I tend to refer to myself as an educator rather than a teacher. Although I implicitly know the difference, a few conversations last week prompted me to articulate an explanation for the distinction.
According to Merriam-Webster, to teach means “any manner of imparting information or skill so that others may learn”. It has an Old English root meaning to show or instruct. By this definition, sometimes I teach. Sometimes I explicitly show my students how to do something. Sometimes I also instruct them in what to do when completing a task, which is also known simply as giving instructions.
But more often, I aim to educate. To educate, according to Merriam-Webster, “implies development of the mind” to which Google clarifies, “intellectual, moral, and social instruction”. The etymology of this word comes from the Latin word educere, to lead forth. From here I conclude that educating means raising good people who can live and be well.
I’ve written before about what I think of as people-building. In that post, I focused on the importance of asking young people who they want to be. I wrote about asking students why they have certain goals and I argued that understanding why can lead us to who – the type of person who does those things.
These are important conversations that educators need to have with their students.
In wanting my students to grow into good people, I try to take the time to talk with them about who they are and who they want to be. It’s a joy to ask students about their dreams and aspirations not only in terms of next year or the following year but in terms of ten years down the road (thank you to the friend who suggested this guiding question). I end up learning a lot more about them than I could have otherwise and acknowledging students as people who matter is important.
But there’s a lot of resistance. With the very real pressure of coursework and exams it can be really difficult to talk with my colleagues about the big picture. There’s a lot of resistance to taking time away from learning, as people claim, but there are clear points at which meaningful learning actually happens. What do you remember from high school? I want to ask my colleagues who roll their eyes. What did you learn in your classes?
I learned some content but I also learned how to live. And I remember the teachers who helped me grow as a person.
In high school, I learned that Doc Lo Re loved chemistry because it helped her understand the world. I learned that Miss Rabinowitz read voraciously because she found words beautiful. I learned that Mr. Khort was tough when he knew you could rise to the challenge and that Mr. Menchel kept his promise to be there in a crisis.
I remember who they taught me to be.
It is from my teachers that I learned to seek understanding of the world and my place in it. I learned to ask questions; I learned to look for and find beauty everywhere; I learned a way to hold those I love in palms of my hands; I learned the importance of actions.
I learned from the teachers who saw me as a person and wanted me to live well.
If educere means leading and educate means developing aspects of the mind, we need to spend more time thinking about what we want our students to walk away understanding. Not knowing but understanding. If a student never sets foot in a humanities (or science or literature or math) class again, what do we want them to understand about the world around them?
And then, equally importantly, how are we going to lead them there?
These are questions that teachers (note the word choice, please) don’t ask. Teachers talk a lot about what they want students to know by the end of a lesson, unit, or project, but rarely about what they want students to understand about the world they live in. Teachers rarely talk about the world at all.
If we want to educate, to lead our students forward, we need to be much more deliberate in our intentions. We need to ask why certain things matter to them and we need to ask who they want to be today, tomorrow, and ten years from now. We need to know what they love and why they’re doing what they’re doing. We need to know what matters to them.
Developing the mind is a lifelong process and it happens with or without thoughtful consideration.
So let’s be purposeful. We are, after all, raising young people. And we need to lead them with care so that they grow as good people who can live and be well, and who help make the world a better, more peaceful place.