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World Teachers' Day: The great educators and their ability to inspire

 World Teachers Day Mark Staker article

It is a question that all educators face – over dinner tables with friends or in professional circles we are asked, ‘What led you to become a teacher?’ More often than not the answer is our own inspirational teachers, who opened the door to learning for us, leading us to enter into a profession which has existed since we began measuring time. World Teachers' Day is a good time to look back over the history of our noble profession and consider those who have inspired education. 

Research and policy documents across the world recognise that teachers are not only a means to implementing education goals; they are the key to sustainability and national capacity in learning and creating societies based on knowledge, values and ethics. What is harder to capture in that policy and research is the intangible ‘ability to inspire’ – to give life, provide opportunity or to open doors.

That is the power of teaching and it is the gift of our profession in building the future. Thinking about who inspires us as educators draws me back to the great teachers from the ancient and most recent past, both known and unknown, as well as those a little closer to home, here at Wenona. 

Teachers owe much to the legacy of Socrates, the great Ancient Greek philosopher and teacher who inspired the pursuit of truth and a love of learning in his students. Socrates is attributed with saying he did not teach but rather served, like his mother, as a midwife, to truth that is already in us. He appreciated the voice of his students, those rich young Athenian men, engaging them in robust conversations. 

The Socratic Method is a pedagogy centred on questioning techniques that work towards eliciting responses leading to a questioning of beliefs and values. In many classrooms, and in our Renaissance Studies sessions here at Wenona, the same Socratic Method is used today to engage and challenge the young women and girls in our care.

Aristotle, another Ancient Greek educator and philosopher once wrote “education is an ornament in prosperity and a refuge in adversity”. He carried on Socrates legacy (passed on to him via his tutor, Plato) and, as the father of empiricism, established many of the theories that have since become the foundations of scientific endeavour. Tutor to Alexander the Great, Aristotle also established libraries, ensuring the preservation of books that continue to influence historic scholarship. 

Teaching, even in those ancient times was not purely a male pursuit, as evidenced by Hypatia, a mathematician, philosopher and teacher who worked at the University of Alexandria in Egypt at the fall of the Roman Empire. She was an academic and lecturer in astronomy, physics and computational thinking; a prolific writer; and a committed teacher, who gave life to her students in a moment of great tension in the world. In the end she gave her own life to her pursuits and was publicly murdered for her divergent anti-religious views. 

But commitment to education and to enriching the lives of students isn’t relegated to ancient times. As power and access to education increased as a result of political, philosophical, social and economic changes, new ‘progressives’ entered the educational space, shaping new ways of considering the work of teachers. 

Maria Montessori, the great Italian educator of the early 20th Century, a teacher and physician herself and the only female in an all-boys school, revolutionised education. In her ‘Casa Del Bambini’ she observed children and developed the pedagogy that bears her name. A progressive, she began to centre the learning on the child, developing a pedagogy that fostered choice and was seen as a challenge to the role of the teacher in the classroom. 

She believed the teacher’s primary responsibility is to create an environment that fosters learning and to provide the spark that will allow children to develop naturally, with the ability to be mobile and learn from their surroundings rather than be lectured to. 

Today, teachers continue to grapple with emerging pedagogies and a tension between the focus on delivering content and engaging students in learning experiences. These must be negotiated, differentiated based on individual needs and talents and engaging in the real world, often through the effective integration of digital technologies.

John Dewey furthered the progressive education agenda through the 20th Century by repositioning the school as a social institution - with a strong focus on democracy and an acknowledgement of student voice. His work complemented that of Montessori, striking a balance between individualised learning and the need to acquire knowledge. 

As we look to the future of education, and focus on a schooling that is innovative, creative, and global, I look no further than to those who work alongside me for inspiration. Often as a consequence of their contribution and service beyond Wenona, they shape the future with hope, choice and optimism. 

In 2016, The New South Wales Teachers’ Guild have recognised teachers across the state for their contribution to education. I am thrilled that five fellow staff members – Ms Noosha Jalili, Mr Greg McArdle, Ms Rebecca Rogerson, Ms Jackie Pei and Ms Louise Tskikras – have been acknowledged in World Teachers’ recognition awards. 

On this World Teachers' Day, we celebrate the teacher’s ability to inspire – to give life, provide opportunity and open doors. This is not a task restricted to educational philosophers, researchers or PHD candidates. It’s a task carried by teachers in schools every day. If education is about ‘giving life’, as Aristotle said, then the work of a teacher is a privilege.