When I was a pre-service teacher, I had a professor who we all loved. He was this very soft-spoken man who was amazing at letting his students’ voices come to the forefront of the class. And when a student said something he liked, he would nod his head and say, “hmmm… huh… interesting.”
We lived for a “Hmmm… huh… interesting.”
After seeing me teach, he said to me, “You know, Chris, you’re going to be a great teacher once you get over thinking you have to perform.”
I was crushed.
And as a result, in both my student teaching and early in my teaching career, I would try to dial back my personality, and whenever kids would say things I thought were awesome, rather than get excited, I’d try to remember to sit back and say, “Hmmm… huh… interesting.”
But I couldn’t sustain that because I was — and am — excitable. And one day the kids called me out on it, and asked who this person was who would say, “Hmm… huh… interesting,” because they liked the person that got really excited by their ideas. The kids liked who I really was, not who I was pretending to be. And I realized that as much as I liked my professor, he was wrong. The performance wasn’t the person who was super-animated in the classroom – that was who I was (and am) and instead, the performance was trying to act like him.
That didn’t mean I needed to be in the front of the class, and it didn’t mean that I wanted to run a teacher-centric classroom. It meant that I had to figure out that if I wanted kids to bring their best selves to the classroom every day, so did I. And I’m high-energy and excitable – I just am. I had to learn how to ensure that being a big personality did not mean that who I was was more important than who the kids were. I had to make sure that I didn’t ever confuse charisma with content. I had to understand early on the difference between engaging the kids and empowering the kids. In short, I had to learn the craft of progressive teaching while bringing an authentic sense of self to the classroom – which is one of the great challenges for all of us who want to make our teaching authentic and real.
I was thinking of this story today while having a conversation with a teacher-coach today about how to help soft-spoken young teachers develop their teacher-selves. Because, on some level, it’s a lot easier as a young teacher to have a big personality and a lot of charisma. For me, being a rather animated person by nature made that transition to the classroom easier, because that energy could cover up a lot for a lot of pedagogical mistakes I made while I was just learning the craft. But I worry that many soft-spoken young teachers are taught to work on having a “bigger” personality, to learn how to perform, rather than to make who they are work for them in the classroom. And that’s too bad, because it misses a chance for that young teacher how to bring the best sense of who they are to the classroom in a way that works for them.
For teachers who don’t immediately “command” the classroom as young teachers, they have to learn how to build those relationships 1:1, because the whole classroom will be harder. For those teachers, welcoming every student as they walk in becomes a way to connect so that the kids want to make the classroom a powerful space. Making sure there is time every day to have even 10-15 seconds of personal time with every kid means far more than the ability to have the kind of voice that can reach the back row of tables in the class immediately. Developing lessons and units that place the students at the center of class, through the work and projects they do means that the thoughtfulness of the work will mean more than the charisma of the teacher. And learning the art of being the kind of teacher who has the relationships with students such that the kids want to lean in for the moments when one has to have the attention of the whole class is amazing.
And of course, all of those techniques are important for any inquiry-driven teacher to develop, no matter how big their personality is. The trap for the charismatic young teacher is to forget that charisma isn’t a substitute for thoughtful pedagogy, and it’s not a substitute for real, meaningful connections with students. The trap is using a big personality as a crutch or an excuse not to keep working on your craft. And in that sense, my old professor was right – performance isn’t the point of teaching, substance is. But equally, a big personality isn’t necessarily a performance if that’s actually who you are.
We bring who we are to the classroom every day. Our teacher-selves has to be a recognizable version of who we are in all our moments outside the classroom. The trick is to be intentional as we learn how who we are as people impacts the style and structure of how we teach, and to make sure that our personality works in service of pedagogy, so that we bring the best of who we are to help the kids every day.