Therapy Time

A quick disclaimer: This week’s readings and prompt hit me at an interesting time. Beginning the second and final year of my MA program, I am beginning to seriously think about what life will be like after grad school. Do I still want teaching to be an important part of my future and if so, what will that teaching look like? Needless to say, a prompt about finding my authentic teaching self really struck a chord and got me thinking about my future and myself. A wise individual once told me that some writing is for others and some writing is for you. Sometimes writing winds up being a way of essentially saying your thoughts out loud to make sense of them rather than conveying ideas to a reader. I think that this piece of writing is really more for me than for others, but I decided to post it anyway because I think that it is a good example of the process that we all go through when we start to think about our authentic teaching selves. With that said, on with the post…


This week we are talking about finding your authentic teaching self. In other words, its therapy time. Once upon a time, many years ago, undergraduate me didn’t understand why education programs were so focused on touchy feely stuff. Then I started to actually teach at the middle/high school level and I understood why – because teaching requires an emotional commitment, both towards your content and your students and because teaching will bring every ounce of your self-doubt and insecurity to the surface, regardless of how deep you thought you had buried it. I believe that teaching is an incredibly intense and personal act and thinking about how you teach inherently involves thinking about yourself as a person. In “Finding My Teaching Voice,” Sarah Deel stresses the importance of basing your teaching style on your personality, rather than trying to copy what other “successful” teachers do. This idea meshed with what I have already been told about teaching. During my internships for my MAED degree, teachers would always remind me that I had to find what worked for me, rather than copying what worked for someone else. Having said all that, I’m not sure that I’ve ever really spent much time thinking about my authentic teaching self, probably because to do so, I would first have to approach a much more intimidating question…

So who am I?

That’s a complicated question. Who I am sitting in a classroom of relative strangers is not the same thing as who I am when I’m with my family or my friends. Around strangers I am quiet, passive, calm reluctant to talk, (but willing when the time is right), careful with my words, not standoffish but also not engaging, humble and reserved. Around people I have known for a long time I am still humble, but also stubborn when I know (or think) I’m right. I am calm, but also passionate about people and ideas. Often times I’m still quite, but I’m also prone to be blunt, almost unreasonably argumentative, and frequently sarcastic, although also loyal and caring.

Which is the real me? Is my public persona just some front because I’m afraid that people won’t like me if I’m more open with them? Or is that quiet, reserved, guy just another facet of my personality, one that’s every bit as genuine as the one I wear around the people that I’m close with? More to the point, which persona is appropriate for my authentic teaching self? Sherri Fowler stresses the importance of being genuine and I know that my reserved self has a tendency to be superficially cool and reserved, regardless of how I actually feel.   I think that sometimes this leads me to hide my passion, especially in front of students, for fear of appearing weird. Sherri Fowler also talks about the importance of being attentive to your student’s needs.  My less reserved self is a lot more likely to accidentally say something stupid that could perpetually wreck my relationship with students or even, depending on the circumstance, cause them some level of emotional harm. On the other hand, my reserved self is a lot less likely to convey that I care about my students.

Maybe I’m oversimplifying all of this. One of the reoccurring themes from my readings and research in history is that binaries tend to oversimplify and obscure. In reality, my self is probably a shifting continuum, changing with each circumstance. The question then, is where I need to fall on that continuum when I’m in the classroom and how to go about making sure that I wind up where I need to be. I know that I will be humble, calm, and a little bit reserved, because quite frankly I think I’m incapable of anything else. I know that I will need to embrace my social awkwardness so that I can be genuine and engaging with my students, while still retaining enough social anxiety to keep me from saying something that I shouldn’t say. I also know that I will need to convey my passion, both for history and for my students, but I also know that I will convey this passion in a calm, reserved way. Moving beyond the touchy-feely aspects of my teaching self, I know that discussion will be a major part of my classroom time, because I don’t have the speaking chops to consistently pull off an engaging lecture. Moreover, I know that my classes will have a heavy focus on concepts and critical thinking, because I tend to think analytically, but also because I believe this will help my students develop skills that will hopefully make them better citizens, and, God willing, make this world a better place.

Of course, finding my authentic teaching self is only half the battle. The other half is actually making this self a reality in the classroom. Theory is inherently simpler than practice and I believe the next step will be to determine the routines, both inside and outside of the classroom, that will help me make my teaching self a reality.

15 Replies to “Therapy Time”

  1. I appreciate that you were willing to write more of a “for me” than “for others” post here. I had a lot of similar thoughts while trying to figure out what to write and ended up with a short and insignificant post because I didn’t want this sort of thing to be part of my online presence as a researcher. It’s nice that there are people willing to put out “talking yourself through it” style content in a way that I can’t.

    1. Dana,

      Thank you for you comments. Generally I wouldn’t post this kind of blog entry either, but in the interests of moving myself towards the middle ground I talked about in my blog, I thought that this might be beneficial.

  2. I really identify with your comment about how to balance your professional reserved self from your relaxed self. You’re absolutely right when you say “The question then, is where I need to fall on that continuum when I’m in the classroom and how to go about making sure that I wind up where I need to be.”
    In order to be professional, we need to (absolutely should) curb our unprofessional habits/words/actions. In curbing these aspects of our personalities, some of us (introverts?) can come off as reserved or unfriendly. Figuring out how to be professional but also show some of our own personalities can be a difficult process, especially when we’re new to a job and are just trying to figure out the right balance. And that balance is situation dependent: As a professor, the way you act in a room of young undergraduates is (and should be) different than how you act towards a room of PhD students.
    By default, I also become reserved when in ‘professional’ mode (especially in new situations). However, I think my continuum also has a Y axis. This Y axis is ‘professional enthusiasm.’ Though I may be all the way into reserved professional, I try to raise my position on the Y in order to engage my students (or others I am speaking to).
    It is a conscious effort. It is not the same as my ‘relaxed’ personality. It is still authentic.

    I also really liked: “because teaching requires an emotional commitment, both towards your content and your students and because teaching will bring every ounce of your self-doubt and insecurity to the surface, regardless of how deep you thought you had buried it”
    I think this is why many teachers default to reading slides or sticking to ‘fact’ lectures. It’s easier not to open ourselves up to questions we don’t know the answers to and not experiment with new teaching methods that may be embarrassing to us.

    1. Thank you for your comments. I liked your idea of the x-y axis. I think there is definitely more than one axis in terms of thinking about our personality in the classroom.

    2. I really like your idea about the different axes, and since I work with virtual environments, I’m gonna be That Person(TM) and add a third dimension. Let’s pretend that Your Personality Traits are a spherical object, with a completely flat affect being equal to (0, 0, 0): if the x-axis (azimuth) is your level of introversion (or extraversion, but I get the feeling that the majority of this class/grad students generally tend toward introversion) and the y-axis (elevation) is your level of professional enthusiasm, then the z-axis (distance) would be the degree to which you present any or all of these traits. In this way, looking straight on from a z-positive direction, a greater distance would be interpreted as your presentation moving further out, towards those who perceive Your Personality. You can have a low azimuth (extreme introversion) and a high elevation (LOTS of enthusiasm), and you can choose to be stoic in your presentation of those traits (low distance) or you can project that enthusiasm outward as a sort of persona to present to your students (high distance). I personally teach in this way: I am introverted to the extreme, but I am HIGHLY enthusiastic about my area of study (hence this completely “out-there” metaphor), and while I tend to be fairly stoic about that in everyday life, when I’m around people who care enough about the subject to attempt to learn it, my z-values go waaaaaay up (or My Personality shoots out towards the metaphorical viewer) and I’m practically chomping at the bit to inform people, which is why I can stand up in a classroom to teach without bolting or becoming ill.

      1. Ha- yes, Jasmine. I don’t want to presume to know Heath, but I assumed in drafting my initial reply that he was a fellow introvert and that extrovert axes would be a bit different. Perhaps they don’t need to make the same conscious efforts to raise their y/z scales?

  3. Heath, I admire your courage at attempting to identify your teaching self on here. I identify with your struggle of I know who I am, now how do I embrace it? This is something I will be thinking about for a while as I work on my degree.

  4. I relate so much to a lot of the issues and questions you bring up… When I taught for the first time, it was definitely a learning experience to figure out how to not be so shy around new people, trying to be more fun and engaging, and not saying something stupid. With that one teaching experience under my belt, I’m starting to contemplate other ways I can bring more of “myself” into the classroom in a way that fits the teaching style that I just started to uncover… For example, I’ve been thinking about bringing in some of my games to showcase some of the concepts we talk about in class. Doing stuff like that I think will help bring more “me” into the classroom while keeping things interesting for the students while giving them an applied example of how some of the topics we’re discussing actually work. Of course, the new challenge with that is to keep everyone– including myself– from getting too into stuff in the game and running out of time for class material.

  5. Heath, I’m glad that you decided to post some writing that was more your own thinking process because I feel like I can relate to so much of what you described.

    I really like the point you made about not seeing your teaching style as a binary but a continuum. I’ve found that a lot of difficult questions are better answered by finding a balance between two extremes (with the concept of the Aristotelian golden mean) coming to mind. That said, I think it’s complicated to consider because whatever that perfect balance looks like is contextual. Different teaching situations might merit a different balance between two extremes, so a lot of that thinking has to be done after the rubber hits the road. Then, you can consider how to change your style to best suit the particular group of learners.

    This is more of a side-note, but I noticed you said you didn’t have the speaking voice to lead a class for the full time. I thought I had a similar problem, but some content from a course I took helped a lot. If you have some free time, look up the book Full Voice by Barbara McAfee. It’s helped me when I lead meetings and do an hour of speaking at a time.

  6. Thank you for being so vulnerable and raw in your post! I feel that I can relate to a lot that you say in your post about feeling judged. It is incredibly hard to not only find your authentic teaching self when I feel like I am still trying to find my authentic self self! I think if you are half as passionate in your teaching as you were in this post then your students will be very lucky.

    1. Anna,
      Thanks for your comment. When I was writing this post I was wondering about whether my experience was fairly universal or just unique to me and I feel a little bit better hearing other people talk about similar struggles.

  7. Thank you for taking a step further and sharing your thoughts! Yes, many times we write for ourselves not others! Writing down gives us another chance to make sure our goals and thoughts make sense and applicable. To me, when I share my research work with others, I find out other fascinating ideas that I can use to improve my work even though the listener didn’t speak yet. This thought wouldn’t come to my mind if I had not shared my work with others.

  8. Hi Heath & All–this comment thread is really great. Thanks to each of you for sharing the vulnerable side of yourself and for working towards an answer to the authentic teaching-self prompt. So much of your post resonates in all of us Heath and I appreciate the bravery and extension of yourself.

  9. Heath, I think the level of introspection you have is far more powerful than you realize. It is incredibly important for a teacher to be able to look at themselves critically and use this to improve how they connect with an audience. I believe that this self-improvement mindset is rarely taught to us explicitly as students, so maybe this highlights a gap in education today. Self-evaluation is one of the ideas that gets thrown around as a better alternative to test-based grading, so this could be an opportunity to teach it to students. I remember more than a few times when I was stubborn and convinced I was in the right, only to find a major flaw or bad assumption I was making. Being a student is both a humbling and empowering experience, and I see no reason why this would be different for teachers.

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