Every semester, on the first day of class, I make sure to arrive at the classroom a couple of minutes late, after students have already found seats and have maybe even begun to chat a little. I open the door, walk in, and announce, in a too-loud stage whisper, "It’s the teacher!" At least some students always laugh at my dumb joke. Right away, I hope, I’ve begun communicating something about the class and about me.
What am I trying to communicate? The relaxed nature of our classroom, for one. That I’m not afraid to act a bit silly, or puncture my own authority. Maybe I’m just trying to surprise them, or catch them off guard. Ultimately, I’d like my students to be a little delighted by the class, and my efforts to that end begin on Day 1.
New faculty members are given a host of advice, much of it confusing, about teaching personae — i.e., how to comport yourself in the college classroom. The advice tends to fall into two categories:
- Half of the time you’re told to "just be yourself" — as if the self is a stable and known entity, always the same no matter the context.
- Another chunk of advice tells new teachers to wear the mask of the authoritative professor — perhaps by emulating a favorite academic from your own education. But that tactic overlooks the way that such masks don’t fit all faces. Not everyone feels comfortable pretending to be someone else.
Both kinds of advice suffer from a misplaced focus on identity, I think. It’s not easy, nor is it advisable, to try to change who you are. Much better to try to change what you do. It’s much more useful to think about your teaching persona as made up of deliberate choices you make about how you will act in the classroom — for specific reasons — than it is to try to be a certain kind of teacher. If you are guided by actions, instead of identity, you can decide on actions to further your pedagogical goals. That approach has little to do with what kind of person you are, and much more to do with what kind of class you want to create.
With a new semester starting, it’s a good time to start thinking about your teaching persona. For new and early-career instructors, a new semester can feel like a reset button — a chance to start over with new students and avoid the mistakes of last term. Your decisions about how you behave in class can set the tone for students, creating an environment that helps, or hinders, their learning. Your own educational goals should drive your teaching persona, but here are a few essentials, no matter your goals.
Project confidence. That does not mean pretending you have all the answers and know exactly what you’re doing at all times. In fact, it can be extremely useful in the classroom to model intellectual humility and curiosity by admitting when you are uncertain or wrong. I can imagine a great course in which the instructor begins by explaining how much she doesn’t understand about the course topic, and invites the students to come along with her on a journey of "co-inquiry."
Instead, what you need to project is confidence that your course — its objectives, methods, and emphasis — is worthwhile. Many students are coming to your classroom with not much more than a course description to go on. It’s important, especially early in the semester, that they trust you, that they believe you’ve designed a learning experience that will ultimately improve their lives. You’re going to ask them to do things — to work hard, to confront their shortcomings, to revise their previous understanding. You need to give them reason to believe that they won’t be doing those things in vain.
Again, that doesn’t mean you have to seem like you know everything already, even about how your course will turn out. But you should strive to project confidence that your course is worth their time and effort, and not just because it might get them a good grade.
Project empathy. At the center of your role as an instructor is the duty to facilitate learning. More than to cover the material, or to design clever thought experiments, or to inspire in students an awe for your discipline, your job is to help students learn. That won’t always be easy for them. So it’s important that you are alive to their struggles, to the challenges they face, and to the obstacles they cannot overcome on their own. They may come with backgrounds or histories that make it more difficult for them to succeed in your course than you expected. Part of your job is to adjust to that reality, and to work to remove as many obstacles as possible between your students and their learning.
As important as being empathetic and responsive is projecting your empathy and responsiveness. Students need to know that you see your job as being there to help them. They won’t necessarily expect that. They may have had teachers in the past who were cold, or overly strict, or put a misplaced emphasis on "fairness" at the expense of compassion and guidance. Your students need to know that they can come to you for help if they need it. They need to know that you, and your institution, are there to help them succeed.
Tell them those things early, often, and explicitly. Listen to your students and make sure they see you listening. Students who feel comfortable in your classroom are more likely to do well in the course.
Project the traits you want them to adopt. Last month I wrote about an approach to teaching character that uses "intellectual virtues" as a way to specify which character traits to encourage in students.
I particularly liked the intellectual-virtues approach, as laid out by Jason Baehr, a professor of philosophy at Loyola Marymount University, because he makes desirable character traits concrete and specific by focusing on behavior. In his guide for college instructors, Baehr notes that "each intellectual virtue has a certain ‘characteristic activity.’" For example, he writes, "curiosity involves asking thoughtful and insightful questions" while "intellectual humility involves being aware of and willing to ‘own’ one’s intellectual limitations or mistakes," and so on. Thinking about those "characteristic activities" can provide you with specific behaviors to encourage your students to practice; it can also provide specific ways to act as a teacher.
Projecting our preferred character traits involves making visible habits of mind that are often imperceptible. As Baehr writes: "If we wish to model intellectual virtues for our students, we must find ways of exposing them to how we think." Think about which traits you want to model in class, and then look for ways to make those traits visible through your behavior — to show your students, not just tell them, that you value open-mindedness, curiosity, or rigor. Your actions in the front of the class make a sort of argument to your students: This is how a scholar behaves.
Let your behavior as an instructor flow from the same objectives as your class activities, assignments, and exams. Your teaching persona doesn’t need to be a reflection of your truest scholarly self. It can be crafted, just as you craft your writing persona. We may not be able to change who we are. But we can certainly change what we do.