May 13th, 2015

Developing a Teaching Persona


teaching professor

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.

  • Michael Maguire

    I think Maryellen is on to something with her observations about authenticity. If I become too preoccupied with trying on many different masks to discover my teaching persona, I risk losing my focus on connecting students with content in engaging, authentic ways.

    A helpful tool for me over the years has been a journal. It's in my low-tech, long-hand format (usually a separate notebook each academic year). While I don't return to it very often, it starts to answer some of my own questions about teaching identity. After a successful lesson, unit – and this includes online – and/or course, I write about what worked and what didn't work. For upcoming semesters and courses, I can go back to my notes and pull out those teaching strategies, assignments, class sessions and/or online interactions that seemed to have some real, authentic traction. It's another way of reflective praxis.

    Thanks for the conversation!

    Michael Maguire, Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison
    Faculty Associate and Teaching Fellow

  • jrh794

    If there is such a thing as a teaching persona, I think it is about being the best, most alive, most caring person you can be in the classroom, in your office, and anywhere else you encounter your students.

  • lrusch

    You can/ must have a authentic presence in an online class! With the use of voice and video from short greetings, students feedback to narrated lectures and asynchronous discussions, you can develop a teaching persona. Your students will thank you!

  • Carol Perryman

    For several years, I worked in Second Life as a consumer health librarian. If you don't know what that is, see here: . While it may resemble a barbie-doll gaming site, it was and still is 'home' to a large number of universities, institutions, and corporations. CDC, IBM,, and so many more have had a presence in this virtual environment in an effort to explore new horizons. I was hired (grant funded) to find out how medical librarians can have a role in virtual environments. The creation of trust, using my constructed persona and my words, was really an important element in all this – and now, some years later, I am still learning from the experience. I teach online full time now. My 'persona' as a professor has to be trustworthy and transparent. I have no time or wish to pretend or mask. I do not pretend to own the truth. Instead, I present my self – with awareness of the responsibility I have. This means being open about NOT knowing it all, and inviting students' participation as new colleagues. They are our future, and I have direct interest in their presence in conversations and plans for the future. It is a different model, I think. Boundaries between home and work are erased. I am mentor/teacher/colleague – and so are they. What I learned in Second Life is that we need to be ready to move beyond the somewhat rigid structures of our institutions. It is our connections that matter. In my profession, the library increasingly is no longer a bricks & mortar place – and this can be said of educational environments, as well. Who are we, without our desks and shelves? We are relationships and reflection, a flexible and changing entity.

  • Katie Stofer

    Ditto all of this for science outreach personas! Underscores the need for thoughtful reflection in teaching and outreach (as well as many other aspects of our lives).

  • clcouch123

    Here's the assertion or maybe an appeal: ". . . it seems to me teaching identities also need to be authentic representations of who we are." It seems to me, too, that we can and should teach this way. Even early on, it seemed clear to me who was the teacher and who were the students. I was the resident expert, I was the designer and moderator of the class, and I was the evaluator. (They were not.) These realities appeared to render posing redundant, mostly unnecessary, and even unlikable. Actually–a number of years into the calling, now–I think I've tried to render myself more real as I've encouraged students to do the same: finding their own voice in writing, developing their own critical thinking skills, and so on. There are parameters for all of us in this. And I agree there are parts of ourselves to keep out of the classroom. But there's still enough of an ongoing challenge to bring in and share or model more of who are as people and pedagogues. I read a book by Jane Tompkins a number of years ago titled A LIFE IN SCHOOL: WHAT THE TEACHER LEARNED. And I recall, hopefully correctly, one of her early discoveries about responding to the exertions and exhaustions of teaching was to give herself permission to go to the bathroom during the teaching day. Scatological considerations aside, this allowance was a sign that who we are as real persons with appropriate needs matters. And it's all right to be and share that real person, even for the sake of learning and our learners. Thanks for starting this wonderful conversation about authenticity and restraint (referring to the mention of parameters above), all in the teacher's–and teaching–presence.

  • brooklynroads

    A few disconnected thoughts:

    – I suppose you're focused on post secondary education, but as a former high school teacher, and now college instructor, I realize that the question you ask applies to any teacher, K to 20.

    – The persona can change, adapting to circumstances. It isn't a phony shell, but an emphasis, perhaps, on the needs of the current students and situation.

    – As I grew older, I realized I needed to adapt to certain realities. No longer of an age to which my students could relate easily, no longer up-to-date in terms of music trends and pop culture, I began to change my persona, emphasizing the calming, wiser (one can only hope) and caring aspects of who I was, leaving the "cool" factor to those with unlined faces and smoother skin.

    – "No one size fits all" works here. Teachers should try to determine what their students need. (Not possible in a large lecture, obviously) , and adapt or adjust accordingly. My grandson, Andrew, now in grade 6 said that he liked his teacher, but not his sarcasm, the very quality for which his older brother who had the same teacher two years prior, loved him. Andrew is more sensitive. No reason why the teacher can't use sarcasm with those students who enjoy it while backing away from it with those who don't respond to it. (The sarcasm, by the way, wasn't directed at the students, just comments and observations.)

    I began on-line with a more formal, academic persona, but generally it doesn't work. The students I have relate on a first name, more casual basis, and so I've relaxed the formality in terms of language and approach. But I'm still searching for something that will be more effective.

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  • Linda Shadiow

    As a new professor I recall not being confident I knew enough about the content yet to teach it, and with shaky confidence I was not prepared to remove the "mask" of my professorial title by admitting my self-perceived limits to students who enrolled in a course. As years progressed I realized I am more an "expert learner" of the content than I am an "expert" and therefore I did gain some confidence that contributed to an evolution of my persona. I have two questions related to this discussion: 1. How does our teaching persona evolve over years as we get to know and trust ourselves as teachers? (Aren't we are also simultaneously developing a 'researcher persona' in our scholarship and a 'professional persona' in our department'?) 2. How does our teaching person evolve within a semester as we get to know and trust our students? I think I feel as vulnerable as students do during the first week about showing too much of myself to people I have never met.

    • Megan B

      “Expert learner”… I like that description. 🙂

  • mcbalick1

    After teaching for virtually all of my adult life, elementary, junior/middle, high school, and the last 20 years at the college level, I find that my "persona" shifts over time. I usually start a new class with a bit of a more professional air, both in dress and attitude, to help instill in students confidence that they have an instructor who knows what she's doing, the class is important, and that they are getting what they have paid for. Soon into the semester, however, I gradually move to a more casual approach. In this way students tend to find the class interactive, informative, and also, serious in terms of the learning that will go on. I strive to be approachable and empathic to the student experience. This doesn't impact all students in the same way, but it gives room to explore the topic and the learning/grading in a fuller way.

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