October 5th, 2015

How Do I Make Choices About Who I Am as a Teacher?


group of teachers and students

Who are you when you teach? When asked this question, most of us immediately respond by describing our teaching approaches. We might say “I’m more of a facilitator now.” Or we might respond with something like “I am a learner-centered teacher” or “I’m more of a lab teacher than lecturer.” But consider this question in another way: What “teaching presence” or persona underlies what you do as a teacher?

Most of us find our ways to teaching identities without really knowing where we’ve arrived or how we’ve gotten there. We may initially “try on” a teaching persona by adopting characteristics we have seen in other teachers. But a teaching persona constructed by imitation masks who we are. The learning environment is better served when we start with our own identities and purposefully choose to draw on what will serve students learning in that environment. We can easily forget that our teaching persona is a “presence” in a course. We teach our content and our students, but we do both with our teaching persona as a conduit.

The Aim: From the one-of-a-kind combination of human characteristics that is our larger personal identity, we construct a teaching persona that defines how we see ourselves as teachers and how we expect to be seen by students. The aim is to choose the features of our teaching persona so that on the whole it invites and enables as many learners as possible. To accomplish this, our teaching persona needs to ring true to our larger personal identity. Not all teachers accomplish this goal—they create a teaching persona comprised of traits they think ought to be characteristics of good teachers and end up trying to become someone they are not. False identities are difficult to maintain and, in most cases, easy to detect.

The Choices: Constructing a teaching persona is challenging, and takes place over time and across experiences. As both accumulate and as the contexts of our teaching change, we make different choices, and so our teaching persona evolves. Deciding which parts of “who I am” belong in the classroom raises challenging questions. What are the consequences of my natural use of sarcasm in communicating encouragement or discouragement of learners? If a characteristic or trait doesn’t contribute to the learning environment, we need to ask what role it is filling. What consequences (intended or unintended) could result? Some of what could become part of a teacher’s identity (like my overexuberant enthusiasm for my content) can better contribute to the learning environment with a few modifications. In my case, I learned that my exuberance was actually sucking air out of the room and proved to be intimidating rather than encouraging for a number of my students. The question then is about making good choices—putting together a teaching persona that enables the teacher to thrive, students to learn, and the content to be communicated effectively.

Some Examples: Let’s say humor is an important part of who you are. You can make people laugh, and you enjoy doing so. Why not bring that humor into the classroom? Research has shown that although humor doesn’t cause learning, it creates conditions that are conducive to it. Humor helps students relax and see learning through something other than an onerous lens. But, of course, not all kinds of humor are appropriate in classrooms. Jokes that might get a great reaction out of friends and family in informal settings can be heard very differently by a class of students with varied backgrounds and histories.

Perhaps you are a very nurturing person—someone who willingly reaches out to support and help others. Teachers who care do indeed help students to learn. But can you thrive? Can you sustain a teaching career if you extend yourself too often and too far and to too many students?

Maybe you’re an open person—someone who is very comfortable talking about who you are, what you believe, your values, what you’ve experienced, and what you think about current issues. Being open with students allows them to connect with you as a person. You come across as a real human being—someone who shops for groceries, struggles with ideas, and occasionally gets things wrong. Can you be too open with students? There are details of your personal life, problems you’re having with the institution, and past experiences that involved destructive behavior that you may be comfortable sharing, but do they augment or impede the environment for learning?

For many teachers, the teaching persona develops more by happenstance than design. How we define ourselves as teachers can help us thrive, and to become a conduit for connecting learners and content. Who we are when we teach can, for some students, convey messages more enduring than the content we teach.

A Starting Place for Discussion: What is a characteristic you have that those who know you well would recognize as being integral to the “real” you? Is that trait present in your teaching persona? If so, in what way? If not, why not?

Discover how your teaching persona, the classroom dynamic, professional satisfaction, and options for communication intersect to enhance the learning and teaching environment. Get your copy of Who Am I When I Teach? Understanding Teaching Persona. Learn More »

  • BeeJay

    I teach nursing and I think I mostly use a combination of humor and openness. I find humor engages students, makes them feel more relaxed, and helps them listen more carefully. Since I am also a practicing advanced practice nurse, I also share my personal responses to clinical situations and include situations with clients that I am struggling with. This allows students to question me, the clinician, as they adopt their own style as a mindful clinician. Students love to hear "stories" about clinical practice. I think this helps them understand the variability in practice that otherwise frustrates them. Most students come to nursing school because they are good at sciences that have definitive answers (or so they think). But clinical practice is rarely black and white. When they hear about the vagaries of practice, they press for one answer. When they hear about these situations as the teacher has struggled with them, they become questioning, involved, and engaged. Isn't that what we want from a critical thinker?

  • Kathy

    I teach communication and leadership courses. My personality is to make the learning environment fun, so I will use stories, video, photos etc., to help students understand the theory. I also provide some personal examples so that they know I am a real person also. Since online education can feel isolating, it's important that a human "touch" is involved.

  • Melissa Baralt

    I am a Science teacher in the Liberal Arts department and I find Comedy and Connecting with students makes me successful as en Educator. If you make things fun and create an environment that is friendly and inviting they will motivate themselves. We have to be motivators.. and our students must want to imitate best behavior practices.

  • Pip Bruce Ferguson

    This is very similar to the work of Parker J. Palmer, who wrote 'The Courage to Teach'. His comment, 'We teach who we are', motivated a recent publication I have in the Educational Journal of Living Theories, where I research exactly this question. See http://ejolts.net/node/245 if interested. It's a very important issue to discuss, I think. Otherwise, 'the goldfish doesn't see the water'.

    • Linda Shadiow

      Thank you Pip, for your response and the reference to your work. I just finished reading the piece linked above and appreciate the rich and thoughtful exploration of the theories in your own practice, your examples of self as "living contradiction," and the powerful illustrations of what dialogue with self and others unlocks. I intend to follow-up and read more work of yours referenced in the bibliography. If you have not looked at Freire's "Ethics of Authenticity," I recommend that to you. My work along lines similar to yours draws from a base in that book, Charles Taylor's "Sources of Self," narrative inquiry, and critical incident work. To others who are reading these posts, I encourage you to read Pip's essay.

  • Randy Way

    I remind my students that "it is discomfort that makes nations and generations great – I'm just here to provide the discomfort…"

  • Steve Hughes

    I am a management instructor and my identity is easily deciphered by students because of practical application examples infused with humor that are a part of every class session. I know I am what I teach as Pip Bruce Ferguson wrote above, because i have had the privilege to hire some former students that tell me I am same person as a manager as I was a teacher.

  • amy bening

    i have been teaching nursing for some years now, but until now i have not really thought about who i really am when i teach. this piece has been very useful and i will consider it critically and perhaps answer differently than i would have.

  • Flower Darby

    I put a lot of thought into my teaching persona when I first started teaching 20+ years ago. At 22, I was teaching 18-year-olds. Being so close to their age, I adopted some very stiff, authoritarian approaches that were a complete mismatch to my personality. These were definitely not sustainable, and it didn't take me long to realize I needed to be myself–with some deliberate thought to cultivating a warm, encouraging and approachable teaching persona as well.

    Lately I've been more interested in online teaching personas. How do we come across to our students? How does that help or hinder their learning? What does this mean when a lead instructor or instructional designer "writes" a course in his or her own voice, and then adjunct faculty members are brought in to teach it? How is the teaching and learning affected by that potential mismatch? I would love to see or collaborate on a resource specifically addressing online teaching persona issues and concerns. Thank you.

    • Linda Shadiow

      Hi Flower. Your questions are key–somewhere I read that (and my own experience confirms this) that in an online environment we have to be more deliberate than in a face-to-face format about how and what we establish as a persona. There is a chapter in a new book about online teaching (Major, Claire Howell. “Teaching Persona” (chp 8, 163-177) in Teaching Online: A Guide to Theory, Research, and Practice. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015). Maryellen and I have found very few references on this…I know your contributions to the discussion of this would be welcomed by many!

      • Flower Darby

        Thank you for your comments here, Linda, and for the resource. If I can further the conversation around online teaching persona I would be very glad to do so.

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  • Sharon Henry

    This is a quite interesting article. Teachers are the first line of interact with students. Teaching present or persona, I believe, is a very important factor in a teacher’s ability to perform effectively within the classroom. My philosophy is that your expectations of others must and should begin with you. You cannot expect your students to be only motivated by your words. Your personality, actions and attitude towards your work must agree with the words you say to your students. I am in full agreement with this concept. Students know if we care for them. This principle must also flow within administration department as it can affect the teacher presence in the school. We all must understand that the classroom experience does not remain isolated to the school culture. The collaborative persona linkages between administers, teachers and students must be understood as each impact each other.

    • Linda Shadiow

      Your thoughts, Sharon, reminded me of a question I carried around in my head when I was teaching undergrad and grad classes in a college of education: "What kind of profession does my own professional behavior invite students to enter?" The last two lines in your comment (about the impact of linkages) is vital.

      • Sharon Henry

        Yes Linda my 25 years experience as a teacher has caused me to experience negative and positive effects of the impact of teaching persona among students, parents and school culture. We contribute to shaping the world around us. Therefore we must look beyond ourselves as we develop and perfect our skills as teachers.

  • Cristina Nóbrega

    I try to establesh a good comuncation with my studentes. I teach philosoph and educaction.
    I feel ever like a student, because when I teach, I learn every single time.

    • Linda Shadiow

      Your comment had me thinking about how I struggled to figure out the very simple insight you note, Cristina. In one of the many "stumbling" periods of my teaching I foregrounded my role as fellow "student" as I introduced myself to students. It felt a little like I was distancing myself from what I knew about the subject and about teaching in order to align myself with the students. Reading Freire's "Pedagogy of Freedom: Ethics, Democracy, and Civic Courage" brought me to a more refined understanding of how I was a "student": "the exercise of my teaching does not leave me untouched." He opened up how I thought about "authority" (which I had been trying to distance myself from) and how to bring both my "knowing" and "not knowing" into a productive balance for being a conduit for student learning.