Francis was a graduate student in my elementary classroom, and I couldn’t figure him out. Arriving early every morning — more often before I did — Francis sat in the big wooden chair in my room, often complaining about the course work he had to do while I completed the work to get the classroom set up for the day. I had already had a few discussions with him about doing more. How did he expect to rightfully earn a master’s degree and state teaching license sitting in the back of the room most of the day? The conferences I had with him though, had done little to get him out of the chair.
Francis always had a reason why almost anything I proposed was too beyond him. Watch me teach a math lesson to half the class, then teach it to the other half? No, he couldn’t teach spontaneously. Take attendance? No, he couldn’t because he wasn’t sure of the students’ names. Teach the social studies lesson we had discussed for more than two hours last week? No, he had a paper due and had had to work on it all weekend, leaving him no time to plan.
Francis stonewalled his graduate advisor, too. He told her the schedule in my classroom was too unpredictable for him to let her know when he was going to teach.
Francis’ saving grace? When he did get up in front of the class, he was outgoing and confident. Francis encouraged reluctant students with high-spirited and heartfelt praise. He never rested during his lessons. He smoothly moved around the room, offering encouragement to some and asking questions to others about how they arrived at their answers.
Students paid Francis little attention when he sat in his chair as a the listless critic. And yet, they were very productive when he taught them. They seemed to be reacting more to the atmosphere he set up than to him. Francis’ frequent compliments and his warm speaking tone engendered lively discussions, but almost always only student-to-student, even though they were led by Francis.
Before Francis and I were brought together, I had never worked with anyone whose teaching persona was as different from his personality. I didn’t crack Francis’ defenses enough to find out whether or not this split was intentional. It has frequently striked me as insincere when a teacher’s persona is markedly different than his personality. But it’s not simply cut and dry, as I’m learning.
What influences a seasoned educator in her adoption of a teacher persona? Parker Palmer wrote, “[Good] teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.”
Louisa Leaman has written that a teacher’s persona is inextricably linked to her personality. But to which part(s) of our personality? Personality is multi-faceted. We act and react one way with school administration, yet another with our good friends, and possibly a different way with our family. And writer James Lang asks, "Is it a different persona when we teach reading than when we teach science?"
Most teachers will tell you that their teaching persona is at least partly a front, not in the manner of a deception though. Its purpose is to create a positive learning atmosphere for the teacher’s students. One teacher Leaman interviewed for her book told the author: “It’s about distance. If you give away too much of your true self, you become vulnerable and risk having your authority undermined. You can give away little hints, to remind them that you are human, but if you do it too much they will use it to their advantage. Generally you have to appear like you are in complete command, and just step into that role each time you enter the classroom — but it’s difficult to maintain all of the time.”
How close to our personality should our teaching persona be? Teachers frequently say the kids come first. If we are feeling down, though, should we hide it from students, no matter what age they are? Is it healthy for us, and the students, if we do? Can students tell when we think or feel one way and present another face to them? If so, is it ethical to maintain that distance? Where do you draw the line between persona and personality?
This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.