Do You Don a ‘Teaching Mask’ as You Head to the Classroom?

That persona we don when standing before students is what Jay Parini refers to as a “teaching mask.”

“What I want to suggest here is that teachers…need to invent and cultivate a voice, one that serves their personal needs as well as the material at hand, one that feels authentic. It should also take into account the nature of the students who are being addressed, their background in the subject, and their disposition as a class, which is not always easy to gauge.” (p. 58)

Parini does not think the creation of teaching masks makes teaching inauthentic. He says, “Authenticity is, ultimately, a construction, something invented—much as a particular suit of clothes will feel authentic, or inauthentic, given the context.” (p. 59)

How do teachers arrive at a mask—or a set of them—that serves them, their content, and the students well? Parini says they must try on different masks. He recounts some his own attempts as a beginning teacher: “Sometimes I played the pipe-smoking, genial ‘man of letters’ who just happened to walk into the classroom, almost by accident. I would sit on the edge of the desk, my tweed jacket frayed at the collar, my elbows covered in leather patches. I offered jocular (though learned) remarks instead of organized lecture notes, and replied wittily to student questions.” (pp. 60–61)

But he was not altogether happy with this representation of himself. He felt as though his teaching persona needed a bit more “fire,” even some “occasional madness.” Donning this new mask, he paced vigorously across the classroom. Sometimes he shouted; other times he whispered. Some days he threw chalk. But this disguise was too extreme and made him feel like a fool. Ultimately he settled on a teaching persona somewhere between these two extremes—one that integrated some elements of both.

Developing Your Teaching Style
Parini believes that previous teachers and mentors play important roles in the development of individual teaching styles. Most teachers begin teaching by trying to emulate a favorite teacher, or several of them. In the beginning, this feels awkward and uncomfortable. The favorite teacher’s persona may not be at all like the new teacher’s sense of self, or the collection of favorite teachers may represent different and incompatible personae. What the new teacher must do is construct a totally unique mask, but one that should incorporate bits and pieces taken from others. Parini writes about coming to terms with these prior voices and about “the long evolution of a particular and effective teaching voice.” (p. 68)

Donning the teaching mask and heading to class takes courage, even after years of teaching. Parini elaborates, “I always feel a little frightened as I leave my office and begin the long march to the classroom, my arms loaded with notes and texts, my head crammed with ideas I have not quite properly formulated. I wonder what the hell will happen when the class begins. Will I make sense? Will the students respond in sympathetic ways? Will I look and sound like an idiot?” (pp. 68–69)

Reference: Parini, J. (2005). The Art of Teaching. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Excerpted from Teaching Masks, The Teaching Professor, Dec. 2007.