August 18th, 2009

Teaching Styles and Personae


I’m trying out content from my new book at some of the workshops I’m doing this month. The discussion we had about teaching style and teaching personae at Georgia State College and University got me thinking more about the topic. I’m convinced useful distinctions can be made between the two.

I think teaching style is the collection of behaviors a teacher uses to convey one of those fundamental aspects of teaching like organization, clarity, or enthusiasm, for example. Organization is an abstraction—it’s not a physical entity. Its presence is conveyed by behaviors that have come to be associated with it. There are many behaviors that convey the coherence of our content. Teachers assemble a collection that do (in some cases don’t) work for them. The collection is unique and the way a teacher uses them is also unique. Teaching style is what expedites learning content.

Teaching personae is the way teachers express their personhood in the classroom and in relationships with students. It is how we convey our humaness—what our teaching says about us as persons and what it conveys about the values we uphold. These expressions of personhood are what make teachers vulnerability—the revelation of identity gives students the power to hurt—to demean, disrespect, and devalue the teacher as a person. For that reason, some faculty teach without revealing who they are. They fabricate teaching personae that, rather than revealing identity, hides it. The problem is that students always know when teachers pretend to be something they are not.

The reason to genuinely and authentically represent personhood in the class and with students is the power inherently a part of these expressions. Teaching style doesn’t transform learners but teaching personae can. How many of us attribute our presence in a field to another professor? And was it that professor’s style or their personhood that captured our imagination and made us want to be what they were, maybe even like they were?

“Be yourself and do what comes naturally” is sound advice but not in the trite way the phrase is often used. You don’t “just do it” in the classroom in some mindless way. Both teaching style and teaching personae should be studied expressions, created thoughtfully and executed carefully.