Anyone can teach. We teach each other every day. For example, we give instructions to each other for such things as cooking, putting together furniture, and completing household other tasks. However, teaching someone is different than the process of educating someone. Consider the difference between informal learning and formal learning. An example of informal learning would be following a recipe to learn how to cook. In contrast, formal learning occurs within a classroom and usually is accompanied by evaluation and assessment. It may seem that teaching and education are the same thing; however, the difference has to do with the place or context for learning.
This is the same distinction between teaching informally (giving instructions) and teaching students in a formal classroom environment. A person enters education as a profession – either full-time in traditional academic institutions or as an adjunct (or part-time) instructor. The reasons vary for why someone would choose to be in the classroom. A traditional full-time professor may likely be responsible for conducting research, teaching, and publishing scholarly work. An adjunct instructor may teach in a community college, traditional college, or an online school. When someone teaches students in higher education, he or she may be called a facilitator, instructor, or professor. This is important as there isn’t a job with the word educator in the title.
The questions I would like to answer include: What then does it mean to be an educator? Does it signify something different than the assigned job title? Through my work in higher education, I have learned that becoming an educator is not an automatic process. Everyone who is teaching adult students is not functioning as an engaging and highly effective educator. However, it is possible to learn how to educate rather than teach, which requires committing to the profession.
What Does It Mean to Teach?
Consider teaching as part of the system of traditional, primary education. Those classes are teacher-led, and children as students are taught what and how to learn. The teacher is considered to be the expert and directs the learning process. A teacher is highly trained and works to engage the minds of his or her students. This style of teacher-led instruction continues into higher education, specifically traditional college classrooms. The teacher still stands at the front and center of the class delivering information, and students are used to this format because of their experience in primary education. The instructor disseminates knowledge through a lecture, and students study to pass the required examinations or complete other required learning activities.
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Within higher education, teachers may be called instructors, and they are hired as subject matter experts with advanced content knowledge. The job requirements usually include holding a specific number of degree hours in the subject being taught. Teachers may also be called professors in traditional college classes, and those positions require a terminal degree with additional research requirements. For all of these roles, teaching is meant to signify someone guiding the learning process by directing, telling, and instructing students. The instructor or professor is in charge, and the students must comply and follow as directed. Here is something to consider: If that is the essence of teaching, is there a difference between educating students? Is the role of a teacher the same as that of an educator?
What Does It Mean to be an Educator?
Consider some basic definitions to begin with as a means of understanding the role of an educator. The word “education” refers to giving instruction; “educator” refers to the person who provides instruction and is skilled in teaching, and teaching is aligned with providing explanations. I have expanded upon these definitions so that the word “educator” includes someone skilled with instruction, possesses highly developed academic skills, and holds both subject matter knowledge and knowledge of adult education principles.
Skilled with Instruction: An educator should be skilled in the art of classroom instruction, knowing what instructional strategies are effective and the areas of facilitation that need further development. An experienced educator develops methods to bring course materials to life by adding relevant context and prompting students to learn through class discussions and other learning activities. Instruction also includes all of the interactions held with students, including all forms of communication, as every interaction provides a teaching opportunity.
Highly Developed Academic Skills: An educator must also have strong academic skills, and at the top of that list are writing skills. This requires strong attention to detail on the part of the educator and in all forms of messages communicated, including anything written, presented, and sent via email. The ability to demonstrate strong academic skills is essential for teaching online classes as words represent the instructor.
According to the style prescribed by the school, the use of proper formatting guidelines is also included in the list of critical academic skills. For example, many schools have implemented APA formatting guidelines to format papers and work with sources. An educator cannot adequately guide students and provide meaningful feedback if the writing style has not been mastered.
Strong Knowledge Base: An educator needs to develop a knowledge base that contains subject matter expertise related to the course or courses they are teaching, along with knowledge of adult education principles. I know of many educators who have the required credit hours on their degree transcripts, yet they may not have extensive experience in the field they teach. This will still allow these educators to teach the course, provided that they take time to read the course textbook and find methods of applying it to current practices within the field.
Many schools hire adjuncts with extensive work experience as the primary criteria, rather than knowledge of adult learning principles. Those instructors I have worked with who have a strong adult education knowledge base generally acquired it through ongoing professional development. That was my goal when I decided on a major for my doctoral degree, to understand how adults learn to transform from an instructor to an educator.
Becoming an Engaging and Highly Effective Educator
I do not believe that many instructors intentionally consider the need to transform working as an instructor to functioning as an educator. When someone is hired to teach a class, someone other than a traditional college professor, they often learn what works well in the classroom through practice and time. There will likely be classroom audits and recommendations made for ongoing professional development. Gradually the typical instructor will become an educator as they seek out resources to help improve their teaching practices. However, I have worked with many adjunct online instructors who rely on their subject matter expertise alone and do not believe there is a reason to grow as an educator. For anyone who would like to make the transformation and become an engaging and highly effective educator, some steps can be taken and practices that can be implemented.
Step One: Continue to Develop Your Instructional Practice
While any educator can learn through time on the job, it is possible to become intentional about this growth. There are numerous online resources, publications, workshops, webinars, and professional groups that would allow you to learn new methods, strategies, and practices. Social media websites such as LinkedIn and Twitter allow for the exchange of ideas and resources within a global community of educators.
You can also utilize self-reflection as a means of gauging your effectiveness. I have found that the best time to review my instructional practice occurs immediately after a class concludes. That is when I can assess the strategies I have used and determine if those methods were effective. Even reviewing the end-of-course student surveys may provide insight into the perspective of my students.
Step Two: Continue to Develop Your Academic Skills
From my work with online faculty development, I know that this is an area of development that many educators could use. However, it is often viewed as a low priority – until it is noted in classroom audits. If an educator has weak academic writing skills, it will interfere with their ability to provide comprehensive feedback for students. For online instructors, that has an even greater impact when posted messages contain spelling, grammar, and formatting errors. The development of academic skills can be done through the use of online resources or workshops. Many online schools I have worked for offer faculty workshops, and this is a valuable self-development resource.
Step Three: Continue to Develop Your Subject Matter Expertise
Every educator has subject matter expertise that they can draw upon. However, the challenge is keeping that knowledge current as you continue to teach for several years. The best advice I can offer is to find resources that allow you to read and learn about current thinking, research, and best practices in your chosen field. This is essential to your instructional practice as students can ascertain whether you appear to be current in your knowledge or outdated and seemingly out of touch. Even the use of required textbooks does not ensure that you utilize the most current information as knowledge evolves quickly in many fields.
Step Four: Continue to Develop Your Knowledge of Adult Learning
The last step or strategy that I can recommend is to gain knowledge about adult learning theories, principles, and practices. If you are not familiar with the basics, you can research concepts and include critical thinking, andragogy, self-directed learning, transformational learning, learning styles, motivation, and cognition. My suggestion is to find and read online sources related to higher education and then find a subject that interests you to research further. I have found that the more I read about topics I enjoy, the more I am cultivating my interest in ongoing professional development. What you will likely find is that what you learn will positively influence your work as an educator and enhance all areas of your instructional practice.
Working as an educator or someone who is highly engaged in helping students learn starts with a commitment to make this a career rather than a job. I have developed a vision related to how I want to be involved in each class I teach, and I recommend the same strategy for you. You may find it useful to develop teaching goals for your career and link your classroom performance to those goals. For example, do you want to complete the required facilitation tasks, or would you rather put in the additional time necessary to create nurturing class conditions?
After developing a vision and teaching goals, you can create a professional development plan to prompt your learning and growth in all areas I have addressed above. While this strategy may require an investment of time, it is helpful to remember that we always make time for whatever we believe is most important. Being an educator is not sustaining a focus on job functions; rather, it is cultivating a love of what you do and learning how to excel for the benefit of your students. Becoming an engaging and highly effective educator occurs when you decide that teaching students is only part of the learning process. You work to transform who you are and how you function while working and interacting with your students.
Dr. Bruce A. Johnson has expertise in higher education administration, adult education, distance learning, online teaching, faculty development, curriculum development, instructional design, organizational learning and development, career coaching, and resume writing.