A person enters the field of education as a profession, either full-time in a traditional academic institution or as an adjunct (or part-time) instructor. A traditional full-time professor may likely be responsible for conducting research, teaching, and publishing scholarly work. An adjunct instructor may teach in a community college, traditional college, or an online school. When someone teaches students within the field of higher education, he or she may be called a facilitator, instructor, or professor. This is important as you won’t find a job title with the word educator in it.
Does this mean that everyone who is a teacher, professor, instructor, faculty member, or adjunct, is also an educator? What I have learned through my work in higher education is that everyone who is in one of these roles is doing their best to teach and guide a learning process, whether they are involved in undergraduate or graduate degree courses. However, someone who considers themselves to be an educator is a person who goes beyond the role of teaching and seeks to lead a transformational learning process. I have learned that becoming an educator is not an automatic process. It takes time, practice, and dedication to become an engaging and transformative educator.
A Basic Definition of a Teacher
Teaching is generally associated with traditional, primary education. Classes at this level are teacher-led and children as students are taught what and how to learn. The teacher is the expert and directs the learning process. A teacher is someone highly trained and works to engage the minds of his or her students. This style of teacher-led instruction continues into higher education, specifically traditional college classrooms. The teacher still stands at the front and center of the class delivering information, and students are used to this format because of their experience in primary education. The instructor disseminates knowledge through a lecture, and students will study to pass the required examinations or complete other required learning activities.
Within higher education, teachers may be called instructors and they are hired as subject matter experts with advanced content or subject matter expertise. The job requirements usually include holding a specific number of degree hours in the subject being taught. Teachers may also be called professors in traditional universities, and those positions require a terminal degree with additional research requirements. For all of these roles, teaching is meant to signify someone who is guiding the learning process by directing, telling, and instructing students. The instructor or professor is in charge, and the students must comply and follow as directed.
Here is something to consider: If this is the essence of teaching, is there a difference between teaching and educating students? Is the role of a teacher the same as that of an educator?
Basic Definitions of an Educator
I would like for you to consider some basic definitions to begin with as a means of understanding the role of an educator. The word “education” refers to giving instruction; “educator” refers to the person who provides instruction and is someone skilled in teaching; and “teaching” is aligned with providing explanations. I have expanded upon these definitions so the word “educator” includes someone who is skilled with instruction, possesses highly developed academic skills, and holds both subject matter knowledge, along with knowledge of adult education principles.
• Skilled with Instruction: An educator is someone who should be skilled in the art of classroom instruction, knowing what instructional strategies are effective and the areas of facilitation that need further development.
An experienced educator develops methods which will bring course materials to life by adding relevant context and prompting students to learn through class discussions and other learning activities. Instruction also includes all of the interactions held with students, including all forms of communication, as every interaction provides an opportunity for teaching.
• Highly Developed Academic Skills: An educator must also have strong academic skills and at the top of that list are writing skills. This requires strong attention to detail on the part of the educator must include all forms of messages communicated. The ability to demonstrate strong academic skills is especially important for anyone who is teaching online classes as words represent the instructor.
The use of proper formatting guidelines, according to the style prescribed by the school, is also included in the list of critical academic skills. For example, many schools have implemented APA formatting guidelines as the standard for formatting papers and working with sources. An educator cannot adequately guide students and provide meaningful feedback if the writing style has not been mastered.
• Strong Knowledge Base: An educator needs to develop a knowledge base consisting of their subject matter expertise, as related to the course or courses they are teaching, along with knowledge of adult education principles. I know of many educators who have the required credit hours on their degree transcripts, yet they may not have extensive experience in the field they teach. This will still allow them to teach the course, provided they take time to read the required textbook or materials, and find methods of applying it to current practices within the field.
Many schools hire adjuncts with work experience as the primary criteria, rather than knowledge of adult learning principles. When I have worked with faculty who do have studied adult education theory, they generally acquired it through ongoing professional development. That was my goal when I decided on a major for my doctorate degree, to understand how adults learn so I could transform my role and become an educator.
4 Strategies to Become a Transformative Educator
I do not believe many instructors intentionally consider the need to make a transformation from working as an instructor to functioning as an educator. When someone is hired to teach a class, someone other than a traditional college professor, they often learn through practice and time what works well in the classroom. There will likely be classroom audits and recommendations made for ongoing professional development.
Gradually the typical instructor will become an educator as they seek out resources to help improve their teaching practices. However, I have worked with many adjunct online instructors who rely upon their subject matter expertise alone and do not believe there is a reason to grow as an educator.
For anyone who would like to become an engaging and transformative educator, there are strategies which can be can be implemented.
Strategy #1: Transform Through Development of Your Instructional Practice
While any educator can learn through time on the job, it is possible to become intentional about this growth. There are numerous online resources, publications, workshops, webinars, and professional groups which will allow you to learn new methods, strategies, and practices. There are also social media websites such as LinkedIn and Twitter which allow for the exchange of ideas and resources within a global community of educators.
You can also utilize self-reflection as a means of gauging your effectiveness. I have found that the best time to review my instructional practice occurs immediately after a class has concluded. That is a time when I can assess the strategies I have used and determine if those methods were effective. Even reviewing end of course student surveys may provide insight into the perspective of my students, whether or not every survey submitted was positive. Students tend to submit a survey response either when they are happy or greatly unhappy about the course. Either way, I can learn something about what my students have experienced during the class.
Strategy #2: Transform Through Development of Your Academic Skills
I know from my work with online faculty development this is an area of development many educators could use. However, it is often viewed as a low priority until it is noted in classroom audits. If an educator has weak academic writing skills, it will interfere with their ability to provide comprehensive feedback for students.
For online instructors, this has an even greater impact when posted messages contain errors with spelling, grammar, and formatting. The development of academic skills can be done through the use of online resources or workshops. Many online schools I have worked for offer faculty workshops and this is a valuable self-development resource.
Strategy #3: Transform Through Development of Your Subject Matter Expertise
Every educator has subject matter expertise they can draw upon. However, the challenge is keeping this knowledge current as you continue to teach for several years. The best advice I can offer is find resources which allow you to read and learn about current thinking, research, and best practices in your chosen field.
This is essential to your instructional practice as students can easily tell whether you appear to be current in your knowledge, or outdated and seemingly out of touch. Even the use of required textbooks or resources does not ensure that you are utilizing the most current information as knowledge evolves quickly in many fields.
Strategy #4: Transform Through Development of Your Knowledge of Adult Learning
The last step or strategy I can recommend is to gain knowledge about adult learning theories, principles, and practices. If you are not familiar with the basics there are concepts you can research and includes critical thinking, andragogy, self-directed learning, transformational learning, learning styles, motivation, and cognition.
My suggestion is to find and read online sources related to higher education and then find a subject that interests you to research further. I have found the more I read about topics I enjoy, the more I am cultivating my interest in ongoing professional development. What you will likely find is what you learn will have a positive influence on your work as an educator and this will enhance all areas of your instructional practice.
Working as an educator, or someone who is highly engaged in the process of helping students learn, starts with a commitment to make this a career rather than a job. I have developed a vision related to how I want to be involved in each class I teach and I recommend the same strategy for you. You may find it useful to develop teaching goals for your career and link your classroom performance to those goals. For example, do you want to complete the required facilitation tasks, or would you rather put in the additional time necessary to create nurturing class conditions?
After developing a vision and teaching goals, you can create a professional development plan to prompt your learning and growth in all of the areas I have addressed above. While this strategy may require an investment of time, it is helpful to remember that we always make time for whatever we believe is most important.
Being an educator is not sustaining a focus on job functions, rather it is cultivating a love of what you do and learning how to excel for the benefit of your students. Becoming an engaging and transformative educator occurs when you decide teaching students is only part of the learning process, and you work to transform who you are and how you function while working and interacting with your students.
When you transform your teaching or faculty role and become an educator, regardless of your job title, you also transform the learning experience of your students. You provide for them the critical element necessary for real learning to occur, substantive instructor involvement and engagement. More importantly, you humanize the learning experience and you can help to nurture their developmental needs. Students will leave your class transformed in some manner, having learned something they can apply to their academic pursuits, life, and/or career. You will be transformed and so will your students.