If Teachers were Angels …

by Emma Rogers, co-Founder / CEO of Little Bridge. Originally published on Medium on Jan 11, 2019

A few weeks ago, I was asked to join a panel about the role of edtech in the classroom. The audience included teachers and the assumption was that they were interested in, even positive about, the use of technology in education.

Everything was progressing as expected, with clusters of interest around data, time-saved, personalisation, school attendance, internal and external communications, the availability (or not) of fast broadband networks and, of course, the impact of mobile devices.

Then one young woman spoke up and injected a note of deep concern into the happy consensus.

‘My school uses technology to manage just about everything,’ she said. ‘And I have my own favourite apps, especially for things like Maths and English. My students love technology, obviously! But the thing is, I have this real fear — Will edtech eventually steal my job?’

This was the second time in recent weeks that I’d heard the alarm being raised. This evening, as on the previous occasion, there was a chorus of reassurance from the room, all along the lines of, ‘Of course not! Edtech is just part of the solution,’ and, ‘There will always be teachers!’

But it was clear she was not convinced. And if I were her, I wouldn’t have been either. We read and hear so much about how the role of teacher is changing. Just not a lot about what it’s really changing to.

Today edtech is not a separate ‘item’, in the way that laboratory equipment or sports kit has always been. Education and edtech are inextricable; a merger that has crept up on everybody. For teachers caught up in this change, platitudes just won’t do. Their role needs redefining, positively.

I made a point of seeking out the questioner during the networking session that followed and learned she was called Diane. I wanted to share my reply to her question.

‘Will edtech take your current job?’ I said. ‘Probably. But your future role? Most definitely not, so long as it’s refined and defined clearly.’

We talked about what she does today, to see if there were clear pointers for tomorrow. Inevitably perhaps, the first thing Diane mentioned was management. ‘I’m often doing the job of Administrator’, she said. This included managing learning, managing students and relationships, as well as managing timetable and classroom logistics. A lot of this, we agreed is, could, even should, be digital.

I confessed I had a vested interest in understanding how she thought technology might help ‘manage learning’. Inevitably perhaps, we ended up talking about Assessment and agreed that, if this task was replaced by technology, if it was transformed to become truly personal and always ongoing, decoupled from annual milestones, recognising the organic development of each individual, it would be no bad thing. It would free her up to focus on her real role, the thing we were trying to describe.

Diane went on to say that technology offered stunning opportunities to both create and access content, for which she saw herself as Amplifier. ‘Discovering what’s out there, introducing my students to great content, great experiences, making content, sharing with colleagues, that’s really valuable.’ she said. ‘I want to be learning too. Always. If I had more time …’ she began. ‘Well, that is probably what I should be doing.’

“You mentioned managing students and relationships,’ I said.’ Is that something that technology can help you ‘manage’?’ I was thinking of a conversation I’d recently had with a 9 year old, who had a clear vision of how being human sits with technology. Diane was thoughtful, before replying, ‘Noooooo, I don’t think it can. Not much of it anyway. That’s such a people thing, isn’t it? I mean, you can profile everyone with technology, but can you really afford to remove the personal interlocutor? The Advisor? The Advocate?’

We had at least come to the point where we were defining the teacher’s role as an essential ‘A’ class profession! Never mind Administrator or Assessor then. Let’s focus on Amplifier, Advisor, Advocate. There’s probably more.

The evening was drawing to a close, so Diane and I agreed to continue to exchange thoughts on what lies ahead — for education, for edtech and for the new, fully acknowledged role for teachers.

Ironically, as I travelled home, I found myself looking backwards not forwards, remembering how teachers had seemed to me — a young student from a non-academic background, the first of my family who would, one day, experience higher education. There were lots of them, good and bad, who had delivered lessons to a bunch of moderately well-behaved kids behind rows of desks. But the one, stand-out individual, was someone I met in the first days of going to secondary school.

Owl-like in shape and stature, at the time she seemed incredibly old (she was probably in her 50’s!). And she was so unlike anyone I’d ever encountered: erudite, independent (her challenging messages in school assemblies showed that she did not care for conventional thinking), yet she was an establishment figure, the Headmistress, second only to the Headmaster of the co-educational school I attended. She didn’t become my teacher until my final year before university and, to be honest, what she actually taught in those English lessons has blended with all the information I absorbed from many who came after her.

What I do remember though, throughout my seven years of schooling there, is the advice she proffered, pertinently, often discretely, the books or films she recommended, the museum and gallery visits or theatre trips she proposed, all amplifying my budding curiosity, and the advocacy she assumed, encouraging my family to support my ambitions to continue my studies. She probably changed the course of my life. She had a habit of appearing at times when (in hindsight) I was at a crossroads. I know now that she was looking out for me.

Hurrying along the riverside walkway towards home, my gaze fixed on a bright moon on the near horizon, my footsteps echoing in the winter night, the word ‘Angel’ dropped into my thoughts. It felt like the all-encompassing A-word that Diane and I had been moving towards. Of course, I know enough about Angels (from ‘Paradise Lost’ to ‘Charlie’s Angels’) to understand there’s Ambiguity here too. But the definition I had in mind is a benign ‘Attendant’ or, better still, an ‘Agent’ of change.

Later, I messaged Diane to ask her what she thought.

Her reply was exciting to receive:

‘I’m going to write a detailed job description tomorrow. Wanted — Class Angel!’ she said. ‘If technology moved teachers towards exclusively fulfilling that role, it would be truly Awesome!’