Human beings are actors playing a role/ roles on the stage of life. Once we choose a role or are placed in a role, certain types of behaviour are expected of us. If we like the role we play (and, probably, we do; after all, we chose it!) or the role that is ascribed to us (provided we know what it entails), then our behaviour will be the expected one.
Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English defines the term role as “actor’s part in a play; person’s task or duty in an undertaking”. Banton sees a role as “a set of norms and expectations applied to the incumbent of a particular position” while Wright defines it as “a complex grouping of factors which combine to produce certain types of social behaviour”. As we can see, the concept under discussion is understood as both “expected behaviour” and “factors” producing such a behaviour, which testifies to its complexity.
Synthesizing the three definitions above, we could say that the teacher’s role is to carry out his/her duty (i.e. teaching), to follow the norms and to display proper social behaviour, as it is obviously expected. However, Wright mentions other features which define roles, especially when we refer to teacher’s roles:
- Doing: different task-related aspects of teaching;
- Talking: role-relationships between teacher and learner, established through communication;
- More than one role: a teacher can be a parent, friend, judge, nurse, etc.;
- Beliefs: the teaching/learning process is influenced by the teacher’s beliefs and attitudes;
- Special abilities: vital for successful teaching and learning;
- Uniform: in our educational system, teachers are not required to wear uniforms, but there are certain dress codes (we do not expect to see a teacher in shorts and flip-flops)
There are social and psychological factors that influence teacher and learner roles or teacher-learner relationships. The participants in the group activity of classroom language learning bring social and psychological “baggage” and their role behaviour will be naturally influenced by it. When talking about teacher and learner roles, there are two sets of factors that we need to consider:
- Social and psychological factors (status, position, attitudes and values-interpersonal aspects of role)
- Expectations of teachers and learners (the way individuals deal with learning tasks-task-related aspects of role)
a) Status and position
Some might argue that “status” and “position” have the same meaning, but there is a subtle difference between them. Status refers to how much a social group or society, in general, admires, respects or approves something or someone, and position is almost synonymous with the title of a job. In other words, “teacher” is a position with a certain amount of status.
Status and position imply a set of power relationships, a set of rights, duties and obligations, and social distance. We will deal with the status and the position of the teacher in Chapter III.1 of the present paper.
The social distance between teachers and learners varies according to different teaching/ learning activities and it comes from differing ages and interests, unequal status and unequal distribution of power.
b) Attitudes, beliefs and values
Attitudes and beliefs bring a great contribution to our expectations of others’ role behaviour. Social distance and imposing power on others are very much influenced by our attitudes, which, in turn, are based on values. Values take a long time to form and a long time to change and they are visible in behaviour (or they should be).
Teachers’ and learners’ beliefs and attitudes influence the expectations they have about classroom behaviour. If the teacher believes that he/she should always be in charge of what happens in the classroom, then his/her students will not be encouraged to take initiative.
Values, attitudes and beliefs are part of our personality, along with the individual differences that make us who we are (different styles of thinking, feeling, acting). Fundamentally, we act and react according to our personality. Tony Wright distinguishes between the following personality types or tendencies:
- Authoritarian (likes authority and power);
- Affiliative (prefers to form close relationships);
- Conformist (thinks and acts as others do);
- Aggressive (behaves aggressively in order to achieve something);
- Co-operative (works well with others);
- Achieving (wants to achieve status, power, success).
If we were to choose from the list above, perhaps the affiliative type and the co-operative one would make the best teachers, whereas the authoritarian and the aggressive would make the worst.
d) Task-related factors
There is more to a task than just doing something: there is the cognitive or “thinking” aspect and the affective or “feeling” aspect. The cognitive aspect may be more dominant in some tasks (explaining a grammar point or doing a structure drill) and less dominant in others (describing a family reunion or taking part in a role-play. The task-related factors which influence the teacher-learner relationship or teachers’ and learners’ roles are: goals, tasks and topics.
Any activity that takes place in the classroom must be goal-oriented (it has to bring about changes in behaviour or knowledge). The teacher will assume the most appropriate role in order to achieve the goal of the activity. For example, if the goal of the activity is to improve learners’ pronunciation skills, the teacher will assume the controller role in organising a pronunciation drill.
The nature of the task also influences the role behaviour of teachers and learners. There are tasks which involve co-operation (role-play, project work) and tasks to be done individually (solving a listening-comprehension exercise).
Topics or the “subject matter” or “knowledge” are, usually, under the control of the teacher. If the teacher is willing to share some of the responsibility with the learners in managing the “subject matter”, then the learners’ roles will be more flexible and the teacher will behave more as a guide than as an instructor.
An “ideal” classroom is one where there is a perfect match between teachers’ roles and learners’ roles, teachers and learners working together in harmony, all participants fulfilling their obligations. “The obligations of a relationship are reciprocal, for what is one man’s obligation is his partner’s right, and vice versa. In this way the concept of role provides one of the best available means for studying the elements of co-operation.” (Banton, 1965)
As long as both teacher and student understand their roles and behave accordingly thus meeting the other’s expectations, we can speak about successful teaching and learning.
Banton, M. (1965): Roles. An Introduction to the Study of Social Relations, London, Tavistock Publications
Hornby, A.S. (1974): Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English, Oxford, Oxford University Press, s.v. role.
Wright, T. (1987): Roles of Teachers and Learners, Oxford, Oxford University Press,