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Learning at its Best

The Job of Teaching vs. The Role of Teacher: Daddy, I Need to Hear the Rhythm

Context: This past week, I was invited to be part of a panel discussion on a TVOntario public affairs program—The Agenda with Steven Paikin. The plan for the show was to discuss the job of teacher against the backdrop of recent tension with many of Ontario’s teachers around a legislated/imposed set of contracts. The response of unions was to pull back from extracurricular activities, a part of the job that is considered by many to be voluntary. This has led to some appeals to the Ontario Labour Board that extracurricular activity is, in fact, part of the life of the school and, by extension, part of the life of a teacher. The issue, and the TV program has me thinking more deeply about the difference between role and job. I began thinking out loud about it here. The entry below is a continuation of that thinking.

I was laying in bed with my two boys last night; storytime was over and I was in the mood for a song. The first one that came to mind was Harry Chapin’s Circle. I sang it quietly and unaccompanied. As the song finished I noticed that my six year old son, Luke, had turned toward the wall and was holding Bear, the largest stuffie in his collection. Thinking that I had been successful in putting him to sleep, I softly called his name before making my exit. It was then that I realized that he wasn’t asleep at all; he was, in fact, crying.

“What’s the matter, Luke?”  No answer. “Luke, why are you crying?”

“It’s the song,” he sobbed.

“The song? Was it that bad?” I asked, thinking that I had pretty much stayed on key.

“No, it’s a sad song.”

“Oh, and you don’t like sad songs?”

“I like the song. It just made me feel sad inside.”

“I get that, Luke,” I assured him. “Daddy reacts that way to music as well.”

Just a few moments ago, Luke came down from his afternoon nap-that-wasn’t-really-a-nap and I asked him to sit down.

“I have a song to play for you, Luke.”

“A sad song?”

“I just want you to listen.”

I put on the live version of Harry Chapin singing Circle and turned up the volume so he could get the full experience. Halfway through the song he declared, “That’s better Daddy.”

“What do you mean,” I asked.

“Last night, there weren’t any instruments and I couldn’t hear the rhythm. I don’t like songs that are just words. I need to hear the rhythm.”

In my last post, I began to explore the difference between role and job and, in particular, how the role of teacher might be different than the job(s) associated with that role.

Picking up on Luke’s insights, perhaps there is a sense in which role can be seen as the context that allows us to understand, make sense of and appreciate the jobs that are assigned to us as part of that role. Perhaps the role is like the musical elements that embrace the words, giving them greater meaning and value. Perhaps a deep awareness of how our job as teacher fits into the overall role of teacher allows us to hear the rhythm more clearly.

The discrete skills and activities associated with being a teacher can easily—perhaps too easily—be disaggregated and removed from the larger role into which instruction, assessment and reporting fit. And I think that, in a very real way, we’re starting to go down that road. The result is questions like the one posed in this week’s episode of The Agenda with Steve Paikin: Should extracurricular activities be part of a teacher’s job?

This is where I’m struggling. As the spotlight continues to be focused on test scores, graduation rates and international standings as proxies for both student and system success, I’m concerned that we’re losing sight of the larger professional context in which we work.

And that makes me a little sad. By distilling the complex dynamic in which educators live and breathe to a required set of skills and practices that define the job of teaching, we run the risk of further de-professionalizing a role that has, traditionally, been characterized by depth and a sense of richness.

We run the risk of not hearing the rhythm that both grounds and inspires.

​I continue to ponder and work through this stuff. Your insights and input are very much appreciated.

About Stephen Hurley

After working for over 30 years in Ontario's public education system, I continue to work passionately throughout Canada, still very committed to the idea of effective, powerful learning experiences for all participants. A musician, technology-watcher, father, husband, I find life in the world of education, even when the conversations get a little contentious. If I were to be doing anything else right now, it would be hosting my own syndicated radio program on--you guessed it--education. I blog in a few spots. My personal blog can be found at I can also be found hanging around and, most recently, I can be found on twitter as @stephen_hurley


4 thoughts on “The Job of Teaching vs. The Role of Teacher: Daddy, I Need to Hear the Rhythm

  1. What a lovely story. You connected the dots and gave us a metaphor for our times. Please continue writing. You made this teacher remember for the millionith and one time that ours in a nobel calling.

    Posted by Nancy Letts | March 23, 2013, 4:02 pm
  2. Stephen,
    I, too, loved your story. I can’t say I really understand the issues and conflict in your system right now, but I can say I always have and always will define myself–my core, who I am to my very inner being, as a teacher. And, in thinking back over my many years in education, I can also say that the time I give that calling has changed. It is not a role for me. It is not a job for me. It is something I do, someone I am, something I live.

    However, the time I give this profession changed significantly for me when I became a grandma, and I had limited time with my grandson who lives in my county. I began to understand better those who left school at the end of our contract times. When my kids were younger, they often rode home with me–but they immediately went to their room (not often) or to a friend’s house, or to the woods behind our house. They were busy themselves, yet I had access to them whenever they weren’t in school, at dinner most nights, in the evenings before bedtime. With my grandson it was different-I had “Drew’sday” (his word for Tuesday) and some weekends, and sometimes other days when something special was going on…but time with him became a priority.

    I think if we’re going to talk about jobs or roles, or professions, or obligations, we need to look at a bigger picture than just the person we call teacher. We go round this life once. For me, I have increased importance in spending time with my loved ones. For many, that is what defines how much time they spend at school or doing “extracurriculars.” But I often wonder–do other professions (or jobs) have to think about that question? Do they have 2nd (or 3rd or 4th, or…) grade concerts they are expected to be at any time it happens? Do they have pancake breakfasts on Saturdays and drama performances, and literacy nights and Halloween parties and Spring festivals, and all the other things teachers are supposed to attend (and/or work at) beyond the school day? Do other professions think about which clubs they should sponsor within their job, beyond their contract hours?

    But beyond that “putting our work into the context of our personal lives,” I’d like to share another insight. Not wanting to seem America-centric, I’ll explain something you or some of our other readers may not know.

    I’m in the USA–and we have something called National Board Certification, where a teacher goes through a pretty rigorous process of examining and documenting our practices and beliefs and behaviors in the classroom to document that we should, indeed, be certified by a national board. If we “pass,” it means a certain amount of recognition as well as more money. So, as I’ve gone through this very time-consuming process this year, I’ve examined quite thoroughly what I do–it’s made me more aware of darn near every word that comes out of my mouth. Beyond that, it’s made me aware of just how much time I spend on this profession or this role, or this calling I chose to follow–talking about it, thinking about what I’m doing in my classroom, worrying about this kid or that one, talking to parents, doing email to colleagues and parents, going to workshops–or doing them–or conferences, or chatting on Twitter, or communicating with kids on their blogs or wikis, and I understand those voices who say others can’t dictate their time beyond contract hours.

    Going through the process of National Board Certification has made me look at every child who walks through my door differently, as I continue to wonder if they are connected to others, what their passions are, if they are truly engaged with what we’re learning, who they truly are right now and who they will become and what impact I have on that. (I have to document that my actions have an impact on student learning–and I have worked hard to NOT make that all about grades and scores.) Documenting both student work and my impact has made me look at what I do in very different ways as I think about which kid I could describe and which ones I can show I need to do something different with in order for them to be more successful. I’ve thought about happiness and engagement a ton this year!

    The bottom line for me? The job is contract hours–what I get paid to do…all the rest I spend time on both inside and OUTSIDE of those hours is the role–the “meat and potatoes” or the heart of the job, if you will. The caring, the worrying, the planning in the shower, the ah-ha I have in the grocery store when I see the perfect pasta to use with the art project I was considering, the phone calls, the emails, etc…..those are what I refer to as my calling–to be there when my kids need it, and to strive to always be the best person for them I can be–no matter when. That time commitment is MY choice–not to be dictated by a school board.

    Posted by Paula White | March 23, 2013, 5:13 pm
    • Thank you so much for these comments, Paula. So much of it resonates with me, even though our contexts are somewhat different.

      Your last paragraph, in particular, zeros in on where my thinking is going. Here in Ontario, our current deliberations on what the job of teacher should be is important to be sure. I think now, more than ever, we are heading towards a stronger delineation of the job of teaching. But the job description will never, ever capture the broader context in which that job is placed. You’ve done an excellent job of describing the things about the role that can never be captured in a job description or posted in an advertisement for a teaching position. Yet, in a sense, they are such an intimate part of who we become as teaching professionals.

      That’s why this is such a difficult, contentious but, potentially, powerful time her in ONtario.

      Thanks for deepening my sense of where the conversation needs to go!


      Posted by Stephen Hurley | March 23, 2013, 5:38 pm

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