10 Signs You Really Are a 21st Century Teacher (And Might Not Know It)

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Who is the 21st century teacher? Look in a mirror, because it might be you. Don’t have a teaching certificate? It doesn’t matter.

Whether 9 years old or 28, college-educated or skilled at a trade, you could potentially impart knowledge to someone, enlightening them in a way that only you can.  One of the most exciting changes in education today is the disintegration of the walls that have restricted access to our most powerful natural resources – each other.

A perfect example is Keira Meikus, who recently became famous for her speech to her fellow students about autism.

Futurist Jane McGonigal believes in a possible future of people building their own learning throughout their lives, updating skills and learning from others who are also continuously learning.  I believe that this future is already here and that, instead of being replaced by technology, the 21st century teacher will become more important than ever.  In a society where we still prefer to pigeonhole people by their professions, how can we recognize those who will prepare us for this new reality?  We can look for people who display these 10 attributes:

01. A 21st Century Teacher Suspends Stereotypes

Jo Ann Boaler, a professor at Stanford, wants everyone to stop believing the world is divided into those who can do math and those who can’t. Her website, YouCubed.org, provides free materials for teachers and parents to change the mindsets of students so that they will not view math as an inherent ability, but as one that everyone can learn.

You can find examples from around the world of educators like Boaler and young Keira Meikus who make it a priority to dispel gender myths, racism, and prejudice against people with different abilities.  21st century teachers are like Malala Yousafzai, who speaks for the education of girls and Nicolas Ferroni, an advocate for LGBT students; they are paving the way for education to be non-discriminatory and equitable for every human being on this planet.

02. A 21st Century Teacher Emphasizes Empathy

Empathy is a natural companion to tolerance.  Being able to understand the diversity in our world makes it easier for us to see things from multiple perspectives.  The 21st century teacher models empathy every day and gives students plenty of opportunities to demonstrate it.  Jahana Hayes, The 2016 Teacher of the Year for the United States, says, “We spend a lot of time teaching kids to be self-sufficient and high achievers, and I think we really need to spend some time also teaching them: OK, now what do you do with that? What does it mean? You have this knowledge and information, how can you use it to improve the human condition? I think we need to nurture empathy from a very early age.”

Some teachers are integrating empathy games and websites into their lessons to foster this, like the ones you can find here.  Other teachers use sites like Kiva to match their students with entrepreneurs around the globe and engage them in the practice of microfinance as micro lenders.

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03. A 21st Century Teacher Champions Collaboration

The 3d printing project, e-Nable, is an example of the power of empathy and collaboration as it connects student designers with people around the world who need prosthetics.  Engineers, artists, parents, teachers, and students work together to help each other as they learn and create.  Many similar programs exist, and with the help of technology, the potential for collaboration for the 21st century teacher is at a higher level than ever before.

Teachers are getting professional development from each other using Twitter and Edcamp, energized by each other’s wisdom and advice.  They work as allies with parents and students through Smore, Remind, and learning management systems like Edmodo.   Partnering with the community helps to make the learning more relevant and allows the teacher to rely on other experts instead of being expected to know it all.  Teleconferencing with Google Hangouts, Skype, or Zoom allows for global networking and support from peers.

04. A 21st Century Teacher Advances Adaptability

21st century teachers are not rigid and unchangeable.  Flexibility is essential in this day and age.  They know that the technology they use will be obsolete in 5 years, and that history books are being re-written every year.  With more and more digital resources being offered every day, 21st century teachers know it is less important to teach how to use specific software than it is to teach their students how to find quality information, to think critically, and to problem solve.

This means the teachers must, themselves, have these skills.  They are willing to make changes to increase their students’ learning, which can include giving choices for assessments, getting rid of grades, and even changing the physical arrangement of their classrooms.  One only has to follow one of the Twitter chats above to see the enthusiasm that 21st century teachers have for trying new ideas and changing their curriculum to improve their own effectiveness.

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05. A 21st Century Teacher Celebrates Creativity

The red pen may lose its long-held power to leave its disapproving marks in the next few years as teachers become less dependent on multiple-choice questioning and continue to utilize open-ended questioning and project-based learning.  Although there are still many one-and-only-one-right-answer questions, teachers are finding that students need more opportunities to learn how to brainstorm and think creatively to survive in a world where technology can answer any question we Google.  

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Makerspaces have become one way that teachers have brought creativity back into the classroom.  They can range from challenge boxes that students can check out from the library, to areas set aside in the classroom for creation, to large spaces in libraries.  21st century teachers encourage their students to use Design Thinking and to choose their own ways to demonstrate knowledge such as videos or Minecraft presentations.

06. A 21st Century Teacher Risks Relevance

Taking advantage of student engagement in social networks and cultural trends can be a risk for teachers who are not as familiar with what’s “current,” but 21st century teachers don’t mind.  From lessons that include using emojii’s to summarize a Shakespearean play, to flying drones to learn more about math and science, 21st century teachers connect learning to the world of their students.  They know that this will increase the students’ motivation to learn and be more likely to have experiences that they will not forget.  

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Connecting with student interests and finding ways to tie curriculum to the realities students face every day are regular practice for the 21st century teacher.

07. A 21st Century Teacher Values Voice

Socrates was not a 21st century teacher, but he recognized the important roles of questioning and student discussion in learning.  Thousands of years later, teachers still use some of the philosopher’s techniques, such as Socratic Dialogues (including the gamified version, “Socratic Smackdown”), to give all of the students a chance to express their points of view.  Digital tools in Google Classroom and student response systems give everyone, even introverted students, a chance to ask questions, answer them, and suggest new ideas.  

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Giving students the chance to take on more leadership roles in the classroom with school-wide programs like The Leader in Me can be another way that 21st century teachers demonstrate the importance of every participant in learning and leading.

08. A 21st Century Teacher Promotes Practice

When not following a prescribed curriculum and trying untested activities and lessons, 21st century teachers are bound to make plenty of mistakes.  Their reactions to these mistakes will inform their students about the lessons that can be learned and what actions can be taken to move forward.

As teachers model “failing forward,” they also give their students the time and space to do the same.  When students realize that mistakes are not going to be penalized, but treated as part of the learning process, they will focus more on their learning instead of trying to cut corners to appear perfect.

Video – The Power of Believing that You Can Improve:

09. A 21st Century Teacher Follows Through With Feedback

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21st century teachers don’t rely on grades or red marks to communicate what they want from their students.  To encourage practice and risks, teachers give as much information to the students as possible to help them improve.  This can be done through written comments on Google Docs, one-to-one conferences, and even short videos.

The key is to make the feedback frequent and to clearly define expectations with suggestions for improvement.  Mia MacMeekin gives a good overview of what students want when it comes to feedback, and how teachers can provide it, in this article.

10. A 21st Century Teacher Reinforces Reflection

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A 21st century teacher believes in reflection, not just as a way to improve his or her own performance, but as a tool for students to do the same.  Like promoting practice, teachers need to devote time after every learning experience for students to reflect and to decide what changes should be made.  Giving this kind of attention to our own work allows us to improve it and to remember it better.  The University of Waterloo’s Centre for Teaching Excellence has several suggestions for tools to help you reflect on your teaching. In addition, using formative assessments like Socrative, Kahoot, or Quizizz frequently with their students can not only give teachers data about the learning that is or is not happening, but also about their own teaching.

Similar information can be gained by using tools like the one offered by Fusion Yearbooks, which allows teachers to create a questionnaire and invite the students to answer online. Then a full section is automatically generated out of it (including text, photos, drawings, etc.)  This is a great way for teachers and students to think deeper about teaching and learning.

As you can see, 21st century teachers focus more on process and less on the answers to multiple-choice tests.  Their classrooms are student-centered, and the teachers often find themselves on parallel journeys with their students as they navigate through the new challenges we are all encountering in this 21st century world.  In preparation for a future where learning becomes a lifelong endeavor and teaching is no longer a solitary profession, 21st century teachers regularly work to refine their own skills while they guide their students to develop their own.

Engage Your Students in a Creative Project.

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Terri Eichholz teaches gifted students in Kinder through 5th grades in San Antonio, TX. She's been an educator for 24 years, and is a proponent of guiding students to create, problem-solve, and personalize their own learning. You can read more on her blog, "Engage Their Minds," or follow her on Twitter (@terrieichholz).

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