What It Takes To Be A Good 21st Century Teacher

How do today's teachers keep up with new technology, teaching methods and also, mentor students right? We ask renowned educational consultant and bestselling parenting author, Maya Thiagarajan.

By Jasmine Kaur  • 14 min read

What It Takes To Be A Good 21st Century Teacher
"A good teacher can inspire hope, ignite the imagination and instil a love of learning." — Brad Henry, American Politician

Indeed, a teacher who has the ability to transform both the subject and the student, is not just a good teacher, but a great one. What's more, a teacher with the ability to do so, can change a student's life forever. 

As Maya Thiagarajan, an author and education consultant from Chennai, observes: "Today, a teacher must do more than teach, he too must be willing to evolve and grow. He cannot just lecture; he needs to also listen and learn from his students."

As is obvious, today, there has been a radical change in teaching methods and thinking. It used to be that a good teacher was considered one who:

  1. Is understanding and patient, because students need time to learn.
  2. Knows how to discipline students and bring out the best in them.
  3. Is kind, because learning can, at times, be a tough process and students can falter before they find their ground.

But, with technology stepping into the classroom and redefining education, things have changed. A 21st century teacher must know how to use technology to make lessons more interactive and interesting. For her, technology is another teaching tool. 

So, what does it take to be a 21st century teacher? According to Maya, today's teacher is one who is keen to acquire knowledge and encourages discussion as well as debate, in class. "She must do this in order to nurture independent thinking in her students," Maya observes. 

In the modern classroom

There are significant ways in which a 21st century teacher interacts with his students. Here are a few insights into the mindset of a modern teacher:

Openness to learning: Today's teacher has to be open to acquiring new skill sets, especially when it comes to using technology in teaching. Sometimes, this means the teacher has to be honest about what he knows or does not know, when fielding questions from students. 

One day, the teacher was taking a Science class. The topic was vaccines and how several diseases have been eradicated as a result of advancements in this field. While the teacher was delving into the history of vaccinations, 10-year-old Ravi got up and asked: "Sir, have scientists invented any alternative to the needle for injecting medicines?" Ravi's teacher had to admit that he did not know the answer. However, he added, "Why don't we look up the answer at computer time? Then, we can have a discussion on this topic. I am sure we will all learn something interesting".

Until a few years ago, research was a slow painstaking process. News of exciting findings would take ages to travel around the globe. Now, new discoveries are made almost every day and thanks to the Internet, we get to know about these, almost instantly. Hence, a teacher has to learn continuously and stay abreast of topics, especially in his area or subject of interest. 

According to Maya, “We exist in a time of change, with new information and ideas coming through every day. So, it’s important for teachers to keep growing and learning. When a teacher is excited about learning, it spills into the classroom."

Proficient in using technology: It is not enough for today's teacher to be passionate about learning, she must also know how to use technology as an effective teaching tool. This means, she has to be hands-on with technology too. 

To make learning more interactive, Priti's school installed an overhead projector (OHP) in her classroom. The following day, their Arts teacher announced she would take a class on why knowledge of Art and Craft is important for students. "I have a presentation on how Art and Craft can help you make changes in daily life," she told her intrigued students. But, when she walked into the classroom, she realised that though she had brought her laptop, she did not know how to connect it to the OHP. By the time the teacher figured out how to do so, it was time for the next class. Priti and her friends were very disappointed.  

Being technologically proficient helps teachers deal with the smart young children of today, who are always keen to learn about technology and instinctively know how to use it. For a teacher, being adept in using technology allows for innovation in teaching. For example, the teacher could ask students to take short quizzes on their phones or laptops that can be graded automatically. It can be a quick way of checking whether the students have been paying attention in class. So, while educators will still need to be involved in evaluation, technology can help decrease a teacher’s workload.

Global collaboration opportunities: Today's teacher is not alone. He can, at the touch or click of a button, collaborate with teachers in any part of the world, share ideas and brainstorm. Collaboration is the way of the future, stresses Maya. "It is important to collaborate at the local and global levels. In a school, there will be many teachers interacting with a child. They need to communicate with each other as well as with the child's parents, so that everyone is on the same page" she says.

When Ritika's class teacher asked her why she was not paying attention to the lesson, the child did not reply but looked visibly distressed. "Tell me what's wrong, Ritika', the teacher persisted.

The little girl said sadly: "Sir, I cannot read or spell the words properly; so, I am not able to focus on the screen."

Turns out, Ritika was dyslexic, meaning, she could not recognise or decode even simple words. Thanks to her observant teacher, Ritika's parents were able to get her treated for the learning disability. 

Maya notes that because of the Internet, the latest online tools and also, video conferencing, today there is scope for collaboration at the global level. "Teachers can connect, share ideas, best practices and resources, including lesson plans. They don't always have to start from scratch. Moreover, collaboration can create a space or a community where teachers can explore new ideas and opportunities," she adds. 

Encourage diversity and espouse inclusivity: Today's classrooms are diverse and filled with differing opinions and views. A good teacher has to nurture independent thinking and also encourage her students to respectfully agree to disagree. 

The lesson was on Gandhiji and his early days. The class teacher described how the Mahatma had faced discrimination and worse, in South Africa. But he had taken it all in his stride and continued to treat every one with respect. After the class was over, Priya went up to her teacher and said: "My mom says that I shouldn't play with the children in my neighbourhood as they are from a lower caste. Tell me, Ma'am, is that also discrimination?" 

The class teacher decided she would use Priya's question as an opportunity to get the class thinking. She opened up a lively debate on discrimination, casteism and racism. In fact, this even led to a discussion on affirmative action in the United States.   

Today, teachers have access to a wealth of knowledge and information. Hence, they should take advantage of this fact and expose their students to various learning ideas, methodologies and cultures from different parts of the world. This can help students become more empathetic, observes Maya. "It’s absolutely crucial for teachers to be encourage diversity and inclusiveness in thought and action. For, teachers don't just teach subects like Math, Science or English, they are also educating their students on ‘How to treat others’, or ‘What it means to be a part of a community’. Now, more than ever, teachers need to be inclusive in their outlook when it comes to things like gender, class, caste and religion. Teachers also need to model how to interact positively and empathetically with others.”

Customised learning: The modern classroom is a place where teaching is tailored to the student. Also, teachers are willing to provide access to various resources for learning, such as articles, research papers and videos. 

When Parul's class was asked to writer a paper on community action, she asked for permission to use the class computer. She then looked up examples of how communities had come together to form resident welfare associations and set up solar power and rain water harvesting in local parks. Unsurprisingly, she got full marks in her paper! 

Today's teacher knows he cannot solely depend on textbooks. For instance, what better way to illustrate civic action than to show a video of a lake clean-up in progress! "Teachers must realise that they can teach using different mediums. This allows for more flexibility and customisation. Also, when the teacher uses everyday examples, students relate better, and get more engaged with the lesson. Furthermore, the teacher can even customise lessons for students with different needs," notes Maya.

Teach with understanding: The 21st century teacher has to understand the strengths and weaknesses of her students, says Maya. "There’s a lot of research on how learning happens only when children feel safe, supported, secure and not stressed. So, if a teacher is not able to create a culture in the classroom where the children feel comfortable, there isn’t going to be a significant takeaway from the class."

Rahul was very silent in class. His teacher noticed that the boy seemed terribly upset too. 

"Is everything okay, Rahul. Are you feeling unwell," she asked at break time. 

The boy responded that he was okay. "But something is wrong, isn't it?" she said gently. 

The child nodded yes and with tears streaming down his face, told his teacher that his mother was in hospital. His father had managed to drop him off to school on time but had gone back to hospital. 

"I am very scared, Miss. I want my mother back," the little boy cried his heart out as his teacher held him comfortingly. 

According to Maya, if a child is going through a stressful situation at home, he may bring that stress into the classroom. "In such a situation, the teachers should be able to help the child. If a teacher knows that a child has a sick parent and is highly stressed, she should show sensitivity and accommodate the student. A teacher needs to be observant and sensitive to what a child is going through and help him navigate the challenges in life. Therefore, it’s important for teachers to know how to create a calm and comfortable atmosphere in the classroom," she says. 

Today, with both parents working in most families, the role of the teacher has become much more important in a child’s life. In fact, a teacher is no longer just concerned with teaching lessons, but also has to inculcate life skills in the students. Hence, it is vital that teachers adapt well to the changing times.

About the author:

Written by Jasmine Kaur on 13 October 2018.

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