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Five characteristics of an effective 21st-century educator

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"The effective 21st-century teacher will need to be adept in judging the educative and non-educative use of technologies," said one reader.

Today’s educators are constantly evaluating the skills students need to compete in the global economy. But what are the characteristics or skills needed to be an effective 21st-century educator?

We recently asked readers: “What are the qualities of an effective 21st-century educator?” Here are our readers’ top responses.

You might have heard that an effective 21st-century educator should be a “guide on the side,” not a “sage on the stage,” but according to readers, there’s much more to it than that.

For instance, one of the most common responses from readers was that 21st-century educators must be lifelong learners … and should be willing to learn not only from their peers, but from their students as well.

According to readers, an effective 21st-century educator…

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1. Anticipates the future.

“A good 21st-century educator is one cognizant of the rapidly changing technology trends; one in tune with the direction of the economy, and future projected needs for business and industry; one aware of the career opportunities for children in the coming years, and all of the requisite educational skills and talents necessary to allow kids to position themselves to compete. Good 21st-century educators are always pushing the envelope to ensure that their students are not left behind in the wake of progress; in particular, he/she is one advocating constantly for change in educational thinking and planning to ensure that a district’s sub-group kids (minority and/or students at the poverty level) are not being left behind for lack of access to proper resources to allow them to compete with their suburban counterparts. Lastly, good 21st-century teachers are not teachers in a vacuum; they are progressive in pushing for systemic change via curriculum sequencing, prioritization of dollars, and prudent, strategic scrutiny of decision-making to ensure that the preparation of today’s children is always focused on preparing them for the world(s) in which they will live and work—not the current world in which the teachers have to navigate and dwell.” —Amy Baldridge, secondary curriculum supervisor, Xenia Community Schools

“The 21st-century educator must be a fluid thinker, ready to look at situations with fresh, creative eyes. He/she must go beyond the obvious to see the underlying patterns and core issues of a given circumstance. And—most importantly—an understanding of chaos theory is essential: The butterfly flaps its wings and 3000 miles away the weather changes.” —Donn K. Harris, executive director, artistic director, Oakland School for the Arts, Oakland, Calif.

“Today’s educators have the daunting task of preparing students for a future in the global 21st century. As we begin to lag behind other countries in the areas of math, science, engineering, and technology, we need to educate ourselves and pass this information to our students stat. STEM education is necessary in all grades in all schools in order to remain competitive in this now global society. The first challenge for teachers is to attract our students toward STEM education, and the second is to keep them interested. An emphasis on science should be equally important as reading and math. We, as a nation, are already falling behind other world nations. Today’s students are our future, and our future depends on their success.” —Bonnie Bahr, kindergarten teacher, Baltimore County Public Schools, Baltimore, Md.

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2. Is a lifelong learner.

“I have found that not only for teachers, but anyone involved with using technology to enhance their productivity, whether it be in manufacturing, sales and marketing, science and research, or education, the most important quality is to be a flexible, life-long learner, willing to accept and embrace change, willing to make a mistake and be wrong (with the caveat that from those mistakes improvements are made and new skills are learned), and to keep the focus on the process and the outcome, rather than the tool. After all, when the day is over, technology are simply tools to improve our quality of life; when they fail to do that, it’s time to invent new tools.” —Chuck Dinsfriend, MBA, CTO mentor, director of Information Technology Services, Woodburn School District

“A great … educator will embrace not only technology, but be willing to learn from colleagues and students.” —David Brandvold

“I believe that a good 21st-century educator should be able to pose open-ended questions to students without having to know one exact answer. This educator fosters students so that they become the captains of their own learning.  Learning becomes purposeful and meaningful for students as they work through real-world activities.” —Jonna Wallis, 6-12 Language Arts academic coach, Professional Development Center, Scottsdale, Ariz.

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3. Fosters peer relationships.

“In this technology-driven era, it is more critical than ever that we foster relationships with and between our students. We must model and demand courtesy, we must model and demand communication, and we must model and demand respect and cooperation—our students need us to show them how to treat each other. They may have 500 friends on Facebook, but do they know how to be a friend? Technology can foster isolation, therefore interpersonal relationship skills must be taught in our classrooms so that our students can go on to be effective in the workplace and fulfilled in their lives. Helping students learn life’s lessons is becoming increasingly more important—interpersonal relationships, letting students know teachers genuinely care for them—and will help students be more successful in life.” —Julia C. Bernath, District 7 board member, Fulton County Board of Education

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4. Can teach and assess all levels of learners.

“21st-century educators must be ‘Situational Leaders.’ They must assess where each and every student they teach is at relative to ‘Learning Ability’ and ‘Commitment to Learning.’ They must work to bring all students up to a level where pedagogical learning is replaced by andragogy or an adult learning style, where students have a say in their own learning.” —Gerald Morris, adjunct instructor, Spring Arbor University, Davenport University and Baker College

“To be an effective 21st-century teacher, a teacher must first possess the very same 21st-century skills that their students are expected to have. And, in addition to those skills, they must be able to help all of their students obtain and develop 21st-century skills.” —Mamzelle Adolphine

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5. Is able to discern effective vs. non-effective technology.

“School-age children are by far the fastest adopters of communications and information technologies. The education system doesn’t need to teach them how to use these technologies, but it should recognize that technologies can help students learn more and faster. Classroom technologies can also make more efficient use of a teacher’s time, whether it’s with tools for lesson preparation, lesson presentation, lesson feedback, grading homework assignments, assessments, or grading. The effective 21st-century teacher will need to be adept in judging the educative and non-educative use of technologies made available to them and to their students at school and at home. The potential downside of technologies is their potential for non-productive use—wasting time and resources. The upside though, is significant if used properly.” —Doug Hatch, president & CEO, Core Learning