We teachers are supposed to know all the answers!

It seems to me that every year brings more and more demands on teachers. Without getting any significant pay increase we are supposed to master many new skills and impart them to our students: creativity and imagination, digital literacies, critical thinking, collaboration, citizenship and leadership. The big question is, who is to teach us? How do we fit in all the new requirements into the national curriculum and our traditional lesson plans? Where can we find a set of instructions which clearly enumerates all the necessary steps we need to make in order to take part in an international project? If we have a multicultural multilingual class with vulnerable new learners who never went to school before, how do we even begin to introduce the whole concept of citizenship, and which citizenship for that matter? Which leadership traits do we choose to discuss with youngsters who never had to lead anything or anybody before?

In the Western world, we are used to a certain image of a teacher. It is a figure of authority, respected by the parents and children (if we are lucky). Today probably most teachers are women, yet this is not an obstacle to their acceptance as instructors and responsible adults. We deal mostly with children who are used to attending co-educational schools since an early age. Today we are faced with many new challenges but not with much help. So we are perceived as miracle workers who can carry all the additional burdens and solve most problems. We may come into the classroom in September expecting to see the familiar faces, the children we have been teaching since primary school, and meet a group of newcomers who have no idea of the whole educational process, yet whom we are supposed to somehow integrate into our class.

Here comes a lyrical digression which may serve as a good illustration to the difficulties we face, not only with the newcomers but with our own familiar adolescents. One plot line in the movie “Abduction” with Taylor Lautner, a popular young actor among students, produced a great impression on me. The main character, 17, is old enough to kill, but not old enough to live on his own. As a minor he has to go to a foster home or stay with a responsible adult when he loses his parents... Does he see himself as an adult or as a child who still needs adult supervision?

Collaboration, international projects, digital literacies, even critical thinking are easy to teach. I can hear my colleagues’ laughter, but that is because I have not yet come to the most difficult aspects of our December topic: citizenship and leadership. Life itself produced wonderful examples to illustrate this point. It so happens that I am spending a month in the lovely city of Lyon, France. On my very first day I stopped by at a food store, asked a young man behind the counter if he spoke English, and he grinned: “School English OK?” His English was much better than my French! It shows me a fascinating shift, a new modern trend. A few years ago, if I tried to speak English in France, almost nobody would reply or react. Now I discovered that many people, especially among the younger generation, speak English fluently. They are also very friendly towards tourists, which I think is directly connected to the ability to communicate. Two young boys, aged 10-12, were selling cookies near a church for their school event. They explained to me in very good English what they were doing and why.

I have met researchers from a local university who came from various European countries; needless to say their working language is English. When it comes to collaboration and digital literacies there are no problems and no prejudices. I have also seen the following little episode on Rue de La Republique, one of the central streets in town. A teacher with a group of teenage students was talking about citizenship and their future responsibilities. A girl raised her hand and asked, pointing discreetly at a group of homeless people who created a sort of bivouac right by the fashionable expensive store “Printemps”: “Are they citizens?” The teacher floundered. At a glance, those miserable humans were not refugees. Sadly we all know what happens: the stream of people purposefully rushing by ignores them. It is not safe to meet their eyes, to stop. It is a problem common for any big city in any country of the world. What answer should we give our children? Is there a way to solve this problem? It is definitely not a task for any single individual but rather for every government.

We teachers are in the front line, we are expected to know all the answers. In a recent episode of the TV show “Madam Secretary” the parents discuss their children. One can buy alcohol (over the age of 21), two can vote (over 18), three can drive (over 16). They are all citizens, though they are not all fully of age yet. Is the set of democratic values and responsibilities the same for everybody? Does everyone become a responsible citizen fully cognizant of their rights and obligations once they turn 21? These are all good questions for round tables, discussions and collaborative projects. They definitely develop critical thinking.

Nina MK, Ph.D.

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