Teaching is the simple way of explaining what it is that teachers are doing when they are in front of a classroom filled with students. In reality, teaching is much more complicated than this; there are several perceptions in which it can be taken, each involving the teacher’s interaction with the students. This paper will discuss several of these perceptions. Given the importance of education in our society, it will also discuss the role teaching has therein. The education system as a social institution makes teaching of particular interest to sociologists. This paper will illustrate the role of teaching and teachers within this institution, and discuss how theses roles are important to society, and thus to sociologists of education.
Teaching, as previously mentioned, can be defined in simple terms as the act of imparting knowledge on students, which is done by teachers standing at the front of a classroom. It could also be described as the act of conducting instruction in a school with the intent to educate and develop the minds of students. It is this activity, in particular, that society deems important to our children, thus making teaching one of the most important professions (Parkay et. al 2005). Even still, teaching is much more than the chalk, and the books, it involves interacting and cooperating with students in such a way that they benefit academically from the experience. For many teachers, teaching is about seeing the students grow as individuals and knowing that they are having a profound impact on how students see the world around them. Henceforth, it is much more than relaying information laid out in the curriculum guides and textbooks; it is also about providing students life-skills that will enable them to succeed and be productive members of society. The teachers feel a sense of duty to ensure their students receive this well-balanced education.
Teaching has a high standing from the perspective of society. Teachers are considered public servants that are trusted with our country’s greatest resource, children, and youth. Teachers are required to have a high standard of education and of ethical values. While their main objective is to ensure students meet the requirements for, in the end, high school completion, they also have an obligation to increase students’ social, emotional, and moral development, as well as protect their health and well-being. Thus, in short, a primary role is to act in loco parentis, in place of parents when the students are in their care (Barkett and Cleghorn 2000; Parkay et al 2005).
Teaching, according to Parkay and his colleagues (2005) often receives a high degree of public scrutiny and control. Our society puts a great deal of confidence in teachers’ work, and therefore substantial power over their children’s lives. Parents send their kids to school each morning and allow the teacher to influence them, and fill their minds with new information to help them succeed. However, there is a small issue with this trust; its level fluctuates greatly in response to the political and social changes in society. Often times, if a community loses faith in one teacher, all teachers will feel the angst as a result.
Society also feels that teachers should be competent, that is, they are knowledgeable in their area of instruction, proficient in instructional strategies, technological tools, and classroom management tactics (Parkay et al 2005). People do not want to have a teacher who cannot maintain a quality-learning environment for all students. Society insists that the role of teaching include a complete understand of developmental levels of the students, as well as a substantial knowledge of the subject area being taught. Teaching, as previously mentioned, includes a teacher’s personal responsibility to help all students succeed, which also means getting to know the students’ backgrounds and family. Learning experiences must be meaningful to all students, regardless of ethnicity, and background. As quoted by Parkay et al. (2005) “Teachers must be mindful of the social ethic-their public duties and obligations-embodied in the practice of teaching…”
A social institution involves the behaviours and actions that are carried out by large groups of people in a society. A primary characteristic of a social institution is that these behaviours are continuous over a stable period, which makes them of particular interest to sociologists who study these institutions to find behavioural changes over time. Education can be considered a social institution for a number of reasons. First, it involves large groups of, both, students and teachers. Next, there are general social norms that govern the conduct of both of these groups; society expects teachers to behave in a particular manner that is appropriate and professional and likewise, students are expected to behave in a particular way, typically as governed by the school policies and rules. Schooling and teaching, or rather the behaviours associated with them have been a part of our society for hundreds of years.
Sociology is the study of development, structure, interaction, and collective behaviour of organized groups of people. Given this, the people involved with education and schools, along with their behaviours are of particular interest to sociologists, particularly those who are in the field of sociology of education, which focuses on the interactions and behaviours of students and teachers (Barkett and Cleghorn 2000). The study of these behaviours, as well as the structure of education and practices (teaching) can provide us with an understanding of the beliefs and ideologies that exist within a society and how people become organized within their social structures (Wotherspoon 2004). Sociologists of education are primarily engaged in the task of analyzing, theorizing, and documenting objective social matters – working with different social classes, the impact of racial concepts on curricula and their delivery, as well as professionalism of teacher (Willmott 1999).
However, to understand completely, the sociology of education people must first understand the different types of education. First, there is informal education, that which takes place within the home and from family members. Second, there is formal education, which takes place in schools and other learning institutions, as a primary means of conveying knowledge, skills, and values through organized activities. Thirdly, there is nonformal education, which typically takes place outside of the school, but through organized groups, clubs, or associations (Ghosh and Ray 1991; Barkett and Cleghorn 2000). It is evident which of these forms of education is most relevant to teaching with respect to sociology of education, formal education.
Formal education is of particular interest to sociologist for many reasons; studying the activities that take place in a classroom enables to sociologists to explore many questions that are directly related to education. These issues fall under three levels; the macro level, is where the society as a whole and the education system unite. This level examines such issues as inequality in society, and how it is propagated through the education system. Until problems of this nature are fully understood there is no means of coming up with appropriate solution. The mid-level consists of issues that occur within the school. For example, how students of different ethnicities interact or relate with one another when they are in the same school. At the micro-level, sociologists study the specific interactions between students and other students, teachers and students, and even teachers and school administration. More specifically questions on this level may look at how teachers speak and interact with students of varying learning ability. The questions answered at this level help to teach us more about what optimal learning conditions are (Barakett and Cleghorn 2000).
Teaching lends itself to interest in sociology of education because of the important role that teachers have within the institution. The aforementioned role that dictates teachers must ensure all students have an opportunity to learn the material being taught regardless of external factors such as socio-economic status, ethnic background, or even students ability to read. Several sociological questions can arise from a single classroom situation, such as, how the teacher talks to individual students, groups of students, students of different ethnicity, or what methods does the teacher use to ensure that all students understand the content being taught. These would be on the micro level. A specific example would be that of Flanders, who studied teacher behaviour. He speculated that student performance was a function of the effects of teacher behaviour, student needs, and the nature of the learning task. Flanders looked at several variables in the classroom, including teacher influence, student perception of the teacher’s behaviour, and student dependency (Boocock 1972). Each of these variables was studied through direct observation of the students and teacher, thus at the micro-level.
At the mid- and macro-levels different questions may, in turn be answered from different perspectives. For example, how do the roles and behaviours of a group of teachers teaching in the school affect that particular social institution or society as a whole?
In conclusion, it is clear why the study of teaching is of importance to sociologists of education. By studying teaching and the interactions, teachers have with their students, as well as linking their behaviours with the roles that are expected of them by society, sociologists can learn a vast about of information about the learning processes and about education as a social institution.
Barakett, J. and Cleghorn, A. (2000). The nature of sociological inquiry and the study of schools: the scope of field. In Sociology of Education. (pp. 1-21). Scarborough, Ontario: Prentice Hall Allyn and Bacon Canada.
Boocock, S.S. (1972). Classroom role structure and role relationship. In An introduction to the sociology of learning. (pp. 137 – 138). Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Parkay, F.W., Hardcastle Stanford, B., Vaillancourt, J.P., and Stephens, H.C. (2005). Teaching: Your chosen profession.In Becoming a teacher. 2nd ed. (pp. 28-39). Toronto, Ontario: Pearson Education Canada.
Willmott, R. (1999). Structure, agency and the sociology of education: rescuing analytical dualism. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 20, 5-21.
Wotherspoon, T. (2004). The sociological analysis of education. 2nd Ed. In The sociology of education in Canada. (pp. 1-18). New York: Oxford University Press.