Being Authentic in the Classroom
When teachers feel free to be themselves at school, it has a lot of benefits for them and their students.
Popular movies with teacher characters cover the spectrum from dryly professional (Ferris Bueller’s economics teacher) to inappropriately candid (Miss Halsey in Bad Teacher). The media is constantly sending us the message to be ourselves with maxims such as “You do you” and “Keep it real,” but should we bring our authenticity to a room full of young people? In an article on authenticity at work, McGill University professor Patricia Faison Hewlin writes, “When we experience authenticity—when we feel that we’re living out our personal values and perspectives—we feel a greater sense of well-being.”
When we bring our true selves to our classrooms, we enhance the learning environment and improve our overall job satisfaction.
4 Ways to Be Yourself at School
1. Share your home life... with boundaries. My middle school students have seen photos of my family and pets. They know that I’m obsessed with peanut M&Ms and that I earned two Ds my first semester of college (this is part of a purposeful lesson I give on productive failure). What they don’t know is how I vote, my favorite wine, and a myriad of other personal details that are off-limits. I tell family stories occasionally, but I’m careful to not share information about someone that the person wouldn’t want me to share.
As an example, I used to tell funny toddler stories about my daughter, but as she grew older and eventually attended the same middle school where I taught, these personal stories came to an end. And I might casually bring up the fact that my feet are sore from a long hike but not mention that I have a strange rash that I need to have checked out.
2. Confront challenges to being authentic. In an episode of Adam Grant’s WorkLife called “Authenticity Is a Double-Edged Sword,” journalist Alicia Menendez says that employees who identify with a nondominant group at work, which could mean being a person of color on a predominantly White faculty or a member of the LGBTQ community, can find authenticity in the workplace to be especially challenging. In her book The Likability Trap, Menendez suggests that those who are not of the dominant culture seek out a sponsor to help push through. Does your school offer affinity groups for faculty and staff? Is there someone in leadership who can help promote a culture of authenticity for everyone?
Cornelius Minor, author of the book We Got This: Equity, Access, and the Quest to Be Who Our Students Need Us to Be, writes about being our authentic selves in the classroom to promote student learning. In an interview with education podcaster Angela Watson, Minor challenges the hero narrative that teachers are often held to. Those held to the hero label can’t have imperfections, fears, or struggles. “I think the term ‘being there for the kids’ in many ways is divisive. It is my work as a teacher to walk right into that division and stand for children. I always say that it is my role as a teacher to initially create opportunities for children and to eventually teach them how to create opportunities for themselves.”
3. Be inspired but not a carbon copy. When I first started teaching a new course, I literally copied every lesson from the veteran teacher next door. I mistakenly believed that if I did everything he did, I would be a successful teacher like he was. Wrong! Every day, I felt defeated and lost because I wasn’t bringing my personal touches to the class.
After some reflection and coaching from my department head, I rebalanced by committing to stay in step with the timing of the units and closely aligned assessments. Everything in between was open space for my personal teaching style.
It’s tempting to emulate a master teacher, but Lisa Dabbs reminds us in an Edutopia article to “be that unique teacher you were born to be, and share your experience and passion with your students. Try out those great ideas that are percolating, and watch the magic happen in your classroom.”
4. Smile (and frown) well before Christmas. If you’ve been teaching for quite a while, you might have heard, “Don’t smile till Christmas.” In fact, you should smile, laugh, frown, and maybe even cry well before December. We are humans. We have emotions, and our expression of emotions serves as a model for our kids. It’s OK for kids to see you cry in response to a tragedy, frown when you’re frustrated, and light up when they walk in the room. I still vividly remember my teacher crying when we learned of the Challenger tragedy in 1986.
Try verbally labeling your feelings for your kids. “I’m frustrated that the classroom was left messy yesterday” or “I’m really sad today because my uncle isn’t well.” Heather Wolpert-Gawron encourages teachers to think aloud: “Let the kids into your thinking process, and you will have shared both your personality and your expertise.” When you make a mistake, laugh about it, demonstrate how you’re correcting it, and if needed, apologize.
Another option for bringing realness to the classroom is through humor. What if you’re not the slapstick or stand-up routine type? Explore ways that resonate with you personally that may bring some levity to the classroom. There are many brands of humor: Some teachers use cringey puns, some wear quirky ties or socks, some use dry irony (especially with older students), and some welcome the lighthearted self-deprecating variety.
If you find yourself distinctly switching from your teacher self to your real self, take some time to reflect on how these suggestions might help you bring your true self to school. Small shifts in how you show up, how you speak, and how willing you are to open up will help the kids get to know you as a real person.