Rethinking the Role of Teachers

06/06/2013 01:29 pm ET | Updated Aug 06, 2013

After reflecting on my experiences in high school and college, and having taught for a year myself, I've found myself confronted with questions regarding the core aspects of education -- issues and questions that seem simple at face value, but become mind-numbingly complex once you dig a bit deeper. What is a teacher's job? What does a grade reflect in a student? What does one need to do to succeed in school?

The simple answers are that a teacher's job is to educate. A grade reflects a student's understanding of class material. To succeed, one must study diligently. But after enduring roughly 16 years of our nation's public education system, it doesn't take a neuroscientist to realize that this is simply not the case.

A teacher's job should be to teach students to love and value learning, and to think for themselves. A teacher ought to be there to guide students through that process, to encourage and answer thoughtful questions, and to help students become interested in their education and find some use for it. Instead, despite the mantra that "there is no such thing as a stupid question," students often feel discouraged from thinking differently or making mistakes, thus killing creativity. Additionally, life skills are as big a part of being educated as academics, but unfortunately many schools neglect teaching them.

A grade should be based on how much a student has learned, even if it is achieved by unconventional methods. Creative problem solving should be embraced, not discouraged. If a subject comes naturally to a student, don't punish them for choosing not to do useless busywork. Conversely, if a student does poorly on a project, paper, or any big assignment, give them a chance to try again and prove they can do better.

This especially applies to grading a student's writing. There is nothing more discouraging than putting all your effort into a creative writing assignment and being told it's C+ quality. That's a total slap in the face. A teacher's job is to guide, not to judge. Show a student how to improve and then give him a chance to do so, or he will forever resent you. A student gets way more out of writing and rewriting and rewriting a paper until it's A-quality material, than they do if they write three different papers that are all judged to be C-quality.

The purpose of teaching writing is that student may learn to communicate effectively. Naturally, certain people are more gifted communicators than others, but this skill is nevertheless one that anyone can achieve with self-discipline. This is effectively demonstrated by Benjamin Franklin, one of the greatest of our Founding Fathers.

To hone his communication and debate skills as a boy, Franklin practiced writing down his arguments, as a way of teaching himself to better organize his thoughts. Once he realized that by writing he was improving his verbal communication skills, he focused on improving his writing as well. In order to do this, he organized passages from great writers, wrote summaries of them, and then practiced rewriting them into verse or prose.

He did this until he was able to naturally imitate the writers he so admired, even improving upon their prose in some cases (in his modest opinion). Through reading, writing, and debating, he learned how to research, organize, and articulate information clearly and eloquently. All this was all accomplished in his spare time.

If young Franklin was able to acquire such skills outside of school, there is no doubt in my mind that teachers can effectively borrow his methods and produce similar results in the classroom. With a little creativity, these exercises could easily be turned into some kind of game, potentially making the learning process much more enjoyable.

Clearly one of the most important things a student needs to embrace to succeed is the endeavor of self-education. This is why one of the most essential roles of a teacher is to motivate and inspire -- to teach students the joy of learning.

People often complain about how expensive education has become. They fail to realize that with the internet, a library card, and a little self-discipline, an education is virtually free. It's the degree that's expensive. As Matt Damon says in Good Will Hunting, when his character is arguing with a pretentious Harvard student:

"You dropped a hundred and fifty grand on a f*ckin' education you coulda' got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the Public Library."

Well put, Matt Damon. As usual.