To be a teacher is to embrace a calling to guide, nurture and help with the education of others. It is a calling that is not limited to the classroom or a certain type of learning environment. This calling is not exclusive to those with a particular license or a certain degree. It is not limited to one type of learner, audience or context. One may be called to teach and serve in wildly different settings, with diverse purposes, and for different types of learners.
This is why I often struggle with comments like, “He is just not cut out to be a teacher.” That is too broad of a statement for me. What type of teacher? In what context? For which learners? I’ve seen many instances where a person thrives as a teacher in a given context and struggles in another. I’ve seen a few who seem to get the hang of teaching right away, but most need lots of time, practice, some good mentoring, and ongoing reflective practice.
I’ve also heard it said that a great teacher can teach anyone and anything. I’m not sure if I’ve seen strong evidence to support that. In instances where I see someone who is great at teaching many different audiences, what I see is a great learner, someone who developed the skill and mindset to quickly learn how to guide, nurture and mentor different types of learners in different contexts. We can learn how to learn.
What about teaching online? Just like any teaching, it is about guiding, nurturing and helping others learn. It is just as much of a calling as that of teacher in any other context, but it does have some distinctives. I often point out that all teaching is teaching, but so is all driving. Driving a semi-truck is quite different from driving a bumper car. And both are different from driving a race car in the Indy 500. They are all driving, but the skills needed to thrive in these three settings are different enough to call for distinct training regimens. So it is with teaching online. This is a calling that takes reflective practice and benefits immensely from study, learning about best and promising practices in online teaching. This is part of honoring one’s calling as teacher in a given context and for a given set of learners. The teacher takes the time to be a learner, to develop the necessary skills, to continue to grow in knowledge, to develop methods of assessing one’s impact and making necessary adjustments along the way. It is not about going through a single training session or program. The calling of teacher requires ongoing learning, even as one strives to learn how to best meet the needs of each new learner and group of learners.
Even more important to me is that the teacher (online and otherwise) teach from a strong and compelling “why?”. Why do you teach in a given context and for a given group of learners? Why does it matter to you and others? Great teachers always seem to have a clear “why?” that inspires them, that helps them persevere through the challenges, and that encourages them to remember that what they are doing is a calling and that it has deep significance.
What is the compelling why for the online teacher? It will vary, but here are some possibilities.
- I teach online because it offers increased access and opportunity to learners.
- I teach online because it allows people to pursue a challenging education while also fulfilling other responsibilities, callings and passions in their lives.
- I teach online because it empowers people to embrace the promise of connected learning.
- I teach online because it helps promote uncloistered learning that is not limited by time and space.
- I teach online because it allows for largely diverse learners from different parts of the world to learn and grow as they develop a vibrant online learning community.
- I teach online because it is about meeting people where they are at the moment. Instead of demanding that they come to me, I can leverage the gift of digital technology to connect with them while they continue to grow where they are planted, regardless of where that might be in the world.
- I teach online because it allows learners and families to take advantage of a more customized or personalized learning experience.
- I teach online because it offers families a new and promising alternative to a traditional schooling experience.
- I teach online because I want to help that single mom with three kids, two jobs, a strong desire to earn her degree, but a schedule that only allows her to go to school once the kids are in bed and work is done for the day.
- I teach online to help the person with a full work schedule that is 80% travel to still achieve her goal of earning a graduate degree and advancing in her career.
- I teach online because it is about people and serving them as they seek to get an education while being faithful to their many callings and responsibilities in life.
There are many other reasons that one might give, but the why is an important foundation for those of use who are called to online teaching, part-time or full-time. The calling of teacher is never just about presenting content and assessing work. It is about helping people learn and grow. The why helps us keep a passion for what we do, to devote the sort of time, care and energy required to do it well. It allows is to remember that the essence of online teaching is about the same thing as any calling in life. It is about learning what it means to love our neighbor. Any worthwhile calling eventually seems to come back to this simple idea of using one’s gifts, knowledge and abilities to benefit others.