Do We Understand Our Long-Term Impact?

By 19/11/2019 February 4th, 2020 Education, Pedagogy

Are you a teacher? Do you understand or are you aware of the long-term impact you have as a teacher on the children in your class?

Like most modern TV series, let’s use that plot line where you find out an event near the end of the show and then are forced to sit through 35 minutes of exploring how we get to the end. Let’s rewind back to the beginning.

Now that we’re there, let’s have a quick confessional: I hate the phrase “those who can, do, those who can’t teach’. The phrase shows no understanding or appreciation for what it means to teach and a despicable level of contempt for those who do know and understand what it means to teach.

Unfortunately, I know a few people who like to remind me of this phrase. I often follow this up with an internal dialogue of how much I like my  freedom, and that punching them in the throat (repeatedly) might be satisfying, but it will ultimately restrict my ability to do pretty much anything as I am forced to reside at Her Majesty’s pleasure.

Hopefully you’ll already understand the reason for why I hate it so much – it reduces any respect for the job that teaching is, or has become. It reduces the hours of preparation it takes to make content that all students can access and learn from. It ignores the out of hours marking, or dealing with student issues that should be placed in front of a counsellor. It ignores the time spent learning, honing and becoming an expert in our craft. It ignores the meetings, the Individual Education Plans, it ignores, well pretty much everything. That punch in the throat is looking pretty attractive now eh?

Most importantly, it ignores the fact that the future economy depends on the success of teachers.

Did You Notice What You Just Said About 'Little Johnny?'

I’m not claiming responsibility for every good (or bad) thing that the world does as the result of good (or bad) teaching. It certainly has a role to play in it. I know in my own life, certain careers teachers and A-Level teachers had a negative influence in helping me get to where I am today. Being told as a 17 year old that you were not smart enough to get into a certain teaching college in Northern Ireland (let’s say it rhymes with Manstrillis) or smart enough to be a teacher in general, will either kill your enthusiasm or give you a ‘I’ll show him’ kind of chip on your shoulder that will take years to get off. Interestingly, I’ve also had university lecturers in said teaching college, tell me I won’t amount to much of a teacher. Whether they were all onto something, or the inspectorate of Northern Ireland know what they’re talking about when they observed me teaching many years later, but while I digress, the long-term impact of our words as teachers can be clearly seen…

To return to my point (which, interestingly my excursion down memory lane proves), teachers have the power of life or death in their words. The student who receives these words can be encouraged or blown apart by what we say, sometimes as a throw away or casual remark. I have friends who have similar stories to mine: teacher writes them off, tells the student this ‘fact’, student then proceeds to work and get a high grade. These stories are not evidence of the teacher’s brilliance or fantastic feats of reverse psychology. The teacher simply got it wrong. And we have to allow that teachers are human, they make mistakes. But these mistakes should never be at the expense of a students future wellbeing or career. We have the power of life and death in our arsenal. We need, no, our students need us to use it with greater wisdom and for greater positive impact.

Empirically Measuring How Teachers Matter

I need to be careful on this ground. Many could read it as being linked to performance-related pay and that couldn’t be further from what I intend to talk about – although as a quick aside, if this came into place, and teachers suddenly showed the world that we are hugely effective in our teaching, for how long do you think they could afford banker-level bonuses?

But of course, the heading refers to measuring how much teachers matter. Which gives a hugely different emphasis. An emphasis on a positive long-term impact on our students lives. This cannot be measured by grades alone.

Test scores only show a fraction of what teachers can actually do. Similar to measuring the worth of someone by their salary, it is the easiest empirical measurement, but also the laziest. I want us to look beyond the simple. Measure a man by greater things, expect greater things and people will rise to meet the challenge. Expect less and less, you lower the intellectual bar until you have people in a pub arguing with actual rocket scientists over the finer points of space travel. Wikipedia, an expert does not make.

Every teacher in the world today can coach their students to pass a test. Regardless of the topic, there are a finite number of questions that we can ask. Answers can be coached. Multiple choice type questions are already broken before they’ve been asked. We need to look at other metrics to view real worth. Our long-term impact must be greater than the total sum of tests passed.

Using the Science of Learning

The idea that everything within us is connected and can be used to aid learning, is an idea that I am hugely impressed by.

Darling-Hammond (2019) recently commented that “the science says to us that, in fact, the way the brain functions and grows, it needs safety, it needs warmth, it actually even needs hugs…. We actually learn in a state of positive emotion much more effectively than we can learn in a state of negative emotion. That has huge implications for what we do in schools.”

This has huge implications for how we currently teach, and in fact for how our schools are structured. I’m not about to become an advocate for hugging – I understand there needs to be laws, checks and measures etc. (and for good reason) but in a wider context if this feeling of safety and postive emotion was able to become an aspect of student experience, how much would our students benefit from it? How would grades be reflected in an environment were students knew and understood – in a deeper way – that their teachers and lecturers were interested in their overall development as people?

Ray (2017) listed 6 traits of a life-changing teacher. They include feeling safe; modelling patience; knwing when to be tough; beleiving in their students; and showing love for their students. The pursuit of good grades, standard of teaching, ability or knowledge of the teacher did not make the list.


long-term impact of teachers

Preparation For Life, Not Just For Exams

This is an area that excites me. Preparation for life is one of the most rewarding aspects of teaching. The long-term impact of teaching can be most prevalent in this area. We can affect opinions which can make students into lifelong learners, or we can leave them with a feeling of being glad to be out of education.

I think that I’m at the better end of this – students go to university and into their careers after my part with them ends. They’re adults and they are attending my class because they want a career in the field of computing. Motivation is easier to come by because the students are at the point where they can see the prize. It might be just over the hill or a few ears down the line, but it is visible.

Preparation for life now also means a preparation for lifelong learning. The long-term impact of positive teaching can result in a more qualified workforce, which can yield higher productivity and great prosperity to the business and wider economy. We now longer live in a world where people work in the same company until they retire. It is becoming less and less common to see employees hit double digits in their employment history. This is a factor with my generation, so it can only continue with younger generations who are yet to enter the job market.

Technology has a role to play in this – with so much changing in every industry, we are now talking about disruptive technolgies in higher education and how we are going to respond to these new technologies. How people learn has changed – the internet has had a huge influence on this, and will continue to change the nature of how, when and what we learn.

A Conclusion of Sorts...

It’s not an easy topic to conclude because there we’ve been discussing the long-term impact of our teaching on our students. For many, it will come through conversation. One of my teachers who has had a lasting impact was a history lecturer who taught me in the North Down and Ards Insitute for Further and Higher Education (or N.D.A.IF.H.E for short), but is now the much more manageable SERC (South Eastern Regional College). He introduced the topic of Nazi Germany by setting himself the task of convincing us that we would have voted for Adolf just as much as the Germans did. He openly set himself an impossible task, but he succeeded. His impact for me is memorable and lasting not just because he loved his subject, but because of how meticulous he was with his students. He gave every one of us the confidence he knew we needed in order to succeed.

Sometimes it’s the knowledge that someone believes in us (and tells us that) that can give us the confidence to go onto bigger and greater things.

Our long-term impact can  release students to achieve their goals or it can be a shackle that binds them in an invisible prision for many years. It’s our choice. We are the profession that can quite simply change the word for the better by leading our students into a world were they know they are encouraged, supported, respected and guided to achieve everything they have dreamed of. But only if we start.


Michael Johnston

About Michael Johnston

Michael Johnston is a Lecturer in Computing and the Foundation Degree Director in Computing for the Northern Regional College in Northern Ireland. Michael has research interests in the areas of technology enhanced learning, instructional learning design, blended learning and education. Michael currently specialises in the computing areas of web development technologies, cyber security, software development and IoT. Michael has worked in a range of different roles in IT-from teaching roles to running his own web design company, Michael is equally at home working with theory, as he is conducting research, or building a bespoke IT solution. Michael is currently studying a PhD in Cyberpsychology.

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