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What is a 21st-century teacher?

4 min read


People toss around terms in education and attach the words “21st century” to appear cutting edge or on the front end of trending ideas. As a teacher in the 21st century, I find it amazing to see some of the things that are so-called 21st century and yet are no different from ideas from the 20th or even the 19th century. With that in mind, I reflected on what it takes to be a teacher in the 21st century and what such a teacher looks like.

Obviously, a 21st-century teacher should be tall, handsome and have a sweet spot for superheroes. Beyond that, I think there are some key characteristics that good 21st-century teachers need.

Be a connected educator. The idea of being a connected educator is not necessarily new, but it is certainly transformative through the technology of social media. Teachers can connect with other teachers, administrators, parents, students and other education-minded people worldwide with the click of a button. There are many tools out there that allow teachers to connect. Regardless of what you use, a good 21st-century teacher must be connected. There is no right way to do this. For me, I use Twitter and my blog to connect and learn from and with educators around the globe.

Be a master of technology. I am not saying that good 21st-century teachers need to have an interactive whiteboard hanging on their walls, a tablet in every kid’s hand and mobile devices in every corner of the room. In fact, I think it might be more the opposite — or at least a balance between extremes. In recent years, educators have gone overboard with spending money and pumping technology everywhere they could afford. The problem is that little training was offered, and much of purchasing was used as a badge of honor to say they had tech in the building.

Interactive whiteboards are being used as chalkboards once were, computers are being used to make flash cards and tablets are being used to do word searches. A good 21st-century teacher knows the difference between what is shiny and new and what truly has potential to transform learning for students. A new hammer is great, but a good carpenter doesn’t try to screw in a bolt with one. In the same way, a 21st-century teacher knows what tools are needed and when and how to use them.

Be a reflective practitioner. This is probably one of the most important areas, as we as a profession have in many ways not changed in 100 years. Tools in our classrooms have changed, but the pedagogy and practice have not. A 21st-century teacher is able to look at his or her practices and adapt and change based on the needs of learners. Too many teachers are teaching as they did when they started their careers 10, 20 or 30 years ago. What we know about student learning and motivation has changed; so, too, must the art of teaching. Stagnation is the death of any teacher.

Be an advocate. The final thing I feel is important for good teachers in this century is to be an advocate for themselves as well as the profession. If we as teachers think someone else is going to say nice things about our profession and share positive notes on the evening news, we are wrong. As teachers, we can sit and complain about it … or we can do something about it and find ways to tell our stories. It is a critical time in the history of education and how the profession is perceived in the public eye. We are under attack in many places, and rather than playing the part of a wounded animal, we need to stand up for ourselves and advocate for the great work we do every day.

None of these ideas is radical or groundbreaking. Yet, too many teachers are content wrapping up old practice with new gimmicks and wondering the reason we don’t improve. If we want to gain respect as a profession, we must embrace a 21st-century model of constant growth and improvement. If we don’t get better, we have only ourselves to blame.

Josh Stumpenhorst is a sixth-grade language arts and social science teacher at Lincoln Junior High School in Naperville, Ill. He is an athletic director, a team leader, a computer-club adviser and a track and basketball coach and serves on curriculum and technology committees at the school and district level. His work has been recognized by the International Society of Technology Educators as a member of the Emerging Leaders Class of 2011, and he is the Illinois Computer Educators’ 2012 Educator of the Year and the 2012 Illinois Teacher of the Year. He blogs at Stump the Teacher, which has received EduBlog Awards nominations, and tweets @stumpteacher.