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Who am I When I’m Teaching?

Posted by on Wednesday, December 5, 2012 in News.

By Cynthia Brame, CFT Assistant Director

Who are you when you’re teaching? Are you a knowledgeable guide traversing well-traveled ground? An expert transmitting the accumulated wisdom of your field to hungry apprentices? A supportive but honest critic? A fellow traveler on a journey without a well-defined destination? And whatever your description of your teaching persona, how do you arrive at it?


During my first four months in the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt, I’ve had several conversations that have made me think about these questions in new and interesting ways. I think that building a teaching persona is one of the most important challenges we face as teachers, and it’s one that we often face without the benefit of input from our colleagues. We’re often comfortable engaging colleagues on questions of how best to capture student attention or convey a difficult concept, but much less comfortable talking about who we are in the classroom (or lab, or field, or studio….). In addition, our teaching persona often evolves with time and context, making “Who are you when you teaching?” a constant question.

Bennett Landman, a colleague in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, recently introduced me to a productive way to think about this challenge with a distinctly engineering bent. Rather than think about his teaching persona, Bennett has focused on developing models of the different teaching contexts he encounters. He describes his model of an undergraduate as the “kid” model: the undergraduate needs to be drawn into the subject through interesting and relevant examples, and needs a lot of support and encouragement as she develops the skills, knowledge base, and confidence to proceed in the field. Bennett’s model of a graduate student, on the other hand, is an “interested adult” who needs to be challenged with interesting, hard problems that respect her intellect and her interest in the field. My favorite model that Bennett describes is his model of a lab group as a family, where members must challenge each other inside the lab but support each other outside. (Perhaps more on the beauty of this model later!)

I think this approach of developing a model of different teaching contexts is powerful for several reasons. First, it implicitly adopts the learner-centered approach to teaching that John Bransford and colleagues describe as essential for an effective learning environment in How People Learn. Rather than focusing on himself, on his teaching persona, Bennett is focusing on his learners and their needs. By extension, however, he is defining his role in the classroom. If Bennett’s model of the undergraduate is a kid who needs to be interested and supported, then Bennett has to supply interesting examples and a supportive environment. If his model of a graduate student is an interested adult who needs to be challenged, then Bennett has to set up his classes so that the student encounters the problematic areas of what she thinks she knows. Thus by developing a model of his different teaching contexts, Bennett has placed the focus on the learner and required that he as the teacher adapt to that particular context. Second, a model, by definition, is a hypothesis that is constantly undergoing testing. By using the concept of a “model,” Bennett has explicitly given himself permission to adapt as he acquires new data.

Others approach the description of a teaching persona through the use of metaphors, drawing analogies to a teacher as coach, midwife, or preacher. Still others describe teaching personae in more abstract terms, especially its development. In Authenticity in Teaching and previous works, Patricia Cranton proposes that development of a personal teaching style is a journey that requires knowledge of self; consideration of students’ needs and characteristics; awareness of the teacher-student relationship and the context of teaching; and critical reflection. In an analysis of the literature on authenticity in teaching, Carolin Kreber emphasizes that development of this personal teaching style requires a teacher to demonstrate consistency between values and actions and to value both students learning and the subject matter.  Cranton asserts that development of this personal style allows teachers be more successful through being more authentic: “When we bring our sense of self into our teaching, or in other words, work toward becoming authentic, we are able to critically question that which is right for us from the literature, develop our own personal style, and thereby communicate with students and others in a genuine way” (Cranton and Carusetta, Perspectives on Authenticity in Teaching, p. 6). As with Bennett’s models, Cranton and Kreber emphasize that development of this personal style—this authenticity—is an ongoing process that continues with a teacher’s continuous critical reflection on the relationship between self and student. Also as with Bennett’s models, and somewhat counterintuitively, the development of authenticity in teaching would allow a teacher to interact differently depending on the students and the context.

In his book The Art of Teaching, novelist, poet and scholar Jay Parini illustrates the meaning of authenticity in teaching for him when his says that “having a firm identity as a writer provides a teaching persona….the teacher must be highly self-conscious of the need to craft each lecture or discussion as one might craft a poem or a story…It seems to me useful to think of each class as an act of revision, as drafts are altered, made more precise, even truer” (pp. 48-50). Thus Parini’s self in the classroom is an extension of, or a reflection of, his identity as a writer, giving us one definition of what it means to be authentic in the classroom.

So who am I when I’m teaching? The answer to that question is constantly evolving, and can essentially be considered a snapshot that captures part of a complex dynamic in any class. When I reflect on those snapshots, though, I find that my teaching identity always derives from a focus on what a particular group of students needs to accomplish the goals of a class. For example, in an upper-level cancer biology course I recently taught, I was an interested co-learner with the students: while I had more knowledge than they did, I wanted them to learn how to learn, and to realize that it is an ongoing process that we all have to work at.  In a genetics course I taught last spring, I was a gentle critic, always testing students’ logic: “Is that true? How do you know? What can we say from these data?” And in an introductory cell biology course I taught last fall, I was a fairy godmother, leading students on their first journey into the metaphorical heart of a cell to marvel at the beauty and unending mystery. Don’t laugh! For that context, it was an authentic and effective teaching persona.

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