The changing role of the teacher

With a move to online learning, the education sector has gone through a seismic shift over the past 12 months that will have a lasting impact on how students are taught

Over the past year, the role of the teacher has changed dramatically as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Classroom teaching ground to a halt, remote learning was propelled to the forefront of every school, college and education provider’s approach to learning, and teachers were forced to rethink their delivery methods to adapt to this new digital world.

Addressing the Education Policy Institute, education secretary Gavin Williamson called the response a “major achievement”, saying it would bring about a “revolution in learning”.

“Unprecedented problems require unprecedented solutions,” Williamson said, “and schools, teachers and leaders have all pulled together to bring about one of the biggest shifts the education sector has ever seen.” 

Lord Jim Knight, former schools minister, edtech adviser and life peer, feels teaching has now crossed a Rubicon. “We are not going to go back to the normality of ‘chalk and talk’. There has been a shift in the adoption curve of technology within the teaching profession; it has now gone over the hump,” he says.

How teachers are adapting

Teachers have had to adapt to a new form of delivery at record speed over the past 12 months, which has involved combining small face-to-face sessions with remote classes. 

“Teachers have had to find a way of teaching that is suited to this new era of remote learning, one that involves pacing input compared with independent work,” says Dame Alison Peacock, chief executive of the Chartered College of Teaching. 

Dr Jonathan Doherty, lecturer at the Institute of Childhood and Education, Leeds Trinity University, says: “It is an exciting time to be a teacher. Teaching is no longer confined to the classroom, nor indeed to the normal school day, allowing learning to take place at any time of the day both in and outside the traditional classroom.”

The benefits of this new era of digital pedagogy have resulted in teachers being able to access a wealth of extra resources. Virtual lessons have facilitated new and exciting opportunities for lesson planning, bringing otherwise inaccessible experts into classrooms via Zoom. Digital resources have also provided teachers with real-time access to student data and insights, which are valuable tools for measuring progress and identifying any knowledge gaps, says Dame Peacock. 

However, the move to a more digital-led programme does come with its challenges, says Pat Black, head of primary and early years education at Bath Spa University. “In a classroom, a skilled teacher can easily identify if a pupil is disengaged, but this can be much more challenging during an online lesson,” she says.

While teaching and learning may have benefited from change and improvements online, in terms of access and content, the human aspect of the teaching role is needed more than ever, says Lara Péchard, head at St Margaret’s School in Hertfordshire. “For the child that struggles to motivate themselves or procrastinates, the digital learning environment can hold distractions, poor organisation of online files, roaming the internet or messaging friends,” she adds.

New learning models for teachers and students

Teachers will inevitably move to a more blended learning model, using technology intelligently to take care of certain aspects of teaching, freeing up time to focus on other areas. 

“Live digital lessons all day every day is just not sustainable,” says Lord Knight, “but as part of the mix, it is. Technology can never be used to replace teachers, but it can definitely be used to enhance teachers and support them, as well as their support staff. It will also allow teachers to address more diverse needs in the classroom.”

Alexa Toy, educator, writer and speaker, says this offers teachers a huge opportunity to facilitate learning that is far broader than would otherwise have been possible, but also offers students the opportunity to become more self-motivated as a result. “Learners are used to working in breakaway Zoom groups, they are becoming more self-disciplined, they don’t need to be spoon fed as much,” she says.

This is something Ed Kirwan, former secondary school teacher, and founder and chief executive of Empathy Week, a global education programme that uses the power of film and interactive learning to help teach empathy in young people, passionately believes in. “We need to question, what is the point and purpose of education? Digital technology is moving so fast. Children are learning, but we are way behind in delivering this education,” he says.

Moving away from the “chalk and talk” lecture style could see teachers take on more of the role of facilitator, encouraging self-learning in the classroom through the use of technology and increased peer-to-peer collaboration. 

Lord Knight says as teachers become more accustomed to teaching online, skill sharing will become part of the course. He says: “Teachers will be teaching each other, there will be a lot more professional development with peer-to-peer resource sharing.”

Ben Evans, headmaster at Windlesham House School in West Sussex, says digital delivery requires teachers to take a step back, plan effectively and signpost pupils to the correct areas for them as individuals. “It is far less about whole-class delivery and allows for a more tailored and individual approach. This can be a big shift in approach for many teachers, who are used to complete control in the classroom,” he says.

Hugh Viney, chief executive and head of academic at Minerva’s Virtual Academy, says there is much evidence to support the notion that effective learning can be delivered via fit-for-purpose online learning platforms, which means guided learning led solely by a teacher may not be the best use of time or talent. 

“The entire GCSE syllabus in 11 different subjects can be studied without the physical need for a teacher to be present, providing there is an option to obtain support as and when it is needed; this is where teaching as a role needs to adapt,” he says. “Teachers of the future could focus more on bespoke intervention, motivation, wellbeing, mentoring, nurturing confidence and boosting resilience in pupils while they learn and flourish.”

The pandemic has unquestionably lifted the veil on the complexities involved in teaching. “Remote learning has required teachers to quickly adapt and upskill to help minimise any disruption to learning, but the lasting impact of these new skills and experiences means considering what the future of teaching itself looks like,” Dame Peacock concludes.