What’s Your Teaching Persona?

collage of faces

From a dictionary: per·so·na, pərˈsōnə/ noun

persona; plural noun: personae; plural noun: personas

the aspect of someone’s character that is presented to or perceived by others.

“her public persona”: synonyms: image, face, public face, character, personality, identify, self

From the writings of university teachers:

“…in addition to having a theory and a subject, all professors develop a persona, a public teaching self which may be either an exaggeration or an evasion of our private self.” (Elaine Showalter, p. 38).

“Looking back at the start of my own career, I see now that I made lots of choices that were designed to shape my teaching persona, but I did so in haphazard ways. A more deliberate effort to think about who I wanted to be in the classroom might have saved me a lot of anxiety during those first few years of teaching.” (James Lang)

“…here I was…standing before the human  equivalent of wet cement: a roomful of undergraduates waiting to be formed into a class…out of a foxhole of my terror, I grabbed a question and lobbed it out there…half a dozen hands went up…I couldn’t believe it. They’re doing it! They’re being students! They think I’m a teacher! … for the first time I had a persona (I even taught sophomores the word, but I was the one learning the meaning of it.” (Patricia Hampl, pp. 62, 63)

“a sabbatical has helped to spur reflection on the topic since my teaching persona has been in the closet for eight months now…every now and then I open the door a crack and take a look at it, wondering whether I should use my time away from the classroom to give it some fine-tuning.” (James Lang)

“Persona creation is a much more conscious process in online settings as opposed to off–line. Stearn (2002) commented that the ‘strategy and intentionality behind self–presentation is illuminated in online settings, because communicators must consciously re-present themselves online.’” (Kim Barbour and David Marshall)

“I wonder how I can cross the border from ordinary life to, ordinary class—teacher here, students there, text there—into an extraordinary place where learning occurs” (Walck, 161).

Teaching Personas On View

Different faculty introduce themselves in different ways. Each of the following examples is unique to that professor and each provides a glimpse how of different faculty choose to communicate their personas to students.

Example A: “I love being able to guide you through this time.”

Posted online message to her students before the semester begins under the title, “Ten Things This Professor Loves.” (Jane Dmochowski)

College is an amazing time in anyone’s life. You’re a grown adult, but still young, often idealistic, and not yet set in your ways. I love that about you. I love the enthusiasm and energy you bring to my life. You remind me of my 20-year-old self—when I was figuring out my place in the world and how much I had to learn, but also all the ways I could contribute, all the things in front of me. College is exciting (but also scary). I love being able to guide you through this time.

I love students who come to class with an open mind. I love the first day of class, and it’s made even better by students who arrive ready to make the course their own, and not what they heard it would be like. I love when we all come in with a clean slate. We’re not yet bogged down by grading or studying. We haven’t yet realized just how much work the semester is going to be, but are instead focused on how much we will learn, how much we will grow, how much fun we’ll have.

Example B:  “First, I am your professor, not your teacher. There is a difference.”

“On the first class day of next term, I will address my new freshman as follows…” (Keith Parsons).

“Up to now your instruction has been in the hands of teachers, and a teacher’s job is to make sure that you learn…If you don’t learn, then your teacher is blamed. However, things are very different for a university professor. It is no part of my job to make you learn. At university, learning is your job—and yours alone. My job is to lead you to the fountain of knowledge. Whether you drink deeply or only gargle is entirely up to you…I am not responsible for your failures. On the contrary, I get paid the same whether you get an “F” or an “A.”…I have no obligation whatsoever to make sure that you pass or make any particular grade at all.

Example C: “Your professor is fair, fundamentally friendly, a little odd…”

Excerpts from the online syllabus of for a journalism course (David Carr)

“While writing, shooting, and editing are often solitary activities, great work emerges in the spaces between people. Evaluations will be based not just on your efforts, but on your ability to bring excellence out in the people around you. . . Who you are and what you have been through should give you a prism on life that belongs to you only. . . If you text or email during class, I will ignore you as you ignore me, it won’t go well.”

“Your professor is a big sucker for the hard worker and is rarely dazzled by brilliance. He has little patience for people who pretend to ask questions when all they really want to do is make a speech. Your professor is fair, fundamentally friendly, a little odd, but not very mysterious. If you want to know where you stand, just ask.”

Example D: “The principal objective of the course is…” and “Why should you want to study microeconomics?”

Excerpts from contrasting syllabi for the same course and same professor at different times in her career (Lolita Paff)

From a syllabus “years ago”: “Econ 102 is an introduction to microeconomic analyses and policies. Microeconomics deals with the behavior of individuals and firms and how the behavior in influenced by government policy. The principal objective of the course is to enable students to analyze major microeconomic issues, clearly and critically.”

From a current syllabus for the same course: “Why should you want to study microeconomics? Alfred Marshall defined economics as the study of people in the ordinary business of life. Every choice you make, from the time you get up…whether or not go to class…how long to study, or work, or how much to eat…ALL of it incorporates microeconomic principles…I love this course, and I am hoping that by the end of the semester you will develop a deep appreciation for the subject.”

Communicating My Teaching Identity

Further Exploration

  • Choices in dress, form of address, manner, tone, personal disclosure, presence on social media (the perfunctory)

Thinkabout: Consider a perfunctory choice you currently make—what is another option you could make but at this point in your career would not? Why?

Thinkabout:  Is there some change you could make that might more effectively convey an aspect of your teaching identity?

  • Choices in what we value in student learning and behavior—what merits commendation? What deserves sanction? (the philosophical)

Thinkabout: What is an aspect of teaching/learning you value more now than you did at one time? What was the impetus for that shift? How is this value communicated in your teaching?

Thinkabout:  Is there a part of teaching and learning that you currently value but could be communicating more effectively?  What changes might better convey that message?

  • Choices in what kind of interactions we encourage–how we frame the significance of the content to us and for students, what kinds of examples or stories we use to illustrate points (the instructional)

Thinkabout: Reflect on what initially drew you to your field of study and why you continue to engage in it. How do you or could you communicate this to students?

Thinkabout:  What can students learn from a teacher’s relationship with the content?

Barbour, Kim and Marshall, David. “Constructing persona through the World Wide Web” First Monday, Volume 17, Number 9 – 3 September 2012
http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/3969/3292 doi:10.5210/fm.v0i0.3969

Bart, Mary, “A Learner-Centered Syllabus Helps Set the Tone for Learning,” Faculty Focus, July 29, 2015. (online)

Cranton, Patricia, Ed. Authenticity in Teaching. New Directions in Adult and Continuing Education, no. 111. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2006.

Cranton, Patricia. Becoming an Authentic Teacher in Higher Education. Malabar, FL: Krieger Publications, 2001. See Chp 4, “Self as Teacher, Teacher as Self” (43-56) and Chp 5, “Teacher-Self in Profile” (57-72).

“David Carr’s Last Word on Journalism, Aimed at Students.” New York Times, February 15, 2015. (online)

Dmochowski, Jane E. “10 Things This Instructor Loves,” Chronicle of Higher Education, August 19, 2015 (online)

Ferguson, Pip Bruce. “Who am I who Teaches?” Educational Journal of Living Theories. 8(1):49-66. www.ejolts.net

Freeman, Phyllis R., Zlotnik, Jan. Eds.  2000. Wise Women: Reflections of Teachers at Midlife. New York: Routledge.

Goffman, Erving. 1959. The presentation of the self in everyday life. London: Penguin.

Hampl, Patricia. “But Tell Me, Do You Like Teaching?” In Freeman & Hampl, pp. 61-67.

Lang, James. “Crafting a Teaching Persona.” Chronicle of Higher Education, Feb 6, 2007. (online)

Major, Claire Howell. “Teaching Persona” (chp 8, 163-177) in Teaching Online: A Guide to Theory, Research, and Practice. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015.

Parini, Jay. The Art of Teaching.  New York:  Oxford University Press, 2005.

Parsons, Keith. “Message to My Freshman Students” Huffington Post Blog, posted 5/14/15.

Shadiow, Linda What Our Stories Teach Us.  San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass, 2013.

Showalter, Elaine.  Teaching Literature.  New York:  Blackwell, 2003.

Weimer, Maryellen Learner-centered Teaching:  Five Key Changes to Practice.  2nd Ed.  San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass, 2013.

Adapted from “Who Am I When I Teach? Understanding Teaching Persona.” An online seminar by Magna Publications, 2015.

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