January 8th, 2009

Teaching Personae


Recently I read this advice to new faculty: “Just be yourself.” Like a lot of advice, this isn’t bad; it’s just not very good. Every person has many selves, so which one of the many should you be in the classroom? Moreover, the classroom teacher is under some obligation to meet professional standards. You can’t act in the classroom like you do at home in your PJs.

The advice ignores other complicating factors. It is possible to act in ways not at all reflective of identity. Professional actors do this for a living. Serial killers have been known to live normally in the neighborhood. A lot of teachers (not just new ones either) get so into acting like a professional academics, they no longer convey any sense of themselves as persons, and students find it really tough to connect with teachers who don’t come off like real human beings. Being professional can become a role, a mask, something to put on before heading off for class. It’s not really who we are. This way when students complain about that teacher, when they show her no respect, it doesn’t hurt, or hurts less because that’s not who the teacher really is. But when students offer compliments, they too apply to some created entity rather than the real person.

The “be yourself” advice is right in the sense that you don’t want to be someone you aren’t. But it’s wrong because who you are in the classroom is something that must be created. It should be formed out of bits and pieces of your true identity. If you’re kind of wild and crazy, a bit of that should find its place in the classroom. If you’re a news junkie, some of that should come with you to class. If your favorite magazine is Scientific American, fess up.

Moreover, it’s not something created theoretically, although it should be constructed thoughtfully. You have to take it to class and see what happens. You have to see how you feel—does it fit, are you comfortable, is it real and genuine? But more importantly you have to gauge what it does to and for the climate for learning in the classroom.

The wisest advice I think for creating this teaching persona is to remember that although it’s about you, it really isn’t about you. The teaching persona you want to create is that one that connects with students—that motivates, inspires, guides, and helps them to learn. And there’s a lot more to that than just being yourself.

—Maryellen Weimer