachers too, to acknowledge that learning never stops, thus making the educational experience richer and more rewarding.

(Laxmi Parmeswar is the chief executive of Positive Outcomes, USA — an education, mental health & leadership consultancy firm)

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