By Hilarie Ashton
Before I started teaching, I thought I’d have a stern classroom presence—not quite a schoolmarm, but definitely not relaxed. I expected students to challenge me at every turn, question my ability to be in the front of the room, and wonder aloud why I deserved to be there. I worried that I wouldn’t know the answers to their questions, and that instead of attempting to respond, I would descend into a silent fugue state, or that what words did come out of my mouth would be nonsensical. In my mind, my teaching style was a reaction to a situation that constituted a mild nightmare. All this, despite the many years’ experience I had creating and giving presentations in various academic and extra-academic settings.
I learned the first day of my first class, bleary and nervous at eight a.m., that very little of this imagining was true. It turns out that I’m (usually) not stern at all, and that my teaching persona is pretty much my regular personality. On my best days, I’m friendly, loud, firm, thoughtful, and curious; on my worst, I’m sharp, impatient, and low-energy. (I never descend into that silent fugue state; the ability to let students fill silences is one of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn!) In this post, aimed at graduate student teachers, I’ll share thoughts on how to be most yourself—or the version of yourself you choose to be—as a teacher in a classroom.
Lesson 1: It’s perfectly fine to pretend to be someone else. (Shy students can try this, too!) You might find that as you navigate who you’re going to be, a mentor’s words come out of your mouth, and before you know it, those words may become, or give way to, yours. In my three years of college teaching, I’ve found that my mother, who was a college teacher herself, continues to be one of the primary sources for my own persona. We both crack a lot of jokes, get excited when students offer great ideas, have high but adaptable expectations for student writing, and care very much about how students are doing as people as well as how they are doing in our classrooms.
Rachel Toor’s recent observations on persona in the Chronicle of Higher Ed, which focus mostly on the academic self that writers wear in their formal writing, apply to teaching as well. She writes,
Academe spends little time training those of us who will spend most of our time teaching. And then we work so hard to get the content right that we sometimes give short shrift to our delivery methods. If you don’t think you have a teaching persona, you might want to reconsider. Likewise, you would do well to be aware of the persona you’re projecting on the page.
The caveat to that connection between teaching and writing, of course, is that developing a teaching persona happens in real time, in front of students. Unlike writing selves, teaching selves are learned (even imagined) on the fly, and potentially under stress (or excitement!). Teaching selves don’t get the chance to work themselves out slowly, in private, to the degree that writing selves do:they are public, spontaneous, and responsive to stimuli.
Lesson 2: Teaching personae also shift—something that’s important to keep in mind, especially when you’re just starting out. You might not feel that you are projecting the exact same self in every class,and why would you when there’s a whole new group of people in the room? Good teaching is always reaction and interrelation; if you do it well, you are taking into account the specific people in the chairs in front of or around you. And none of the internal work you do to construct or embody your teaching self needs to be made legible to students, although I choose to call attention to mine because, in my student-centered methods and (where appropriate) kinetic exuberance, I am modeling different relationships to learning, and because I believe in exposing the wizard behind the curtain and telling students why I do what I do.
Looking back on my initial expectations of what teaching would be like, I can see why I was expecting to project an authoritarian self. I imagined an adversarial situation, when it’s actually so much more often a collaboration among my students and me. I assumed that my students would wonder what qualifications I had to be there because I myself, as a relatively new grad student, was wondering the same thing. It turns out that I love when students ask questions I don’t have the answer to, because that leaves room for other students to answer, or for the person with the question to do some investigating and report back to us. It turns out that the uncertainty is where learning happens! And the greatest feedback I get from students centers on how I have helped make it possible for them to learn. That’s a role I’m happy to play.
Hilarie Asthon is a doctoral candidate in English at the Graduate Center and a contributing writer for Visible Pedagogy.