September 11th, 2013

The Interaction Between Content, Character, and Teaching Style


I’ve been thinking lately about the relationship between what we teach and how we teach. Part of that relationship is pretty obvious: If you teach something with problems to solve, you spend time problem-solving when you teach. If you teach a skill (like writing or dancing), you spend time providing examples (of good sentences or dance steps). But what I’ve been trying to sort out is something on a different level—the interaction between content, character, and teaching style.

Fashion was the metaphor that started this thinking. I know, some of us have no interest in the way we express things about who we are by what we wear. Clothes keep us covered and warm. Some of us (and I’m not just referring to children) are dressed by others who end up buying most (all, in the case of my spouse) of what we wear. But still, whether by design or happenstance, what we wear sends a message. If we want to, we can use clothes to create a style that says something about who we are. It can be as unique and individual as our faces.

Teaching style is also something we create and something through which our individuality can be reflected. Typically, when we think about teaching style, we equate it with the presentational aspects of teaching—we may gesture, move around, use eye contact, or vary our voice. All of these are avenues for self-expression. What we don’t think much about (or, perhaps more honestly, what I haven’t thought much about) is how content might also influence, not just how we teach, in terms of what we must do (solve problems or provide demonstrations), but how content might shape and influence our teaching styles.

I’m thinking content might be the “clothes” we wear when we teach.

Our relationship with what we teach is complex and emotional. Most of us are passionate about our content. We find it fascinating, challenging, and full of intellectual intrigue. Some of us have been teaching this stuff for years and are still deeply in love with it. We believe in it and know that it matters. I remember talking with a geologist who is a superb teacher. I asked what he thought made him so effective in the classroom. “Oh, it’s what I teach,” he said without hesitation. “It’s the content. I just happen to teach the most fascinating material. Without my rocks, I wouldn’t be much of a teacher.”

A relationship this important must influence how we teach in significant ways, but are those ways apparent to us? Now I’m wondering if the expression of style that makes teaching authentic and powerful isn’t conveyed more by how we “wear” our content than by how we gesture, use our voice, or manipulate the muscles in our face. Those aspects of content that we wear to class not only reveal things about the content, those outfits also convey things about us as human beings. When what we teach gets appropriately integrated with who we are, the results are dramatic—the style can be iconic, powerful, and beautiful. We recognize it even though we can’t always explain why it works so well.

Some of us dress boldly with our content, others opt for more classic connections, and then there are those of us who love eccentricity. There’s no one way or right way to dress with our content. What makes the style memorable—in other words, what makes it work—is how well it fits the person wearing it.

When I first start thinking about things I don’t understand well, metaphors help me find my way. They are the scaffolding that allows me to climb up for a closer look. But a metaphor isn’t the end of the story any more than the scaffold is the building. We don’t “wear” our content, exactly. But we do communicate things about it as we teach, and that communicates things about us. Take this as a first pass at trying to figure out how content and character get integrated into teaching style. And after that I’d love to understand how a teacher might go about creating a teaching style that maximizes the connection between the two.

  • I'm very intrigued by this analogy, Maryellen, and I will have to ponder it some more. One blind spot I see is how this relates to online teaching. I think the analogy is still applicable but more description/explication is needed to flesh it out.

    • Carol


      I have taught entirely online for three semesters now. My hope is that my courses contain the content that I love, and that I can best present and make meaningful to my students. Certainly those who teach online are still present in the classes they teach, even though some of them might be wearing their Goodwill clothes.

      Thanks for a thoughtful article. I enjoyed Maryellen's attempt to work out a puzzle through both thinking and writing about it.

  • CLupton

    I found this analogy thought-provoking, and look forward to thinking about it more as I'm in the classroom today. Thanks for posting your thoughts along the path, rather than waiting til you reached a destination to write.

  • Guest

    "the presentational aspects of teaching—we may gesture, move around, use eye contact, or vary our voice" – these are the presentational aspects of lecturing, which is only one part of teaching!

    • RCox

      I completely disagree with 'Guest." Gesturing, movement, eye contact, and use of voice are also important when asking and responding to student questions and interacting with student groups. Any time the teacher is in the presence of students, these things matter and should not be ignored.

  • Tom Carlson

    an interesting extension of this perspective is how a paticular department might try to dictate how certain things are done in that department's classes, and why that always rubs somebody the wrong way. It's probably often less a question of effective pedagogy, or even effective administration, and more a question of personal styles, deriving from the individuals' different characters.
    Very thought provoking post!

  • Jonny Yoder

    So, would you say that there is a swing in education for more passion in the subject? Since the industrial revolution and late 1900's there has seemed to be a trend of "dry data." People look to teachers as providers of facts. Our push for factual science has stifled emotional connection to wisdom. It is good to push for more integration of thought and emotion rather than factual attainment.

  • Martin Horejsi

    This topic is of great interest to me. I have been observing what I call "Textured Learning" where the texture is the part of the teaching/learning equation the teacher brings that is beyond the curriculum. Perhaps similar to the "clothes" analogy mentioned above.

    I am working to define a capture method that would allow inspection of the teaching textures. From there I would like to research the interaction between texture and student allowing a greater predictability of success beyond curriculum-based diagnostic measures. I especially would like to focus on the places where instructional technology enters the mix. For me, there is much valuable texture information to be discovered as teachers share the stage with electronics.

    Since I am early in my studies of this, I am happy to hear what others think about it since many of my ideas and what avenues would be best to document and describe the "textures."

  • Annie Riley

    Since I am going to School for TESL this article intrigued me very much. I love the analogy that you put with teaching and clothing. It was easy to read and understand.

    I myself am trying to define the way to teach my futuer students in a way that they will not become board. The Different Teaching textures is a very interesting subject and I espically want my students to foucs have fun and get something out of the class. Since we are in the technology age there are more ways that teachers can reach out to students and hopefull when I do end up becomming a teacher I be up to date with the technology.

    I wouldnt want to be restricted to what I can and can not do in class, I would like some flexability. Of course there are always texts that I have to prepare the students for. Every teacher has his or her own style.

  • Julia So

    Thanks for sharing, Maryellen. I always remind myself that every interaction I have with students is a teaching moment because students are watching and learning from me (hopefully the good and not the bad). These interactions can be a phone conversation, an e-mail exchange or a Q&A in the classroom. Do I listen attentively? Am I respectful? Do I behave professionally? Am I overly professorial? One way I help myself to pay attention to my body language in the classroom is reviewing my class captures. It's amazing how much I learn by just observing myself.

  • Susan P.

    A very good insight and makes me think of how much of my authentic self I bring to the classroom. I'm very passionate, animated, and never tire of discussing my subject matter. Most importantly, my authentic self is centered around happiness…specifically humor. My father always taught me to relax through difficult circumstances, and he often taught this with a gentle humor. I have carried that lesson throughout my life and always find a way to find brightness and laughter in everything. When I was a student, I always learned more effectively if the instructor was not only knowledgeable, but approached a difficult task with confidence and a touch of humor. Laughter eases the stress response, and if I was enjoying myself then I always learned more effectively. This is still true for me in my own life, so I make it a point to share this in the classroom. When we laugh, we relax, we open up, we trust. This opens the floor for more questions and more investment in the project, quiz, paper, or whatever I ask of the students. Thank you!

  • lmdupree

    I often think about this when colleagues ask if they can borrow my materials. While I am always happy to share, the readings and activities I select are specific to my teaching style and personality. Often these materials do not translate well to other professors, and if they fall flat, the onus can sometimes come back to me.

  • Dennis Bradford

    Maryellen, a very intriguing post; thanks for captivating our imagination. I particularly identified with your description of “content being the clothes which we wear” and have found this true in my limited experience as an adjunct with a faith-based institution where integrating our faith in the classroom is part of the school’s purpose statement, and based on comments from incoming students is instrumental in their choice of schools.

    When our class discusses theory or principles from the text and considers how it impacts our faith (both positively and negatively) I become animated and my students come alive. As the “content becomes my clothes,” borrowing from Susan’s comment, it provides me an opportunity to be “my authentic self,” as we apply concepts to real world scenarios through the lens of our faith. And very much like Julia expressed, when interacting with students, I also feel it necessary to continually monitor myself, asking questions like—is it important that I appear to have “all the right answers” or can I at times defer to a student who “gets it.” I look forward to allowing the image which you have depicted to continue to permeate my mind as I incessantly allow “what I teach to become integrated with who I am.”