What is a teacher's role? The answer to this question has seemed to expand over the past few decades. On the surface, the role of the teacher is to help students learn the knowledge and skills prescribed in the various federal, state and local standards.

While this remains a primary responsibility, teachers have many other responsibilities, including, but not limited to, the following:

  • Counselor — assuring the mental health and stability of students and advising students on personal decisions
  • Communicator — frequently communicating progress to parents, other educators and administrators through telephone conversations, written correspondences and meetings
  • Monitor — constantly keeping track of each student's progress in one or more subject areas, and adjusting instruction based on their success or lack thereof
  • Investigator — learning about students' background knowledge and interests
  • Entertainer — keeping students engaged in learning about the content and skills we are focusing on
  • Innovator — trying new teaching techniques and materials that enhance our current practice
  • Technology implementer — building new technology into our instruction
  • Advocate — helping our students get their needs met and finding and sharing resources
  • Critical thinker — relating content to students' current lives and current events
  • Generator of a love of learning — helping students appreciate the ability to absorb information and knowledge throughout their lives

Several of the roles of this partial list of teacher responsibilities will explored in more depth in this article as they relate to helping students become lifelong learners. Many teachers would share that instilling a lifelong love of learning in their students is a primary goal.

Yet, how can we do this in an era of prescriptive learning and standardized tests? There are certainly areas of study that we as teachers find more interesting than others, and so it is with students. Certain topics ignite a passion for learning in students, and others, not so much.

At times, students are deeply interested in topics that are not a part of the units of study for the grade level or subject area we are teaching. Even in these instances, teachers are using and trying a variety of techniques to inspire students to continue to learn.

Modeling and sharing learning Be a lifelong learner

An easy way to begin to inspire lifelong learning among your students is to share with them your own passion for learning. This can be accomplished in several ways, including sharing about professional learning as well as learning about personal interests.

For example, after attending a professional development session, share with students some of the ideas you have learned. Make explicit that you are learning to implement a new idea, technique or skill in order to improve your instructional practice.

While you are building in the new idea, consider sharing insights with students as to what you feel went well, areas that were difficult for you, and your general reflections. You might share how you will adjust based on what you learned, demonstrating and making explicit to students that learning is a process that takes time.

Students may also be interested in hearing your own reflections and learning about the topic of study. For example, as you are studying a historical event, you might share your reflections on how history impacts current thinking in society or political views. As you learn new insights, vocabulary words or nuances in the subject area, share them with your students.

The sharing does not have to be a lengthy process. Mentioning that a particular word or concept was new to you helps students to see that the teacher is not all-knowing, but is continuing to build knowledge of a topic that s/he is already well versed in.

Consider also sharing with students your own passions and interests. This helps students to see teachers as regular people who have interests and hobbies outside of their work that they enjoy learning about. This can be done in a variety of ways, including providing time for students to quickly write in a journal about a topic of interest, and then have a few people share.

Some teachers use a community circle or free-sharing time in their classroom for this purpose. At times, teachers use this sharing as a wrap-up activity at the end of class when there are a few minutes remaining.

Getting to know your students

Linking content to students' personal interests can help to keep them engaged in the topic. For example, share how the information and skills being learned are useful in careers students may be interested in or in current topics of interest to the students.

While these links are not always obvious or easy to make, the more often we can make the links explicit, the more relevant the learning will become to students. When they see that learning about seemingly unrelated topics can lead to greater understanding of the topics they are interested in, it may inspire them to continue to make these links in the future.

Teachers can also provide opportunities for students to choose specific aspects of the content to study in more depth, or build in project-based learning opportunities for students. This can be accomplished in small groups to keep students interest high.

By providing some choice in what students study in more depth, and providing them the opportunity to investigate and study the topics that interest them personally, we are sharing and providing the skills to investigate other topics later in life. This provides a message that learning about aspects of a topic that interest you personally is fin and fulfilling.

While there will be times that students need to learn skills and information they may not be particularly interested in, by increasing the times they can study personally relevant information students will get a sense that we care about them and we care about learning as a worthy endeavor.

Innovation hour

Recently, educators have been experimenting with providing opportunities and time for students to learn anything they are passionate about. This stems from work at Google and other companies that provide up to one-fifth of work hours for employees to focus on "passion projects" and innovative ideas.

The practice has led to some innovations for companies that have paid off in the long run. It also provides a satisfying experience for workers as they are respected for their interests and passions and the benefits those may bring to the company.

In classrooms, teachers are experimenting with having an innovation hour a time during the week when students can learn about and investigate any topic of their choice. While it may seem counterproductive given the current pressure to teach myriad standards in a limited amount of time, the research, reading and writing students do around the topic may advance their skills in learning about other topics as well.

Teachers facilitate these sessions by helping students identify topics of interest and finding relevant resources. These sessions make explicit to students that their interests are worthy of exploration and learning.

Free reading on related topics

Providing students with opportunities to read about related, albeit tangential topics to the unit of study can be another way to inspire continuous and lifelong learning in students, as well as critical thinking skills. Students can be asked to make connections between current events or topics of interest to them and how they relate to the content being studied.

As students engage in research or read articles, books and websites, they benefit by increasing the amount of reading they are doing and helping to make connections that make sense to them. Opportunities for reading can be provided both in class and as an out of class assignment, with students writing about the connections they are making or having a dialogue with a partner or in small groups.

Inspiring students to become lifelong learners will undoubtedly take time. We may not see the fruits of our labor in one year. But hopefully, as we share what we are learning about, have students investigate topics they are interested in, and read, write and share about their learning, we will inspire students to continue to learn over the course of their lives.

This is a worthy endeavor of every human being, and keeps our minds active throughout our lives.