What does it mean to be a teacher?

be a teacher

Professor of Mathematics Education Ilana Seidel Horn offers a compelling insight into how teachers individually navigate their field through pedagogical reasoning and responsibility

In my research, I listen to teachers’ everyday workplace talk as a way of understanding how they think about their jobs. With records and transcripts of this talk, alongside rich supporting interview and observational data, I hone in on teachers’ pedagogical reasoning – how they identify problems of teaching practice and elaborate their thinking on them through reasons, explanations or justifications. As teachers diagnose the troubles they encounter and imagine potential responses, I learn a lot about how they think about key facets of instruction: students, their content, their school and colleagues, and their personal understanding of what it means to do their jobs well.

This last aspect of their pedagogical reasoning – what it means to be a good teacher – turns out to be both a crucial and distinct part of teachers’ sensemaking. When my colleague Rogers Hall and I compared workplace consultancies between scientists in his data and teachers in mine, we noticed that scientists’ shared methods, representations, and approaches give them important resources for resolving conflicting interpretations or communication breakdowns. In contrast, when these issues arise in teachers’ conversations, they do not have the same shared repertoire to draw on. Instead, they frequently appeal to moral and ethical commitments – their sense of pedagogical responsibility.

The centrality of pedagogical responsibility and the purpose of education

By pedagogical responsibility, my colleagues and I refer to both the ethical commitments and institutional obligations that guide teachers’ work. Notably, these responsibilities are often in tension with one another. Researcher Doris Santoro, for example, argues that top-down efforts to influence teaching through scripted curricula assume that teachers’ “fidelity of implementation” is good. At the same time, teachers themselves may find that following scripted curricula is at odds with other commitments, such as being linguistically and culturally responsive to the needs of students and communities that they serve.

Questions of pedagogical responsibility get to the heart of an age-old essential question: What is the purpose of education? Is it to develop a compliant workforce? Is it to develop critical thinking for robust civic participation? These questions have been around for as long as formal schooling has existed. In our current environment, teachers find themselves wrestling with what it means to “do right” by their students, managing competing messages from their institutions and their own ethical commitments.

Pedagogical responsibility and teacher diversity

Attending to teachers’ pedagogical responsibility matters for recruiting and retaining teachers, especially those from non-dominant backgrounds. Research shows that many teachers from historically marginalised communities enter the profession with the goal of community uplift – to help students like themselves – with an eye towards mitigating the harm that schooling can sometimes inflict. When teachers are forced to choose between competing obligations of institutional demands and ethical principles, they often find themselves demoralised and disengaged from their work, prompting them to leave teaching altogether.

In highlighting the conflicts teachers experience in managing competing images of “good” instruction, it is important to not overly valorise teachers’ perspectives. While there are certainly well-documented instances of what researchers Betty Achinstein and Rodney Ogawa call “principled resistance” to potentially harmful instructional practices being foisted on teachers, as a society, we still must contend with overwhelming evidence showing that teachers’ unconscious biases continue to perpetuate inequities in schooling. In other words, top-down interventions to give all learners the opportunity to succeed are needed: not all top-down efforts at changing instruction are equally worthy of teacher resistance.

Values clarification is fundamental for teacher learning

The question then becomes about values clarification:

  • Why do teachers adhere to one practice and reject another?
  • What purposes are served by different instructional approaches?
  • Which students stand to benefit from different practices, and which students stand to be harmed?

These are not conversations that are typically heard in professional learning settings, where pragmatism reigns. At the same time, given what we observe about teachers’ sensemaking, pedagogical responsibility – whether examined or not – links the essential question about the purpose of education to teachers’ specific, discretionary choices about their instruction.

Because pedagogical responsibility underlies so much of teachers’ reasoning about their work, we should be doing more to attend to it in professional education. Typically, pre-service and in-service education focus on formal knowledge for teaching (e.g., how students learn particular content, child development) or on particular instructional practices (e.g., technology use, classroom management approaches). The essential question about the purpose of education is not always fully engaged when teachers attend workshops to learn new curricula or methods. In fact, the prevailing culture in many schools makes it taboo to engage such philosophical questions, which are often seen as at odds with the practical urgency of the day-to-day demands of teaching. Norms of privacy and non-interference among teacher colleagues naturalise differences among teachers’ pedagogical responsibility, framing different commitments as a matter of personal preference, often through the shorthand of “teaching style.” In my data, teachers will often describe themselves as rejecting a particular practice because “I am not that kind of teacher.” Yet questions of pedagogical responsibility lurk in the background, ready to be invoked as teachers develop their own “style” of instruction, making consequential decisions about what to teach, how to go about it, and to which students’ benefit.


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Professor of Mathematics Education
Vanderbilt University Peabody College
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