The new role of teachers

Some students come to class but not doing well because they believe that they are not “smart enough.” When they face something difficult, they often give up. Without appropriate action, these students will develop a “CANNOT DO” attitude and let things happen to them instead of knowing how to deal with it. If you look closely at this behavior, you may see that most of them are VICTIMS of many failures in school so they feel helpless in their learning.

The reason is they have lost the foundation of learning earlier. For example, some do not like calculus or trigonometry because they do not have a good foundation in basic arithmetic. Maybe in early school years, they did not learn basic math concepts. If they do not understand the value for the numbering system and operations (addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division etc.) how can teachers expect that they go further? When students are “weak” in one subject, they lose the confidence to learn and it influences their learning of other subjects. Eventually, they fell behind the class.

What these students need first is to develop a confidence in themselves. Therefore, the teachers need to let them know that they are available to help. By knowing that there are solutions to their problem would give them the encouragement to seek help. A few years ago, a student told me: “My high school teacher told me that I was stupid and no good for anything.” I told him: “You have two choices: Either you prove that your teacher was wrong or accept what he said was correct. If you choose the first option then I will help you.” After evaluating his skills, I sent him to take remedial courses to rebuild his foundation in math. To help him regain confidence, I gave him several assignments that he could do by himself and continued to encourage him. By the end of the school year, he gained his confidence back and later get better than expected. Today, he is working at Amazon and doing very well.

Some teachers believe that their job is to transfer the knowledge, not to get involved in students ‘ learning. If the students are lazy and do not study, that is their problem. However, I look at the teaching differently. I told the students that today, they can find almost everything they need from many sources – textbooks, online courses, websites, and tutorials. My job is to help guide and support them in their learning. The fact is even with the best online courses, textbooks, and other materials students will not learn if they are not properly guided and motivated. Motivation or a desire to learn is a key factor in the success of students and as a teacher, I can play an important role in motivating students to learn.

We are living in a digital world full of information. Almost everything we need is available online. Any people who want to learn can find the information that they need if they have access to the Internet. Therefore, the role of the teachers needs to change from the transferring of knowledge to provide guidance and help students to learn. By clearly defining the learning objectives for each task that they teach (i.e., WHY do they need to learn this?) it will help motivate them to learn more.

Another way to motivate students is to share your enthusiasm. When teachers are excited about teaching, your students will also be excited about learning. When the class is dynamic and full of excitements, it becomes a learning environment where everybody learns together. The students learn from the teachers but the teachers also learn from students too. Learning is sharing and exchanging information and when the whole class is participating in the discussion, everybody learns. When students know that their teachers care about them and their success, they will study harder as they do not want to disappoint someone that they respect.


  • Blogs of Prof. John Vu, Carnegie Mellon University