Looking Back Through Our Parents: Thoughts on Teaching Persona

Last semester, I had a lengthy meeting with an exasperated graduate student who was approaching her first semester of teaching and growing more concerned about who she should be when she walked into class on her first day of teaching. She’s a student who completed her BA in our department, so she’s had the awesome opportunity to experience many of our diverse faculty in the classroom, and she’s apparently been watching and considering a variety of teaching styles. Like most of us starting our first year of teaching, she’s looking for that perfect fit; she is Goldilocks trying to find the right bed. As a traditional student, she will be very close in age to her students, which means she will have to establish her persona as teacher with more effort, but what exactly is that role? This conversation came back to me as I was in the middle of a completely unrelated read, Traci A. Zimmerman’s “Authors, Audiences, and the Gaps Between.” Zimmerman writes, about audience:

The concept of audience in the twenty-first century is harder to grasp precisely because of the sheer scope and range of online communication–anyone with an internet connection is in the “potential audience” base.

Zimmerman is talking about the audiences our students must negotiate in their everyday lives, particularly when posting in online environments; however, I find this statement represents the same conundrum faced by a teacher walking into a classroom. When I began teaching, I knew my student-audience, mostly because I went to a private liberal arts college where the background of 95% of our undergraduate class was the same, with only a few minor details, such as which high school the students attended. I only had this luxury for two years, before moving to a larger, public university. A decade later, I’m teaching at an even more diverse university where Zimmerman’s words ring truer than ever. Today, my students are 32 and working full-time at a refinery, coming to class after a long overnight shift; they are highly intelligent 16-year old students in our dual credit program; they are single mothers; they are empty nesters; they are grandfathers; they are veterans; they are traditional 18-year old students on athletic scholarships; they are traditional 18-year old inner city students; they are traditional 18-year old students working on the family farm when they aren’t in class. How does one address this group as a single audience? Sure, they  have in common only one, incredibly generic trait–they are college students.

The advice I received from a female graduate student before I entered my first classroom seemed hardly the advice to pass on to this young, female graduate student. I was advised to go in and “be a bitch. Make them fall in line and do their work.” Otherwise, I was told, “they will never respect you.” I tried that in my first classroom, but it failed miserably in under six week. The reason it failed was not that the students tried to run over me; I had what might be the best first-time teaching experience ever. My students respected me, oddly enough, because it was my first time teaching. I would hardly say that will happen in many classes; I’m certain there are plenty of students out there who smell the inexperience and take advantage of it, but I had to adjust to this failed persona quickly for the class to continue successfully. Years later, when I adapted the coach attitude, a group of freshmen boxed me in to the point that I had to switch my teaching style to a more harsh, unfeeling, bitchy persona before midterms. Another time, a class filled with students who really didn’t care about the course put me in such a position that I felt much more like a dictator than an educator. (That class was a completely miserable experience for the full semester, and no approach worked better than the others.)

Since the conversation with my graduate student, I did some searching, looking to see what advice was out there and readily in reach of new teachers. Linda B. Nilson offers this advice for the first day of class:

Make students feel comfortable with you as a person as well as an instructor, but don’t confuse your roles; remember the difference between being friendly and being friends.

I single Nilson out because her statement is the most succinct of the information available, but I must point out that this statement sums up the most available advice on developing a teaching persona, and the focus on how to act on the first day is the most commonly offered advice on developing  a teaching persona. Unfortunately, remembering this difference and maintaining this difference over a 16-week semester are only part of what we must do as educators. I feel I should also point out that this is a key place where audience awareness becomes a factor, especially in a highly diverse classroom. How do we negotiate the friendly remark made to one student not being mistaken as a sign of friendship with the student? This is the question I’ve been raising for years in response to my own classroom persona. For years, I tried to be “approachable” (whatever that actually means for a student, I’m still unsure about), but I seemed to end up being either too friendly or, when I pulled back to avoid too friendly, too distant. I accidentally found the best advice on developing a teaching persona while rereading Virginia Woolf.  In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf writes (one of the most quoted lines from the text to date):

We look back through our mothers if we are women.

Much like Zimmerman’s writing on audience, this seems highly separate from any advice that might help us develop a teaching persona, but meditating on this single statement shows me how much the traits of my parents developed my teaching persona. To say that I embody my mother in the classroom is untrue (and I protest the sexist connection that teaching is maternal), but I firmly believe that as educators, especially in the diverse classrooms we enter today, looking back through our parents to find a teaching persona is excellent advice for any new teacher. In many ways, teaching is much like parenting: students need the opportunity to grow; students need the opportunity to make mistakes and learn from them; students need teachers who hold firm to rules but understand that real life happens; students need teachers who listen and help.

In my own teaching, I present a set of classroom rules that relate to our class, nothing arbitrary, but specific rules about meeting deadlines and coming to class prepared. I hold to these rules, as my father would; my father, the former Marine who ran a tight watch at home and demanded we fall in line and work for the respect and privileges we wanted. But these rules, and the rigidity with which they are enforced, does not set the tone for the course; rather, these rules are addressed after the first day of class only in one-on-one discussions with individual students who are not meeting the deadlines and coming to class prepared. The rules are the backbone of my teaching persona, and the students who break the rules are the ones who see the disciplinarian within. The day-to-day operations of my class, the persona seen by the class as a whole, is the everyone as an equal with an individual voice to be respected by the others, that is my mother’s influence on my classroom. I break away from the ordered rows of the classroom and the rigidity of lectures and ask students to meet in a large circle on the open side of class for discussions; students learn quickly to not interrupt their peers or they will be disciplined, and before we’re a month into the semester they all wait patiently to speak, listening to each other, offering input into the conversation. Meanwhile, my voice becomes one of the group, not one of authority. I find proof of my mother in this class design when my students begin to refer to these class discussions as “family time.” In thinking back through my own mother, I realized my teaching persona emerged because I want my students to feel a sense of belonging to the classroom, yet where I tried countless times to create community, I create family. This happened because of my upbringing, and because my parents’ traits and their home management played a role in my teaching style.

This is the one piece of advice I  give future teachers before they set foot in the classroom. On the surface, it seems as vague as knowing the difference between being friendly and being a friend, and it seems as vague as telling the future teacher to be herself. But why do I favor this piece of advice over the others, despite the seeming vagueness that it presents. I favor this piece because it embodies both of the other pieces of advice, but it positions us in a particular place, a place of introspection. We are who we are because of our parents (for better or worse), because we watched this adult role model for years, deciding which traits they possessed that we wanted to carry forward in our own lives and which traits we wanted to avoid in our own lives. If we consider these same traits in our roles as educators, we find the balance between friendly and friend, and we find ourselves. I see this in my own teaching every day, and my teaching persona becomes as diverse as my students without me doing anything to necessarily address this diversity. At the same time, I can customize a minute of individual instruction, whether class or life related, to an individual student without changing my persona.

But I don’t give this piece of advice in passing. How can it be any good to a graduate student already overwhelmed by the idea of facing their first classroom? I have conversations with the student, asking them to tell me the best and worst traits of each parental figure in their lives. Sometimes, there is one figure; sometimes, there are up to six figures who influenced their upbringing. We spend the next bit of the conversation discussing the traits the student wants to bring into the classroom, and her own life experiences led her to remarks such as “I don’t want to be as strict as my dad” and “my mom is always too forgiving,” and these remarks open up a conversation that reveal how   both the strictness of the father and the forgiving nature of the mother have a place in the classroom.

So there is the advice I gave the exasperated graduate student.

Nilson, Linda B. Teaching at Its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors. 3rd ed. San Francisco: John Wiley and Sons, 2010.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. Orlando: Harcourt, 1929.

Zimmerman, Traci A. “Authors, Audiences, and the Gaps Between.” Engaging Audience: Writing in an Age of New Literacies. M. Elizabeth Weiser, Brian M. Fehler, and Angela M. Gonzalez, eds. Urbana: NCTE, 2009.

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