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The Evolving Role of Teachers in the 21st Century


About 5000 years ago, teachers were considered gurus (literally in the Indian Gurukula system): they would transmit knowledge to a small group of initiates. The status of teachers in society was very high in Vedic, Egyptian, and Sumerian culture. In West Africa, griots (story tellers, singers and musicians) were and still are revered for the importance of their educative messaging. The Sophists of 500 BCE Athens were highly esteemed and, through time, philosophers such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle – who were all teachers first and foremost – gained mythic status.

From the Graeco-Roman period to the Middle Ages, with its Madrassas and church schools, teachers spread their knowledge not just of religion, but of grammar, rhetoric and astronomy.They started to work in more institutionalised structures such as universities.

With the implementation of compulsory state education in the late 19th Century across Europe and the United States, teaching, now considered a standard profession, evolved to new levels: with large classes, standardised curricula and a prescribed syllabus to teach, the job became more arduous. The status of teachers became less revered as they were now functionaries rather than village or church sages.

With the growth of the field of psychology in the early 20th Century, the whole concept of what it means to be a teacher became more sophisticated.  The role of the teacher was no longer to merely transmit knowledge but to understand the psychology of learners, different pedagogical theories and strategies with a nuanced understanding of stages of cognitive development in children.

The end of the 20th Century and turn of the 21st Century saw the introduction of new technologies in learning: now teachers would harness the power and drawbacks of rapidly evolving web-based platforms and devices for learning. The advent of online learning became widespread and challenged teachers to teach online. This disruption continues to make the teaching profession more intricate to this day. The University of the People’s online courses are an example of just how transformative technology can be in teaching and learning.

Recent years have seen an emphasis on the emotions of learning. Teachers are not just curating cognitive development but wellness too; they need to know how to diagnose symptoms of psychological stress and, in that light, to develop students’ resilience while mastering dynamic dimensions of human flourishing such as empathy and interpersonal sensitivity. Teachers have woven techniques of coaching, positive psychology and mindfulness into the fabric of their work. Navigating intercultural dialogues, questions of identity and belonging, which require a high level of intelligence to effectuate, are central to the work of the teacher.

The Covid19 pandemic has created a concatenation of educational challenges for teachers, compounding pedagogical, psychological, sanitary, technological, social and logistical layers of complexity into a job that has become not only difficult but dangerous, placing teachers on the front line of potential infection in many places where offline teaching is still the only accepted method of functioning educationally.

The background to this evolution of the role of teachers has changed in the last few decades: the importance of education and the role of the teacher in society has been articulated more and more clearly: education is seen as one the the strongest indicators of societal growth whereas the importance of teachers has been identified as one of the most essential features for the good functioning of society. Despite this, governments only invest between  2% and 5% of GDP in education.

Teachers deserve our thanks: today their work is clearly among the most significant, demanding and inspirational of the professions.