Developing a Teaching Persona

An email query about teaching personas reminded me how much I haven’t figured out about our teaching identities. I’m still struggling with very basic questions and wondered if a conversation here might not get us all thinking more about how we present ourselves as teachers.

In The Art of Teaching, Jay Parini explains that the Latin word persona implies that a voice is discovered by “sounding through” a mask. “Most of the successful teachers I know have been deeply aware that their self-presentation involves, or has involved at some point, the donning of a mask.” (p. 58) “A beginning teacher will have to try on countless masks before finding one that fits, that seems appropriate, that works to organize and embody a teaching voice.” (p. 59) Teaching Professor Blog

Must new teachers stumble into a teaching style that works for them, for their students, and with their content by trial and error? Or are there ways that the discovery process could be more planned and systematic? And then, when a teaching identity has emerged, how does it change across one’s career? By accident? By design? What happens if it doesn’t change? Is that cause for concern?

The mask metaphor does get us beyond the banal advice frequently given to those who are new to teaching: “Just be yourself and do what comes naturally.” But what troubles me about the characterization of a teacher’s identity as something that is created and worn is that masks hide what’s behind them. They don’t reveal identity; they conceal it. Yes, there’s a need not to show our less-than-professional parts, but it seems to me teaching identities also need to be authentic representations of who we are. Using a fake persona doesn’t do much for the teacher, and it often disappoints students who want to connect with us as people.

I’m also concerned about the process of experimenting with various teaching personas or voices. Finding our way to a style that fits comfortably is a process, but the random sampling of styles can be painful and humbling. Most of us start with visions of our most and least favorite teachers, but we try to adopt these preferred ways of teaching without giving much thought to what we might be good at and what we probably shouldn’t try. Many of us spend the rest of our careers wanting to forget the worst of those first days. Maybe we haven’t really figured out what role experience should play in the development of the teaching persona.

Equally challenging, I think, is coming to terms with the blend of strengths and weaknesses that combine to make each teacher unique. My favorite teacher was a master at the Socratic method. He could take an answer and ask a follow-up question that led to a bigger and better second response, and then lauded you for making the answer better. I loved the approach, but when I tried it, I discovered I couldn’t figure out good follow-up questions. Either none came to me or the ones I asked muddled the answer more. I tried for years—and improved a bit, but never really got good at Socratic questioning. I can admit that now, but not without feeling the need to sigh.

Most of us are teachers for many years. We grow and change as human beings. Does that affect our teaching style and voice? In what ways? Is this a process we can control, think about systematically, and then make thoughtful, intelligent decisions about who we might need to become as teachers?

I haven’t encountered a lot written about teaching personas. There is a chapter in Claire Howell Major’s new book Teaching Online. She notes that establishing a teaching persona online requires even more thought and effort than for those who teach in the face-to-face setting. We can’t use physical markers like dress, and we don’t have the benefit of nonverbal messages like gestures, tone of voice, or the use of space in the classroom. Much of the online teaching persona emerges from course materials and the teacher’s written messages.

It’s another post with more questions than answers. Your answers and questions on the topic would be most welcome.

Parini, J. The Art of Teaching. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Major, C. H. Teaching Online: A Guide to Theory, Research and Practice. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015.