Too often, speakers fall into a teaching space for the wrong reasons, and learners are left with faulty information, or painful experiences, or a diminished sense of themselves. This is pedagogy gone wrong, and the results run the gamut from annoying to devastating, but there is something worse. There is something much worse.
It’s worse when the person professing to be a teacher is actually a predator hiding behind the safety of a popular platform. When someone offers seminars or classes that are “accessible” or “open” simply because they are offered to anyone willing to pay for the privilege of registration, that person is taking on the role of a teacher. That person’s behavior towards his online community, followers, friends, and family then takes on a new level of importance, because he is willingly and actively trying to influence the thinking of other people. When this kind of teacher takes money from patrons, charges for classes, broadcasts his voice, is promoted by fans, but is not held accountable for his actions outside of the digital world, he is allowed to hide in the shadow of the silence of his students.
Teaching is another word for influencing. Consequently, those who choose to teach in these new, wild, open, digital spaces should hold themselves to a high standard of care for those whom they are teaching. Expertise matters. Intention matters even more.
Learning that is motivating, memorable, and meaningful comes from teachers who have earned their expertise, who share their knowledge primarily for the sake of sharing their passions, and who have only positive intentions toward those who will learn from them. If expertise or intention are not aligned with the needs of the learner, then good teaching can’t happen. The needs of the learners have to be considered above all. If you look in the heart of any good teacher, the learner will be at the center. A good teacher will use her expertise to help learners get where they need to go, and she will hold her ego in check through her desire to help others learn.
Without deep expertise and positive intention, good teaching simply can’t exist. Real teaching requires truth-telling, and you can’t tell the truth about anything without enough experience. You also can’t tell the truth without the right intention.
For example, if you’re teaching a class on how to write a book, but you have never actually written a book, or spent years successfully editing books that were then successfully published, I cannot consider you qualified to teach such a class, and will therefore question your intentions for teaching it. Because if you don’t have the expertise, what’s in it for you? If you aren’t able to fully nurture your students’ minds (which in this example is impossible, given that you would be attempting to teach a skill in which you actually have no experience), then what are you feeding? The only answer seems, to me, to be your own ego. And feeding your own ego is never an acceptable reason to teach.
If you’re only in it for ego, to shine in the spotlight, or to hear yourself talk, then I consider you unqualified to teach. Even if you have a dozen doctorate degrees proudly displayed on the wall behind your webcam; if you’re teaching with your ego at the center, you’re there for the wrong reasons.
The best reasons to teach are to help others learn the awesome things that you have learned, to share your genuine passions, to inspire or encourage others, or to contribute to a body of knowledge that is important to you. If you are at the center of your teaching, you’re in the wrong place.
When lifelong learning unfolds in shared digital spaces, my heart lights up with the good, crackling kind of inspiration. I believe vehemently in the magical power of people coming together to learn about the things they love, simply for the sake of sharing knowledge. Traditional education power channels have been well and truly opened so that virtually anyone with passion, internet access, and a microphone can become a teacher, and anyone with interest, internet access, and the willingness to learn can become a student. These new, open, digital pedagogical possibilities are all kinds of wonderful.
But with this incredible potential for wide open learning comes a deep need for good teachers. Teaching in a digital space today is like picking up a sheriff’s star in the dusty old Wild, Wild West…the landscape is uncertain, the rules are hazy, and people are trusting those who volunteer to guide them true. Facilitators of learning in digital spaces take on the roles of scholars, mentors, models, interpreters, and advisors. Ultimately, teachers influence the people they teach. So anyone claiming to be a teacher of any kind in today’s participatory culture better damn well be trustworthy.
As an experienced teacher, researcher, and curriculum theorist, I consider pedagogical trustworthiness in two areas: expertise and intention.
You don’t need a degree to be an expert on a topic if you put in the work to develop deep expertise. I have a bachelor’s degree in New Media, a master’s degree in Educational Technology, and a Ph.D. in Curriculum & Instruction, but I also have expertise in writing, storytelling, public speaking, and podcasting that I have earned from years of study and practice. I am open to learning from anyone who can show their work. On YouTube, we can all learn from tenured professors and high school students alike. An online seminar can inspire you and introduce you to new ideas and teach you new skills. The right podcast can change your life. The formal qualifications of the creator do not matter, but the expertise and intentions of the creator do matter, a great deal, if the content is designed to be instructional.
So before you trust your mind and heart to a teacher in this new, wild, digital space, do a little homework and see if he or she is worthy of your trust. Good teachers have to tell the truth, and teach with good intention.
Love what you love, baby. Learn deeply. Teach each other. If we all learn from others and help them learn from us, and do it with open hearts, with true empathy and concern for each other at the forefront, focused on the sheer joy of learning through communion with people who share our passions and positive regard, then the whole damn world will be a better place. But hold your teachers accountable, and if you decide to teach, hold yourself accountable.
Teach for the right reasons, and tell the truth. And stand up for the people who do. I hope you learn from all kinds of teachers who live this idea as a sacred trust.
That is fierce kindness wrapped in learning theory, y’all.
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