Being an Educator

Having covered the responsibilities of students in the previous post, it’s time to shift focus to educators. It should be noted that, unlike other couplings of this type, the groups of responsibilities do not create a direct mapping of rights that the other side can claim. For example, the responsibility of students to be studious, does not create a right of educators to fail to educate, if the studiousness is missing. However, the Ottoman author is concerned primarily with the moral responsibilities of both sides, and so it is possible to set a series of legal responsibilities over the moral ones, especially in the case of a more structured university system, with standardized progression. The legal responsibilities should not contradict the moral ones, but may occasionally bend them to account for issues such as funding, class space, etc.

The following list has been abridged, since some aspects of the Ottoman position were theological to the point of incommensurability with the modern secular educational system.

  1. The educator should work solely for the pleasure of God, without concern for personal status interests.

While the “pleasure of God” seems rather theological in its formulation, the key takeaway from this responsibility is that the educator must be dedicated to education, not to an ulterior goal that takes the act of education as a mere means. Educators, whose focus is something other than education, will inherently fail to fully engage in their given profession. Consequently, their educational abilities are sub-par (viz. their own potential).

On a personal note, I had the misfortune of taking a physics course with a great physicist, but one whose interest in education was non-existent. The result was a poorly run class, where the average grade was a failing one, and where the highest course grade was a C. While the professor certainly knew the material, he was a physicist, not an educator.

  1. The educator should treat students as his own children.

Another responsibility that has taken quite a different turn in the modern educational system, the parental role of the educator is not intended to diminish the value of contributions of the students, or to place them in a position of additional power disparity. The core idea of this responsibility is one of caring, engagement, and intimate relation between the educator and student. It is surprisingly easy for educators to disconnect from the students; be it because of student performance, pay, or personal problems. The student thus becomes “otherised,” and just a body occupying the seat.

Treating students like one’s own children prevents this issue, and adds to the educator’s investment in student success. Additionally, as per the later point on the properties of lecturing, the more intimate parent-child relation assumes that the parent must display a great deal of patience, willingness to look past smaller mistakes, etc. On the one hand, this firms-up a certain structural norm in the relationship. On the other, it relaxes some of the formal standards, and introduces a functional degree of leniency and mercy in the relationship.

  1. The educator should offer unstinting advice and counsel to the students.

If the relationship between the educator and student is likened to a parental one, then the role of the educator cannot simply remain at the level of a disinterested provider of knowledge. Instead, the educator should use whatever knowledge they have a firm hold upon, in order to better the lives of their students through advice and counsel. This may come in two general forms: individualized or collective. Collective advising is about addressing general trends that may be problematic, or perhaps offering guidance on the kinds of issues and events that arise and have collective consequences. Individualized advising deals with specific student problems, and is a bit more touchy – especially in the modern educational systems.

Some of the functionality of the latter option has been taken on by the advising offices of high schools and universities, though generally very badly. Additionally, if the aforementioned parental relationship is already established with the student, the educator has a better chance of both understanding and effectively advising the student, or perhaps directing them to a different appropriately informed individual – if their own expertise is lacking.

  1. The educator should condemn the vices of students.

This one can be a minefield in modern education systems. With the constantly shifting moral landscapes, the vices of the millennials are the virtues of Generation Z, and vice versa. However, if we limit ourselves only to the list of student responsibilities, then the vice-like nature of the student failures becomes clearer and less contentious. That the  failure to embody those responsibilities should be condemned is rather self-evident. Those qualities are necessary for student success in and out of academia, so that condemning their absence is nothing more than condemning the objectively destructive failures of the student.

As to how one should condemn those vices, one can refer back to the parental relationship already suggested. If the relationship is, in fact, similar to the parental one, then the nature of condemnation will be characterized by care, not hostility. It will be accompanied by an interest in resolving the problems, not merely broadcasting them. Thus, condemning vices is not about berating students, but about providing guidance away from those aspects of behavior that are self-destructive.

  1. The educator should teach the most immediately relevant information.

A great point, especially in humanities education, is that one must know the students and their level of knowledge and understanding. Too often, especially in undergraduate courses, the content is not adjusted to the students, and thus goes over their head. The most immediately relevant information is that which will provide a solid foundation for engaging with additional critical ideas and texts, so that the student is capable of progressing. Teaching above or below their level, provides irrelevant information at that moment. The student gets nothing out of the instruction – or worse, gets confused.

In order to actively engage in this requirement, the educator must themselves understand the hierarchy of knowledge in their own field. Without this understanding, the educator cannot adequately adapt the lessons for the students.

In my own teaching, I use a reading discussion assignment, due the day before the reading is covered in class. By reviewing the student submissions, I am able to determine patterns of misconceptions, general questions, areas of interest, etc. which allow me to adapt each class session to the needs and interests of that particular student population.

  1. The educator should encourage everyone to learn.

Perhaps more geared towards high school and undergraduate courses, this responsibility seeks to maximize the educational effect on the student population that is either not as gifted as the rest – which in modern systems may also include the population that is taking the course as a mandatory elective option, and would otherwise be uninterested in the material.

Sometimes, it’s the apparently underperforming and/or uninterested students that benefit the most from the class. Thus, the educator should not “give up” on students who are not the cream of the crop. This, again, ties into the parental relationship point.

  1. The educator’s words and actions must match.

As noted in the responsibilities of students, the embodiment of one’s ideas is a crucial educational tool. An ethics professor whose actions are unethical is doing more harm than good; the result is that the apparent authority on the topic acts in a way that demonstrates the futility of the subject. If the authority does not take the ideas seriously, why should the student?

This lack of embodied knowledge is itself a refutation of many claims. If the proponents of a position cannot be bothered to take it seriously, why should we? More crucially, if the experts in the field do not take it seriously enough to actually apply it, that seems to be an indication that they know something we don’t, and thus we are more likely to take their practical example, than their theoretical one.

  1. The educator must know the properties of lecturing

Again, back to the very first point made: the purpose of an educator is to educate. If the educational capacity is sub-par, the educator should either remedy the problem or withdraw from education. Failing to do so is engaging in bad-faith education. Some of the below-listed properties of lecturing are self-explanatory, and will be left as is. Others will be discussed in more detail.

  • The educator must conceal his irritation

  • The educator must not ridicule students

  • The educator has a duty only to convey the information

This notion encompasses the job description of the educator in a nice one-liner. Educators convey the information. As per the old adage, one can’t make students learn the information, or embody it. They also can’t make the students care, or become interested, etc. Sure, there are ways of being more or less interesting, but there is no way to force others to be educated. Once this is fully grasped, the educator can ensure that they focus and hone their skills on the one aspect they’re responsible for: conveying the information in the best possible manner.

  • The educator must avoid all ego disputations

Unfortunately, some professors break this rule. The result, demonstrating the “superiority” of the professor over the student, actually undermines the professor’s standing with students in general. It’s something akin to kicking kittens: sure, it demonstrates one’s superior force, but even engaging in the activity is a debasing act. If the role of the educator is to guide the students, the ego disputation is the antithesis of education. It teaches nothing, breaks the student-educator relationship, and strangles free thinking and discussion.

  • The educator should not demoralize students by using overly difficult questions

Again, in terms of educators as guides, the questioning of students (in-class or by test) is intended to lead them towards greater understanding. By relying on unreasonable expectations (that standard being determined by the level of the class), the educator fails to educate. It is not an uncommon sight to find students losing interest because the work, or work-load, is excessive. This results in “just pass” mentality, with no educational value.

  • The educator must teach only the matter which they have fully prepared

Perhaps more dangerous than ignorance is partial knowledge. An educator who has not mastered the material they’re teaching is incapable of communication more than a fraction of the knowledge, yet their status as an educator creates the image of authority. Consequently, they can neither adequately cover the subject, nor answer the questions. They cannot fully engage with the subject, because they are unfamiliar with it.

This creates a warped perception of the issue for the students, and leaves them with some aspect of the knowledge, but with the sense of having grasped all the key pertinent issues. Thus, it is ignorance that is passed down, in the guise of knowledge.

  • The educator must be humble to the poor, and show compassion to all students

  • The educator must pay attention to his best students, but must also work with everyone for at least some time

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