It is not a continuum, it is very much one or the other but there are two types of teachers. There are the teachers who consider him/herself the most important person in the classroom (teacher-first) and their teachers who consider the learner as the most important person in the classroom (learner-first).
It all has to do with how decisions are made. Are they made on the basis of what is easiest for the teacher, or best for the learner?
In a funny way I guess the very fact that we are called 'teachers' is the first issue here. Hear me out before you judge me! There is a very natural sense that being called a 'teacher' makes us believe that the most import thing we are involved in is teaching. If the most important thing we do is to teach, then it makes sense that we measure our success and effectiveness as a teacher by how well we teach.'
Teachers often reflect on how well a lesson went measured on what I felt I taught. Did I cover the intended content? Did I manage the class well enough that they would have heard the content? Did everyone 'participate'?
This is potentially the biggest issue with education today. As educators we need to understand that teaching is less about teaching and more about learning. A lesson is not successful based on, 'did I get through the content?' It is successful based on what was learned or discovered by the learner. Yes, as teachers, we need to 'get through' the curriculum. However, there is little, or no value in pursuing the completion of a syllabus at the expense of the learner.
'Learner-First' teachers are insistent in understanding the success of their learners. Yes, the teacher needs to be cognisant of their delivery, but this should never be taken as a measure of success in the classroom. A teacher is delusional if they believe 'if I taught it means they learnt it'.
The differences between teacher-first and learner-first teachers plays out in the big picture of the school and in the small details of each learning environment.
The realisation of how the differences play out in the bigger school picture was brought home in a conversation I had with someone about a school timetable. The faculty was trying to decide if they were to move from a 50 minute, six period day to a 60 minute five period day. Eventually, the decision was made to keep the status quo. I asked how the decision was made to stay with the 6 period day and the answer was that staff had voted. I then asked what the research said was best for learners. The answer was that the change would have been better for learners but teachers wanted to stay with what they knew. A collective Teacher-First response to an issue that requires a conversation about what is best for the learner.
I worked with another faculty on the concept of 'dynamic and engaging' classrooms. As a result of the conversation and a review of some literature on the concept teachers automatically shifted themselves into two very different camps.
The task was simple. After the review of literature explaining the concept of 'dynamic and engaging' learning environments I asked, 'Would a visitor to your class describe your learning environment as 'dynamic and engaging'? Teachers were asked to consider the points in the literature and describe areas of their environment which were already 'dynamic and engaging' and then to consider ways that would make the environment even more 'dynamic and engaging'.
The response was very interesting. The two camps were not about who already had a 'dynamic and engaging' learning environment, it was a division created by those who were curious about the application of this concept in their learning environments and those who actively against the concept.
The majority of teachers, having engaged in the conversation made small groups and unpacked the concept in a meaningful manner and engaged in deep conversation about it. Reflecting honestly on the current environments, and imagining together what possibilities there was to develop this concept within their environments.
The second, a much smaller group was very different. The conversation that they engaged in was about the chaos and potential anarchy that such a concept would bring to their environment. They were very vocal about their concerns and how 'dynamic and engaging' was another example of modern education gone mad.
In a discussion later with the leader of that school, she identified that there was a direct correlation between the teachers in the smaller group and those who were reluctant in the changes that were being implemented to move the school forward.
When exposed to a new idea in learning, Learner-First teachers immediately begin a process of exploring if this will add value to the learner and the learning environment, how they can balance the new idea into their learning environment and what steps they would need to take to make it work. They then consider how it will affect them as a teacher.
On the contrary, Teacher-First teachers immediately begin a process of trying to understand how this concept will affect them as a teacher, if it is more work or even 'different' work they will not enter into a serious consideration of how could bring value to the learner.
Even learner-first teachers have a breaking point. There is a point where all learner-first teachers move to a place of self-preservation. Such teachers will always be in a mode of seeking the best for their learners.
Teacher-First teachers should not be written off. The role of a school leader is to do all they can to shift the teacher-first teacher to learner-first - sadly though, my experience is that there are some teachers who simply are not interested in the change.
Any shift that can occur for a Teacher-First teacher will never be achieved through the heavy hand of authority. It can only be achieved through a gentle planting of curiosity. Leaders who continually model the exploration of adding value to the learner do bring others along the way.
The heavy hand of authority can result in a Teacher-First teacher talking the language of a Learner-First teacher, but the heavy hand of authority will never have a lasting and internalised effect on a Teacher-First teacher.
Learner-First teachers are more interested in what students need to learn next rather than what they have on the syllabus to teach next. They are more likely to bring a meaningful and value-added change to a school learning environment and they will never be satisfied with the status quo.
Teacher-First teachers can also be change agents a school. However, the change they are looking for is not change that will ensure more effective learning opportunities for students. The change a Teacher-First teacher looks for is a change that makes their 'job' easier.
As mentioned in other posts, change in any school should be in response to one of the following big questions:
What do my students need to learn now?
What is the best way to get each of them there?
Lastly. Obviously, if there is a way that enables a teachers 'job' easier without having a negative on the learn we should pursue that change. However, change that makes the learning environment less effective should always be avoided.
All the best for your journey!