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Teacher or Educator: Does the Title Really Matter?

Educator or teacher? What is the appropriate title for these committed souls who serve our county’s children in its classrooms? I generally have applied rather generic definitions, applying the term “Educator” to anyone who works in the professional field of education. This broad definition would include paraprofessionals, support staff and school-based and district administrators. I have reserved the title of “Teacher” for those who thoughtfully deliver the relevant content while expanding the academic repertoire of their student’s experience.

Last week, May 6-10, was celebrated in schools across the nation as Teacher Appreciation Week, an opportunity for parents, administrators and students to communicate their well-deserved gratitude for the efforts of this frequently unheralded profession. But, some would argue, "I’m not just a teacher. I'm an educator. The recognition should be ‘Educator Appreciation Week’.” These practitioners hold that there is a fundamental difference that exists between these two labels, an argument that suggests that one reflects greater effectiveness and a deeper commitment to the profession than the other. I decided to better understand the foundational elements of this dispute and came across a TEDx talk given May 26, 2016 by Timmy Sullivan, then a senior at Burlington (VT) High School. He titled his talk “The Difference Between a Teacher and an Educator.” By his analysis, based on his personal, close-at-hand experience he defined “teacher” as a “job description, someone who disseminates information through the teaching of content.” Conversely, he described an “educator” as “a person who establishes a safe, proactive learning environment for students, and is one who challenges students to transcend their boundaries every single day.” Timmy recalls having a total of 77 teachers throughout his K-12 public school experience and, by the application of his definitions, would consider only nineteen of them to be “educators.”

Those who follow my blog know that I have a healthy aversion to labels. (See the three previous posts on this topic.) Labels can be misleading. They can be misunderstood. They can be harmful. And frequently, the preference for a particular label is an exercise in subjective hair splitting. By example, what do the subtle, nuanced differences of the following labels imply or truly mean? Is one more effective in their work than the other?

“Pastor” or ”minister.”

“Business person” or “entrepreneur.”

“Doctor” or “physician”

“Manager” or “supervisor”

“Lawyer” or “attorney”

“Driver” or “motorist”

You get the idea. Each of these pairs essentially communicate the same thing. The cultural contexts 0f these terms may indicate a preferred moniker, but in relying on the label alone, the function and effectiveness of both a minister and a pastor are reasonably expected to be more similar than dissimilar. I believe the same to be true for “teachers” and "educators.”

It is my humble, yet accurate, belief that the labels, in and of themselves, do not go far enough. They are not descriptive. There are both great and lousy attorneys. Some doctors have stellar bedside manner, while others are strictly clinical in their approach. What matters, what truly is of resounding significance, is the aspiration of the professional who defines their career by a particular label and his/her overall effectiveness. There must be gradations of accomplishment along a continuum of professional behaviors for any of these titles to hold meaning. This is certainly true of this debate regarding teachers and educators.

For the purposes of this discussion, let’s temporarily abandon these polarizing and non-descriptive labels, using instead a generic, judgement free title – “classroom practitioner.” With that contentious argument out of the way, lets go back to Timmy’s definition: “a job description, someone who disseminates information through the teaching of content.” Those of use who have spent any time in a supervisory role in a public school know this type of practitioner. These are the “survivors” and “fundamentalists” that Anthony Muhammad describes in his book, Transforming School Culture: How to Overcome Staff Division. These are the folks who see their role as pretty clearly defined: “I have information to pass along that you will need someday. Pay attention and follow along.” These practitioners prefer monologue to dialogue, seeing the student as a passive vessel to be filled. Admittedly, many of these practitioners actually like and find professional satisfaction in what they’re doing, not even realizing or understanding that they’re not truly serving the needs of kids. And depending on their professional aspirations, I would consider these practitioners as either Emerging or Ineffective. Those in the emerging category would benefit from further development and mentoring. Sadly, those deemed ineffective, if they are reluctant to grow in their instructional skills, would benefit from counseling – counseling to pursue a different professional path.

Young Mr. Sullivan was very specific in identifying some common traits of those nineteen practitioners he revered and who he saw having a profound influence in his educational experience. In capturing the power of their influence, he used terms like: “They encouraged me to question, to inquire and be creative.” “They invested themselves in the lives of their students by developing relationships.” “They demonstrate authentic interest in student’s individual learning goals.” “They are more than just authorities. They are people and they understand that learning comes from active experience, not work sheets” These descriptors easily suggest that these practitioners, these professionals who ignited the light of learning for Timmy and his peers are Highly Effective in their abilities to connect with their students and to “make learning real.” Dr. Muhammad would describe these practitioners as “believers”, faculty who fundamentally believe that learning for all is possible and will do anything necessary to assure that outcome. (Muhammad defines a fourth faculty group, the “tweeners,” who are finding their way and are on the cusp of falling toward the increasingly effective side or who may succumb to less effective practices, depending on their “tipping point” experience. Tweeners are deserving of attention and care from a building’s administrative staff.)

In the end, it doesn’t matter if you prefer to be recognized as a teacher, an educator or just plain George. What matters, what sets apart the 19 of 77 in Timmy Sullivan's experience, is the personal philosophies and professional practices one utilizes in making “learning real” for the students fortunate enough to be in our classrooms. That’s what effective teachers and/or effective educators do.

As long as you're effective, you may call yourself what you prefer.

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