Education is a Relationship, Not a Job
My father was a lifelong educator and one of the founding fathers of the International Baccalaureate. In the 1960s, at its inception, he brought the IB to Iranzamin Tehran International School in Tehran, Iran—one of the first seven schools around the world to implement it. My mother, too, was a teacher of music for decades. The result? I was raised in a household where talk about educational vision and practice happened almost every day. That, combined with my own experience learning alongside teachers and teaching others classically over the years, has led me to the following conclusion: to think of being an educator as a “job” is one of the most destructive things one can do to the idea and process of education itself.
How do I know that we live in a society which thinks of teaching as a “job”? If the Internet is any sign of cultural zeitgeist—and I think that is a justifiable claim—then a quick search online reveals how prevalent the linkage of the word job is with education. Even the Chronicle of Higher Education, which vaunts itself as the “No. 1 source of news, information, and jobs for college and university faculty members and administrators,” refers to teaching opportunities as jobs in the very first introduction it gives of itself online. Such language has permeated our speech concerning education. I contend that use of this kind of language has been one of the elements contributing to the sorely damaged educational condition of our society. I will explain why below.
A friend once asked me if, while growing up, I had any favorite teachers. My answer was, “Of course, yes!” (Most of us, I hope, had at least one.) When asked why, I answered, “Because they were the teachers who loved me and demonstrated they wanted the best from me and for me.” By this, I simply meant they cared about me and personally invested in nurturing my learning. For my own good, they established and cultivated a relationship with me.
After about twenty years of what we consider formal education, I can say that of all the many teachers under whom I studied, I learned the most that was valuable and lasting from about a tenth of them. I owe those who seriously undertook the task of educating me by establishing a relationship with me more than I will ever be able to repay. They helped form the bedrock of who I am: what I know and understand (and am thus capable of knowing and understanding) and, therefore, all that I do in every capacity, whether personal or public.
I think all agree that teachers have enormous influence. Most people remember a teacher who had a positive impact on their learning. Conversely, most can similarly recall a teacher who harmed their learning. Teachers are powerful, not just to impart the ability to read instruction manuals, fill out forms, calculate sale percentages at the store, and produce skilled and efficient workers, but to pass along a paideia that is transformative not only to the individual student but to all who will interact with them.
It is a great shame, therefore, that our contemporary view of teaching is lumped under the heading of a “job.” To reduce the art of teaching in this manner is to grievously misunderstand the nature and purpose of education as well as the way in which becoming educated occurs. This misunderstanding is fundamentally at the root of the decline of education today, illustrated by disastrous rates of destructive illiteracy, deconstructed content, and depressing indicators of societal decline.
To illustrate how simply calling the endeavor of education a “job” is enough to do damage to the idea, the process, and its outcomes, let’s investigate a few lexical definitions. Why turn to dictionaries? As Richard Weaver puts it in Ideas Have Consequences, “Language…appears as a great storehouse of universal memory…aiding us to get at a meaning beyond present meaning through the very fact that it embodies others' experiences” (from “The Power of the Word”). Words have intelligible, substantive sense. Therefore, the definitions and etymologies of words tell us a tremendous amount about how human beings think about, understand, and frame reality.
Contemporary dictionaries, such as Merriam-Webster online, define a job as a remunerative position. That is, a function or task for which one receives compensation, generally monetary. A current etymological dictionary (etymonline.com) provides an evolution in the meaning of the word: “job” dates to the 1550s where a “gobbe of worke” meant a task rather than continual labor; in the 1650s it came to be understood as work done for pay. It was in the mid-1800s that job began to express the idea of a paid position of employment (it can be no coincidence that this corresponds with the full development of the Industrial Revolution).
Now consider a lexical exploration of “educator.” The contemporary dictionary definition series goes something like this: An educator is skilled at teaching; a teacher instructs; to instruct is to provide knowledge; and knowledge is knowing something with familiarity gained through association—it is an acquaintance and understanding of a science, an art, or a technique.
First, notice there is nothing in those definitions of educator that mentions holding positions or receiving monetary compensation. Second, notice the implications of some of the key terms: familiarity, association, and acquaintance. All imply relationship, indeed, even fellowship: we are familiar with, associate with, and are acquainted with that which and/or those with whom we are in relationship. Contrast that with the meaning of “job” given above: there is nothing in that definition which implies relationship, either as a foundation, component, or outcome. There is an exchange of work for compensation, but not an exchange of fellowship.
An etymological look at the word “educator” yields added insight. In the 1560s, an educator was understood to be one who nourishes or rears. From the classical Latin (educator), in the 1670s it carried the idea of one who trains or brings up. Cassell’s Latin Dictionary uses the term “foster-father” to convey this Latin concept, which is clearly a term of profound relationship.
Burrowing further, we look at the etymology of the word “teacher.” It comes out of the Old English (from Proto-Germanic roots) tæcan: to declare, demonstrate, train, direct, and persuade. In the early 15th century, it came to mean to tell, inform, and impart knowledge. And knowledge in the late 14th century was defined as an understanding and familiarity with something or someone. In effect, to have a relationship. (Note that this would include not only the relationship with one’s teacher, but with the subject being learned…and ultimately, with the Truth, for knowledge can also be defined as the apprehension of Truth through cognition.)
What then do the lexicons tell us about the word “relationship”? The modern articulation is that a relation is a state of being connected, belonging together, and working together. “Relation” itself has the interesting additional meaning of being the act of telling or recounting.
Notice how significant words evoking relationship appear in these definitions, and that we have now circled back, arriving again at the importance of words themselves in the very roots of the word teach: declaring, telling, and recounting. Thus, we can see that being an educator is not a “job” where one is compensated for a series of tasks; rather, it is rooted in the concepts of fellowship and governed by the importance of using language-laden communication to support connection, impart learning, and accomplish its goals.
Understood in this way, it makes sense that educational visions which are able to focus on each child (such as homeschooling and smaller schools with intimate classroom sizes) rather than prioritizing large bureaucratized institutions have been seen to produce highly fruitful learning in their students. Building and sustaining relationships combined with persistent effective communication is educating that is bountiful.
Framing the work of an educator with the idea of a “job” significantly and harmfully strips away the most essential elements of education, at the very onset of the endeavor crippling it of its efficacy. The potency of teaching lies in nourishing students through communication with words, not primarily through checking off a series of tasks. Its goals lie not in receiving monetary compensation for such tasks completed but in cultivating a student’s learning through relationship.
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