Self-driving cars, online banking, travel planning websites; even surgery is being performed by robots these days. With so many people losing their jobs to machines, you have to wonder… are the big bad robots coming for me next?
Well if you're a teacher, you're in luck.
The hundreds of thousands of people taking online courses from the comfort of their own homes may have scared you into thinking you were next. But despite this booming business, the drop-out rate is actually quite high. The fact is that while educational institutions love the idea of paying a teacher to give a lecture one time to be replayed for an unlimited amount of students and no overhead, the majority of students still prefer to go to class and learn from a flesh and blood teacher.
But even though there's no real threat to teachers from online education, machines are becoming more cognitive (natural language processing, machine learning, etc.) – so couldn't they just put an all-knowing robot in the front of the classroom pumped full of data relevant to the course?
As cognitive as machines are becoming these days, i.e. chatbots, they still don't have a quality that every teacher should have – emotional intelligence. Any teacher that's ever had to quiet a fifth-grade class after lunch on a Friday, deal with a difficult parent, or help keep a disabled student up with the rest of the class must know a thing or two about emotional intelligence. It's the ability to recognize, understand, and manage one's emotions and those of others.
Emotional intelligence is something that is sought out by employees across all industries. Better job performance, increased sales, productivity, and retention, and a more positive workplace are all benefits that come with hiring emotionally intelligent people. In fact, 90% of top performers are also high in emotional intelligence, and it accounts for 58% of success in jobs.
As teachers, no matter the age group, we simply have to control our emotions and, of course, be aware of and react accordingly to our students' many differing emotions. In a sense, a teacher is an actor that must read the audience and adapt the show to fit the mood, despite their own true feelings. A machine may be able to detect likes and dislikes based on data, but it can't pick up on emotional states and change its behavior to match them.
An emotionally intelligent teacher needs to be self-aware and understand how their actions affect others. They need to establish a feeling of respect in the classroom, acknowledging the many cultures, races, and abilities within it. This is something that takes time and requires a great deal of effort on the teacher's part – something a machine just couldn't do.
Teachers must be empathetic, understanding that all students learn differently – some are visual learners, others kinesthetic; some learn quickly and get bored easily, while others struggle for reasons they can't control like dyslexia and ADHD. Rather than becoming frustrated with a student for not understanding something, teachers must try to level with them and find new ways to help them get it.
That being said, everyone makes mistakes – especially teachers, who are dealing with large groups of different people every day. Emotionally intelligent teachers own up to their mistakes. It's all trial and error and if something goes wrong or you handled a situation less gracefully than you would have hoped, acknowledge that, apologize, and correct it. This sets a good example for your students when they make a mistake.
Emotional intelligence also involves giving students validation and creating a more positive learning environment. Students like to be recognized by another human being, especially someone in a higher position. They appreciate being encouraged, and in turn, it makes them work harder and do better.
Teaching also means dealing with people and problems – whether it's your students, their parents, your co-workers, or the higher administration. People skills like conflict resolution, collaboration, and good leadership make for smooth sailing throughout the ups and downs of a school year. Teachers know that on any given day, the internet might stop working, the field trip could be canceled due to rain, or a fight could break out at recess. Seasoned teachers become very good at thinking on their feet, making quick decisions, and problem-solving. While machines are becoming better and better at making decisions for us, like with online shopping, we're not so sure how robo-teacher would handle talking to Johnny and Jimmy's parents about the inappropriate gestures they were making in sex ed.
And what about bullying? Robots are not going to design and implement prevention programs to establish a bully-free, kind, caring, and open school community. They're also not going to sit with a crying teenager after school, nor are they going to hold training workshops about empathy and conflict resolution. And they're certainly not going to recognize an emotionally troubled student that's in need of some support. It's up to real life teachers, counselors, and administrators to establish a safe and supportive learning environment that's free of violence and emotional abuse.
Although teachers will never actually be replaced by machines, they have to understand that technology is now an integral part of education; to stay afloat, they must keep learning themselves and using technology to benefit everyone involved. It's likely that administrative work will be taken over by tech. But unless you relish in the tediousness of collecting data and entering grades, this is good news and allows more time for the important things like lesson planning and conducting after-school activities.
And when it really comes down to it, human teachers are just way more inspiring than robotic ones. Can you imagine Professor Robot explaining women's suffrage with such gusto that it makes a young girl want to sign up for the next women's march? Probably not.
We'll always need teachers, just like we'll always need encouragement, understanding, human connection, and guidance when it comes to the world's toughest problems. So until robots can provide all those things and more, it's safe to stay that teachers are here to stay.