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Teacher Persona

This post is a reflection on one particular component of the practice of teaching — the need for each teacher to construct an authentic and effective teacher persona.   In the first part of the post, I draw on a section from chapter five of my book, Someone Has to Fail.  In the second part, I explore the teacher persona that I developed over the course of my career in the classroom.  

First, the analysis from the book:

At the start of their careers, teachers fumble around for a way to establish an emotional link with students that is effective and sustainable, for the teaching persona that works best for them.  This persona is both natural, in that it draws on characteristics and strengths of the teacher as a person, and constructed, in that it is put together in order to serve the ends of promoting learning in the classroom.  Samuel Freedman provides a nice window into the process of persona construction through his portrait of a remarkably effective New York high school English teacher named Jessica Siegel.

She wants to draw in the students, to thrill them a little.  The bulletin board is part of the strategy, and so is her penchant for bright, funky attire.  Today she wears four earrings and five rings, two silver on her left hand and three gold on her right, and a dress from Pakistan, bone-white cotton printed with blue designs that are as cryptic and angular as cuneiform….  A student once asked, “Miss Siegel, do you water that dress?”

Even as Jessica tries to captivate her students, she wants to control them – not to dictate or deaden, but not to abdicate authority either….  It took her years to develop a classroom presence that felt organic, for she was naturally a listener, a backbencher, a person who began countless sentences, “I don’t know a lot about this, but….”

Gradually, she created from pieces of herself a persona that might best be called The Tough Cookie.  She stands this morning with right hand on the hip, head cocked slightly, eyebrows arched in mock disbelief; every so often, she shoots a phrase Jersey City style out of a gully at the corner of her mouth.  “Gimme a break,” she says to a lying latecomer.  Her students will hear her say the same thing a hundred times before the term is over, hear her bite down hard on “Gimme” and stretch “break” into an aria of annoyance.

There are several characteristics of this need to establish an affectionate relationship with students that add profoundly to the difficulty involved in being a good teacher.  First, there is no guidebook for how to accomplish this for any particular teacher in a particular classroom.  Like other practitioners in the professions of human improvement, teachers have to work things out on their own, without being able to fall back on standards of acceptable professional practice such as those that guide lawyers and doctors and accountants. 

Second, the practice of teaching – with its requirement for a broadly diffuse relationship with students grounded in part in emotion – throws the teacher into an extraordinarily complex role that in awkward fashion puts together characteristics of both primary and secondary relationships.  The teacher role combines a mandate for emotional closeness and diffuse interaction, both characteristic of primary roles, with mandates for achievement (giving students rewards based on performance not ascribed traits), independence (encouraging students to develop and rely on their own skills and knowledge), and universalistic application of rules (treating all students the same, rewarding everyone according to the same criteria), all of which are characteristic of secondary roles. Teachers are asked to use the leverage obtained from their primary relations with students to support the teaching of a curriculum that is quite external to these primary ties.  In short, this means creating affectionate ties and then using them to promote student learning.  To be really good at teaching requires a remarkable capacity for preserving a creative tension between these opposites, never losing sight of either teaching’s relational means or its curricular goal.

Balancing these two kinds of roles in the same position is difficult at best.  It is not surprising that teachers often resolve the tension between the primary and secondary elements in one direction or the other – by leading a forced march through a curriculum in which no one is motivated to learn or by settling for a feel-good classroom in which no one is pushed to learn.  In the latter case, teachers get so caught up in the need to be liked by their students that they lose track of the pedagogical purpose of establishing an emotional link with their classes and convert the teacher-student relationship into a simple primary connection, where the positive feeling in the group becomes its purpose.  In these cases, the pedagogical logic reverses itself, as teachers seek to win the affection of their students by reducing the pressure on students to learn: “If I get you to like my subject, then you’ll like me.”  One of the most difficult parts about teaching is that good teachers have to be willing to risk their relationship with their students in the pursuit of student learning, to use the leverage of being liked to push for a level of student performance that may result in being disliked.

Third, teachers face the strain of trying to manage the emotional relationship with students by maintaining the teaching persona that makes this relationship work.  Maintaining the teaching persona is an exhausting task of what Arlie Hochschild calls “emotion management.”  In her book, The Managed Heart, she explores a variety of “jobs that call for emotional labor.”  What they have in common is that “they require face-to-face…contact with the public,” “they require the worker to produce an emotional state in another person,” and “they allow the employer…to exercise a degree of control over the emotional activities of employees.”

She never refers directly to teachers in this study, focusing attention instead on the cases of flight attendants and bill collectors, but her analysis fits teachers all too well.  These kinds of jobs, she argues, are particularly difficult and stressful because the only way you can produce the desired emotional state in the other person is by effectively managing your own emotions.  The role of the teacher, like the role of other emotion workers, cannot be taken on superficially if you is going to be effective in this role.  The aim is to have an impact on the emotions of the student, and in emotional matters students, like all of us, have well-developed antennas for detecting a fake.  Teachers are playing a role, but they need to play it in a thoroughly convincing manner, to come across to their students as fully authentic.  Hochschild says this calls for a kind of “deep acting.  Here, display is a natural result of working on feeling; the actor does not try to seem happy or sad but rather expresses spontaneously, as the Russian director Constantin Stanislavski urged, a real feeling that has been self-induced.”

Good teaching, then, is deep acting.  Effective teachers feel the role deeply and express it naturally, without affectation or artifice.  Like the best method actors, they plunge into the role, drawing on their own emotional life for inspiration and example, and then construct a persona that is an authentic expression of real feeling, even though this feeling is brought to bear on a role that is consciously constructed to serve a particular purpose – to promote learning in the classroom.  Jessica Siegel’s persona is a useful artifact that she developed in order to be more effective as a teacher, but it only works because she has found an authentic emotional ground for it in her own personality.  The result is a role that is not worn lightly or discarded with a flick of the wrist but a role that arises from within a person who teaches and that takes over that person while teaching. 

This is why Waller is quite right in asserting that “Teaching does something to those who teach.”  In explaining this phenomenon, he places the greatest weight on the problem of control and the way the role of teacher as taskmaster affects the teacher more than the student:  “Subordination is possible only because the subordinated one is a subordinate with a mere fragment of his personality, while the dominant one participates completely.  The subject is a subject only part of the time and with a part of himself, but the king is all king.” With this emphasis on the inhuman consequences of control for schooling, Waller (as David Cohen has pointed out) is adopting a thoroughly romantic vision of education as a contest between natural and forced learning.  The implication is that a more child-centered and interest-based mode of instruction would resolve the control problem and relieve teachers from having to suffer the dire consequences of playing the teacher role. 

But Hochschild suggests a more complicated interpretation.  By taking on the child-centered version of the teacher role – which involves knowing the student in depth and working to draw that student into the learning process through affection and interest – a teacher is adopting a persona that requires a sizeable degree of emotion management.  In short, the child-centered instructor no less than the traditional taskmaster is deeply shaped by the role she plays.  To paraphrase Waller, the student is a student only part of the time and with part of the self, but the teacher is all teacher.

This led me to think about my own teacher persona.  In my course on the history of school reform, I used to talk with students a lot about the practice of teaching, and in one class we would explore the teacher persona.  Most of the students were former teachers themselves, so I would ask them what their own teacher personas were. 

At one point, I decided to ask them to suggest the nature of my own teacher persona.  I used a polling app, which allowed them to contribute a characteristic of my persona to a word cloud that was projected on a screen in the front of the room.  They could put in their own phrase and/or click on one of the phrases that someone else put forward.  The more people who clicked on a particular phrase, the larger it got, with the process playing out on the screen in real time.  Here’s the resulting world cloud from one class, which I particularly loved.

Teacher Persona

I’m not sure what my favorite lines are, since there are so many good ones: get it down and get it out; fashionable; grumpy teddy bear; kind and world weary.

I now have a framed copy of this image hanging over my desk and another version that I put on a coffee cup.  All by itself, this depiction by students makes my life as a teacher feel enormously gratifying.

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