Discovering my Authentic Teaching Self

I struggle with finding my authentic teaching voice because while I do not want to be an overly rigid and authoritarian teacher, I am also wary about not being taken seriously by students. As Sarah Deel’s piece explains, there are some gender components to this dilemma. Female academics may feel that they have to set a stricter tone to fight back against assumptions that they are unserious or not qualified. While perhaps it is true that male teachers can more easily get away with a relaxed demeanor, I am not sure that too friendly or casual of an atmosphere in the classroom is ultimately to the benefit of students no matter the situation. The deep social purpose of education may include forming friendships and connections, but it also includes goals such as overcoming intellectual challenges and practicing critical thinking. If students are too comfortable, they are not necessarily thinking critically. In addition, I wouldn’t feel motivated to teach if I felt that all I could offer to students was a social experience or entertainment event. I don’t think that having fun without critical thinking fulfills the purpose of education, even in the more free wheeling humanities classes which I teach in my department.

I have struggled with finding the balance between supportiveness, friendliness, and academic rigor in some of the classes that I have taught. During my first semester of teaching, I was much more nervous about interacting directly with students, and often reverted to authoritative lectures for most of the class. While some of the students complimented the lectures in the course evaluations, I also got comments indicating that some students found the lectures to be repetitive or not engaging. These comments convinced me that I needed to spend far less time lecturing and more time leading class discussions, no matter how difficult it can be to create a productive discussion class with undergraduates whose readings habits are often inconsistent. The interesting thing is that while many students have complimented my new discussion based style of teaching, some students will occasionally make comments that they find the discussions to be unproductive or not related enough to the readings. These types of students are actually craving more structure. If I simply let the students talk about very broad questions for most of the class, even I start to wonder whether what we are doing is academic enough. However, after a few of these free wheeling class discussions that I worried were a bit unproductive, I did notice that the student writing responses posted that week were much more sophisticated, nuanced, and engaging. This realization convinced me that even class discussions which may feel frustrating or unproductive to me are nonetheless probably of great benefit to some of the students.

I also resonated with Shelli Fowler’s suggestion that teachers should avoid posturing. One of the problems during the semester in which I mostly lectured was that I was trying too hard to sound like an expert on the stage. As a result, I put an enormous amount of pressure upon myself. I could never deliver or emulate the polished lectures delivered by seasoned and experienced professors that I myself had attended as a student, and as a result I worried that my efforts were not enough. I agonized about small mistakes or typos, rather than thinking about the big picture. Ultimately, I had to accept that what I had to offer the students, even as an inexperienced graduate student, was enough. I made a conscious decision during this second semester teaching to stop trying to seem perfect or invulnerable. I spend more time listening and asking questions, rather than acting as though I have all the answers. I feel much better with this approach because there is less pressure to always be perfect, and I feel like I am connecting better with students and engaging their curiosity.

Still, there are times when students do need more authoritative guidance. Some lecturing is sometimes necessary, and sometimes rerouting a class discussion helps things to flows in a more productive way. Even giving feedback on written work is an extremely uncomfortable task for people who like to be nice, but it is essential to helping students learn.

In conclusion, I ultimately feel less insecure as a more experienced teacher, and this helps me to feel comfortable with making mistakes and not having all the answers. This is not the same thing, of course, as not being prepared. I take the class seriously, but am not obsessed with perfection. So far, this approach seems to be working.

8 thoughts on “Discovering my Authentic Teaching Self

  1. Hello,

    I enjoyed your commentary on this post regarding teaching and finding a balance between authoritative guidance and more “laid back” discussion based classes. I have also found my students to ask for more structure and then more activities and discussions simultaneously, which definitely shows just how different all students are. I’m not sure I agree with your statement that if students are too comfortable then they aren’t thinking critically enough, as some of my most insightful thoughts have come in classes where I am not worried about jotting down notes and memorizing information 24/7.

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    1. Thanks for the comment! I would say that while many of us have had that experience of having an insight while out in nature or some other time that our mind is relaxed, I still believe that there is a lot of discipline involved in preparing our mind for those moments of critical insight. In this regard, I believe that reading, writing, and even other practices such as meditation are critical for cultivating the powers of the mind. Just my two cents.

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  2. Hey, thank you for sharing your experiences. I was nodding my head as I was reading what you wrote: “…after a few of these free wheeling class discussions that I worried were a bit unproductive, I did notice that the student writing responses posted that week were much more sophisticated, nuanced, and engaging.” I have had similar experiences, when I ask myself whether or not what I was doing with the students was helpful at all or if the students were even learning… and more often than not, I too, am pleasantly surprised when my students turn around projects or reflective writing and demonstrate that our “free wheeling class discussions” had a big impact. I suppose that’s where the authenticity comes in: if everyone has brought themselves to the discussion (being authentic professor and student-alike) and everyone is really digging deep and asking critical questions, the results will certainly exceed expectations. Conversations like this are so important, and often where the magic happens!

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    1. Thanks! I definitely think that there is a balance here, but since my natural tendency is to overuse structure and lecture, I have learned that it usually goes well to add more free discussion. However, I have also felt frustrated by instructors who refuse to inject any structure at all into discussions, so I think it is important to make sure everyone is feeling included and engaged during discussions, and that the free discussions aren’t just empowering a small group of students who like to talk a lot. Lots to think about for sure.

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  3. Undergraduates are an interesting age to teach because of eccentricities that you pointed out. They’re transitioning from the structure of high school and living at home that identifies more with childhood to autonomy over classes and living independently for the first time as an adult. A consequence of being at this nexus is having students with polar preferences – some wanting structure, others wanting the freedom to express themselves and form their own ideas. I found it intriguing that you found students’ written responses to become more sophisticated following your more free, discussion-based classes, and upon second thought, it makes sense – you facilitated adult discussions and, consequently, their work came across more adult. It actually makes me realize that I should be more accepting of free-form discussion-based classes, which I sometimes hesitate to do due to those students who might view them as “a waste of time.” I’m glad to read that you’ve found that they haven’t been!

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    1. Thanks! I am still seeking to find the right balance between too much structure and no structure at all. However, my tendency is to talk too much, so I am trying to let students have more space to work their thoughts out. It seems to help.

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  4. Nice post. I agree with some of your points but ultimately I think we need to strike a balance between being friendly, approachable and maintaining the professional discipline in class. I believe people think better when they are comfortable and not under any stress or fear. I for example will not feel comfortable if my teacher does not even smile occasionally or show that they are approachable.There will be this natural inherent fear to ask questions which defeats the sole purpose of education

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    1. Thanks for the reply! While I agree that I don’t want to be unapproachable, I also don’t want students to assume that my class is unserious and that they don’t have to put effort into it. If I feel that students are taking the class seriously, I feel that everyone can be more relaxed, but other groups of students may need stronger boundaries.

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