“Develop your teacher persona.” An innocent enough phrase, at least on the surface. “Figure out who you are as a teacher.” Still, no major alarm bells. Then the thoughts get developed: “Think about how you want to portray yourself to your students.” – Warning. – “Be able to put on your teacher costume, wear it well for the day, and then be able to take it off and recharge.” – Warning. Warning. – “It’s fine if you distance your ‘at school’ self from your ‘outside of school’ self.” – Warning. Warning. Warning. –
Unfortunately, these are some of the ideas, in various degrees of intensity, that are fed to educators-in-training at the college level. Some aspects of these, in milder degrees, do have some level of truth to them. However, when unpacked, they uncover a disturbing recommendation for those entering education: you don’t have to be the real you as a teacher…you can make it a show. You don’t have to be genuine; you can be artificial. You can talk one way when you’re teaching, but you can walk another way once you’ve left the classroom. You can make your teaching-style an elaborate production, a staged show, in order to mask the person you really are. You can, to put it bluntly, “fake it ‘til you make it.”
At first, this rhetoric in college didn’t unnerve me much. I rather blindly soaked it up and accepted it somewhat. There are some elements of this that are useful tools and advice. You do, as a teacher, have to develop your teacher ‘presence’. That word better captures what a teacher does than the idea of a teacher ‘persona’ or a teacher ‘mask’. It is important for a teacher to devote some time to thinking about how they act in the classroom and what it reveals about them. Questions ought to be asked such as: How strict should I be? How funny should I be? What demeanor would I like to carry in class – relaxed? upbeat? borderline-crazy/intense? How personable am I going to be? How much of my personal life am I going to share and be open about? How am I going to relate to students and form good teacher-student relationships? How am I going to show Christ each day? These are good and important questions, necessary ones even. However, I prefer the word ‘presence’ to describe this development over words such as ‘persona’ because these imply some level of separation, almost like an alter-ego. When we develop who we are as a teacher, it shouldn’t necessarily be something separate from who we are as a person, who God has made us to be. So, when we are thinking about developing and forming how we present ourselves as teachers to our students, it must be done with a level of authenticity. Who we are as teachers needs to be firmly grounded in our own, genuine personality. If it’s an act, quit it. That show mustn’t go on. Your “teacher you” must still be fully and entirely you.
I had a professor in college who got this. In contrast to the message I was hearing in many of my other classes, he understood this need to be genuine as a teacher. He asked us at the start of the year what he considered to be the most important question that a teacher must answer in order to be a successful teacher: “who am I?” He believed that this was the simple, most important question that any aspiring teacher needed to be able to answer, truthfully and genuinely. The heart of a well-governed classroom, he believed, lay in the teacher’s knowledge and understanding of themselves and their ability to live and teach accordingly. The title of this class, by the way, was “Classroom Management”. Being genuine as a teacher is an important part of a well-run classroom.
In my last article, I mentioned that there were two areas in which we as teachers need to “match up.” We need to match with our God and we need to match with ourselves. Matching with God means that we need to live and walk according to the ways of our God. We can’t be hypocrites, saying one thing yet living another. We also, as teachers, need to match who we are in the classroom, how we act, how we present ourselves, with the person God has made us to be. We can’t put on a production that is fake in order to make ourselves look like something or be someone that we are not. This is, in its own way, deception. The Bible speaks at length about how much the Lord is displeased by deception and lying:
There is something important to note in all of these passages and that is this idea of perversion. To pervert something means literally to “alter [it] from its original course, meaning, or state to a distortion or corruption of what was intended” (Google Dictionary). Synonyms include words such as ‘to distort’, ‘to warp’, ‘to twist’, ‘to bend’, ‘to deflect’, ‘to misrepresent’, etc. When a teacher misrepresents themselves and gives a different appearance or “act” than what is true and genuine, what is portrayed is a warped or twisted copy of themselves. This is a deceptive and untrue representation. As teachers, it is important that we present ourselves in a genuine and authentic way that is in-line with who we are as a person and showcases the gifts and abilities and unique personality that God has equipped us with. Don’t try to showcase some other “ripped-off” counterfeit version. Like with all-things counterfeit, sooner or later someone will call-it-out, and it will be discovered as a fake. Students can sense when a teacher is putting on an act, when they’re faking it. Even if they don’t do anything about it, the atmosphere in the room and the respect they have for the teacher is innately affected. The relationships between the teacher and the students will become as fake and superficial as the act the teacher is putting on.
Often this “fake persona” is brought about by one of the greatest dangers and easiest traps to fall into for teachers: comparison. A colleague of mine recently shared a quote that I found to be inspirational: “comparison is the thief of joy”. When we as teachers compare ourselves to others, we risk desiring to be and act like that teacher and risk being discontent with and/or blind to the gifts and unique abilities God has given to us. As teachers, many of us were inspired to go into education by a teacher or multiple teachers. Perhaps we even said to ourselves, “When I’m a teacher, I want to be like so-and-so.” While this, perhaps, is not a wrong sentiment in itself and it’s good that teachers are able to inspire others to be teachers, this can be dangerous territory. You are never going to be able to be that teacher because you are you and, therefore, cannot be them. Also, if that is your goal, you’re never going to think you match up to what you consider to be an extremely high standard. Instead, realize that God has made you to be a teacher and has made you specially to do that with your own gifts, talents and personality. Use those in developing your teacher presence so that it remains still authentically you. A good practice that I have found helpful in developing as a teacher is not to think about which teachers/people I want to be like in order to mimic them, their teaching style, the way they interact with students etc. Instead, give some thought to what it is about that teacher that you admire. Perhaps you admire and appreciate the manner in which they maintain a relaxed atmosphere in their classroom so learning seems to flow naturally and easily. Awesome. Now, don’t seek to do it exactly like that teacher and, in essence, be that teacher in your classroom because you will fail. You aren’t them. Try, instead, to think about the gifts and strengths you have, who God has made you to be, and work to accomplish the desired goal (relaxed atmosphere, for example) using your gifts and your personality. This way, it stays rooted and remains authentic. God fitted you to be his teaching instrument; don’t be afraid to use and show that craftsmanship of God.
Mr. Ethan Mingerink is a teacher at Covenant Christian High School in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
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