What’s my value as a teacher?

As faculty at an institution of higher education, and private, expensive institution at that, I often discuss the future of education.  In situations that I’m sure many of you have experienced, family and friends often ask me why college is still important when everything this is available for free on line?  Why pay tens of thousands of dollars a year to ‘learn’ the same things you can learn for free?  Aren’t degrees issued from century old institutions going to soon be worthless, instead proving your skills/knowledge will be all that matters?  The upcoming CTE symposium, “Higher Ed in the Crosshairs” will be looking at these questions and more.  I look forward to hearing and discussing these issues with my peers.

One of these issues is one I think more about though, and that’s the value of a teacher.  I’m not talking about teacher salaries, I’m talking about the value that I, as a teacher, add to the education of a student.

With all of the available content, from Khan Academy, to MIT Opencoursware to Stanford OpenClassroom and everything in between, I’m prepared to admit that there is little information I know and teach that isn’t available to any student, anywhere in the world, for free.  So my value can’t be that I have more information.

Information though, isn’t knowledge.  While we often use the two interchangeably, they are different.  Information is facts, figures, dates, processes and procedures.  For information to become knowledge, it must be put in context and connected to all of the other pieces of information in your brain.  While really great videos can put information into a single set of contexts, we know that the best context comes from human interaction, and real world experiences.  This is where my value as a teacher come from.

I believe that on my best days teaching, I have created connections for my students between their lives and experiences and the information they recently learned.  These connections are created in a myriad of ways, but often they are through one on one, or one on few conversations.  Being able to engage with a student on a human level and work through the implications of new information, and being able to adjust the track of the conversation in real time is the most effective way to transition information to knowledge.  My value now not just my experience and knowledge, but also my ability to share that experience and guide a student through the transition of information to knowledge.

Being a guide, and leading this kind of process is hard.  It requires committment and effort, which cost me energy.  It also means I develop emotional engagements to students, which as an introvert is challenging.  It also of course takes time.  So what is my value as a teacher?  My value comes from investing time, energy and effort into the success of my students as they take in information (from where ever) and synthesize that into knowledge.

About Nathan Huntoon

STU Graduate SEAS Spring 2003
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