Teachers hold the future of society in their hands. When children search for ways of becoming independent beings from their parents, they rely on mentors to guide them. Teachers regularly become strong role models.
Almost everyone has a story of how a teacher blighted their lives, or helped them bloom. Some are remembered as sadistic demons. Others are perceived as smarter than Einstein, prettier than the queen, or kinder than St. Francis. They can be the heroes that young people want to be like when they grow up.
That’s amazing power! It is also a serious responsibility. Negative lessons are internalized just as easily, or perhaps even more easily, than positive ones. If a student idolizes a teacher who is a bully, distorts the truth, or acts irresponsibly, the message is that these flaws are acceptable. If a student becomes seriously disillusioned by a teacher’s behavior, s/he may have trouble trusting authority figures in the future. For better or worse, teachers make a difference.
Being a role model is a 24/7 challenge. Perfect professional behavior in the classroom is not enough. Many students take an intense interest in their teachers, and details of their private lives easily become the subject of gossip. Adolescents tend to see in black and white, and are armed with powerful crap detectors. Teachers who don’t practise what they preach are unlikely to earn the respect of their charges.
How does a teacher set a good example? It begins with simple things like appropriate clothing, good grooming, reliable time-keeping, and civilized manners. Before teachers can legitimately demand respect from their students, they must demonstrate respect for their pupils, their workplace, their associates, and society as a whole.
A teacher who radiates warm interest in each and every student, even the ones who are difficult or less gifted, sends a message that every human being is valuable, even on a bad day. If a teacher challenges students to do their personal best and holds them accountable for taking their responsibilities seriously, they will begin to see themselves as competent, capable people who can learn and grow and fix their mistakes when necessary. Students have a way of living up – or down – to their teachers’ expectations.
Honesty is an important value that is sometimes painful. A teacher who is able to admit to mistakes and gaps in knowledge, and is willing to take action to correct them, is a role model for self-motivated learning. A teacher who knows how to apologize and accept an apology is giving a gift that will last a lifetime.
In short, a teacher should be the kind of person s/he would like their students to be. That is not easy, but nothing worthwhile is. Teaching is not just about transferring skills and knowledge; it is about helping people grow. Good teachers know that they are not merely teaching curricula: they are teaching people. Setting the best example they know how is a vital part of shaping the future of society.