Recently, one of the groups in a class I teach played a short game as part of a class presentation. Their game involved catching a ball and answering the question, "If you could do anything or be anyone, what would you do or be?" After answering, each player would throw the ball to someone else and sit down. The goal of the game was to hear from everyone concerning their dreams and plans. When the ball came (at last!) to me, I said, I would be an educator. About a day later, I had some thinking time on a long drive, and I began to think about my answer. I wondered, "Am I an educator? What do I know about being an educator? I have been a teacher for almost all my life, in one area or other, but am I really an educator? What is the essence of being an educator?" As I thought about these questions, some ideas came to me that I thought I should share. Although educating others is an activity, a doing. It seems to me that an educator is more about what one is, rather than what one does. Although this is true, I believe an educators are unhappy unless there are three activities going on in an around them.
An educator is a learner, first and foremost. I do not always have to be learning, but I am always happier where and when I am learning than at any other time. I like teaching classes where I have clearly defined areas that I hope to explore for the first time. Once I have taught a class for awhile, there is a danger that past performances of students somehow limits my expectations of how the class will help me learn and what I stand to learn in the course. At this point, I find I must reconstruct the course to allow for my own continued learning: I cannot communicate a passion for discovery, when I have become to familiar with what students are going to find.
Beyond being a learner, an educator is someone who helps others learn. When we do this, we find ourselves learning new things, and this learning sometimes actually comes from those we are trying to help. Thus, learning is not along a single dimension, but along multiple vectors and with multiple layers and facets. Helping others learn requires patience, since the vision of what is to be learned is often more clearly seen by the teacher than the student. This, for me, is the hardest part of education; the letting go of expectations and the anticipation of discovery along new parameters.
Thirdly, an educator is someone who validates learning. Careful nuancing of this concept is essential. When I say an educator validates learning, I don't really mean that the educator makes the learning that has happened valid; the validity of the learning is not dependent upon anyone's opinion, so validation is a bit of a misnomer. At the same time, students must not look to their teachers to provide assessments of validity in their learning. Rather, students must learn to validate their own learning. What I mean when I say educators validate learning is that they help students see that their learning is valid.
Educators are learners who help others in their own learning, while also validating the learning process in their students. It is my great pleasure to be an educator, as well as the greatest single challenge of my daily work. As I contemplate the changes going on in schools, both where I teach and those of my colleagues, I sincerely hope school and schooling does not come to stand in the way of further education.