A Teacher’s Life in the 21st Century

Designing an Effective Training Program January 23, 2014

I remember when I started studying to become a teacher I thought; “I want to make a difference. I do not want to become one of those teachers that I had when I was young. A boring, burned out, old fashioned teacher that didn’t have a clue on what was going on in young peoples’ lives.“ I believe that is why people become teachers. They want to make a difference. Do something useful. Be useful. Make a change, no matter how small, in someone’s life. 

Many people in Norway are under the impression that people become teachers for four reasons; a well-paid job and June, July and August off. If one becomes a teacher for the money and the vacation, one will soon enough get very disappointed. Let’s face it; the money is not that good, and all those hours you spend on preparing the perfect plan for the next couple of weeks is not paid in money. No, it is paid in motivated kids. Kids who are eager to learn,- to do something. Kids who show you affection and devotion. It is paid in the sparkle in their eyes. Is it worth it? The long hours? The time you search for the perfect material or looking for pictures or texts that are perfect for illustrating that ONE theme, that ONE idea? Is it worth all the time you spent on that unmotivated rebel in your class who skipped school and who couldn’t care less, who finally found something he was interested in and good at? Definitely. That smile, the interest in what you present makes it all worth it. The day the rebel takes initiative and shows interest. THAT makes it worth it. 

Making good lesson plans and interesting course material that pulls the students in takes time. A lot of time. Time that teachers often don’t have. Sadly the time I get to prepare a good and interesting plan for my lessons and projects is decreasing year by year. The time teachers used to spend on planning and preparing are increasingly replaced to document every little detail. Every part of taught curriculum, every mark, every teacher-student follow-up session, every teacher-parent talk. In addition, both the local and central school administration provides an ever-changing stream of ‘focus areas’ complete with its own checklists and documentation requirements. Clearly a certain level of documentation is needed in the modern school, but it should be kept at minimum, and as easy as possible. As it is, too much time is spent on documenting and micro management, and that is time ‘stolen’ from planning. Planning that is increasingly more important to make the material interesting, attractive and, in some cases, relevant to the youth of today. On the positive side, this lack of time forces some teachers to think new and become more creative with the time allotted them. Becoming more efficient and fast-paced. Matching speed with their students.

It is no secret that school has not changed a lot the past 50 years, while the professional world is constantly changing. The biggest task school has is to prepare the students for the real world, but how can we do that when we don’t follow the change in the rest of the world? Sure, we do have computers in school, but is it enough just to teach them how to write a Word document and hand it in on a learning platform? Is it innovative to make online tests to make sure your students have crammed every little detail on the subject you are working on?

I believe in making the students find the relevant information themselves, teach them to be critical, and use the information the way it suites the given task the best. I rarely give them ‘ordinary’ tests, I choose to give them complex tasks that they need to solve alone or in teams. I want them to discuss, rather than telling me the correct answer. I believe that working in teams is an important skill that my students should learn, in addition to know where to find information and what to do with that information. It is no longer important to know things by heart. Everyone has a smartphone with internet-access on it, everyone can find that information. You just need to know what to do with that information. How to use it. Using discussions and teamwork helps me saving time as well. I believe in assessment for learning, nothing new really, but still revolutionary in Norwegian school. I believe in guiding my students during the process of learning, rather than marking a test or text without them having the opportunity to do something about it because we have already moved on to the next subject. I believe in good feedback and feed-forward. To give the students a chance to improve. To learn from their mistakes. It sounds like a lot of work, but it really is timesaving, and my students benefits from it. It prepares them for the real world. 

We need to turn teaching over from the old regime of ‘fact learning’ to ‘fact management’. Today, much information and certain facts don’t necessarily need to be learned, as they are, at any time, readily available from multiple sources at the touch of a button or the swipe of a finger. Instead I teach source criticism as a central skillset. ‘Just because it is written on a wiki doesn’t make it so’. In the hunt for information it is, for example, easy to only ‘find’ information that only correlates with one’s own personal view on the matter. It is also easy to find information that is incomplete or just dead wrong. 

I believe in meeting the students where they are. Use the technology that they use, see the world through their eyes. Most of the kids today have smartphones, a fantastic device we should embrace in school, and I know many already have. In my school most teachers ban telephones in class, I on the other hand, embrace them. They are fantastic. What a great tool for teaching! Write the homework on the calendar. Make instruction videos rather than science reports. Record your presentation or English homework. Use the internet to find information and maps, use apps for grammar exercises. It is a great tool, and the student’s finds it interesting and motivating. It is not hard. Meet the students where they are, see the world through their eyes from time to time. One of the big challenges schools and teachers face today is the competition. The competition for the kids attention. Facebook, Twitter, MMO’s, shopping, football, skiing, fashion, dieting, blogging, friends, boyfriends, girlfriends, iPhones, bff’s, Justin Bieber & Selena Gomez, Reality shows, YouTube. Against all that, it seems, that school is bound to loose. We need to think smarter, be smarter. We need to make sure that the students feel that school is important and useful, that what they learn in school is useful in the real world. We need to educate our students with enough knowledge and experience to face this rapid changing world that we live in. 

As a teacher in comprehensive school in Norway I face many challenges, both in the classroom with my kids, yes I call them my kids, and in the way I am expected to collaborate with my co-workers and leaders even when the time and money is scarce. I am expected to be a great teacher with great plans and interesting presentations. I am expected to correct tests in a second while I am comforting a heartbroken teenager heart and discussing a lesson plan with my co-worker in addition to documenting it all. People ask me; “How do you do it? Working with that age group, all the misbehaving kids. Aren’t they rude? And loud? Where do you get your patience?”  Actually I don’t really have a lot of patience; I don’t like rude kids. But I am structured, professional and clear. I have a practical sense and a lot of humor. People say I am innovative. I don’t see myself as such. I use my practical sense, my inspiration, my artistic talent and my (not always great) sense of humor when I plan and carry out my lessons. Is that being innovative? Maybe. But I feel that I don’t have to ‘reinvent the wheel’ to be an innovative teacher. I do however need to be open minded. Keeping up with the times. Not just in the general sense, but as seen from the perspective of the students.