Discovering My Authentic Teaching Self

I began discovering my authentic teaching self during the first semester of my Ph.D. program, Fall 2019. I had no prior experience teaching in an academic setting. There I was, in my GTA assignment, in front of 60 materials science and engineering students to teach them about technical writing. My experience up until then was in industry training individuals on how to use the content management system that managed our proposals, leading proposal teams, and tutoring elementary school children. I completely felt ill-equipped and tremendously nervous in my new role as an instructor, compounded with being a first-year Ph.D. and a 13-year gap since my last in-person academic experience. The question surfaced very quickly. What is my teaching identity? Ironically, I have a Graduate Certificate in Teaching Technical Communication, but even that experience was in theory and not in practice. It is safe to say that I have an understanding of what teaching could look like, and I admit that there is significant room to grow into what I imagine is my authentic teaching self.

I survived my first-semester teaching technical writing, and the students produced a critical review of a material as their final project—a small victory. This semester, I am teaching the same course for the second time, but this time around I am much more familiar with what I am teaching and what material was not sufficient the last time. During this pandemic, my class meets synchronously via Zoom, so I am reframing my teaching methods to account for the situation (learning environment). A benefit to teaching on Zoom is that I now have recordings of myself presenting the content. Unfortunately, I cringed at watching myself teach the students. The number of “ums” I said per second was unbecoming. Although prepared, I was thrown off by switching in and out of a PowerPoint presentation and walking the students through other content I was displaying. I think the “ums” was my way of playing it cool.  I post the recordings for the students to revisit later, and that is my motivation to be my better self. Don’t worry. It is my nature to be hard on myself—I can handle it.

After reading “Finding My Teaching Voice” by Sarah Deel, I realized that I too considered my experiences with teachers that I identified as good or bad teachers and hoped to build my teaching identity from there. Deel asked the questions, “How did the good professors interact with students?” and “How do I create a professional relationship with my students? Can I maintain authority and treat students fairly while striving for them to like me? Where should the boundaries be?” As I reflected on my previous teachers, I thought about how I enjoy getting out of class early. With my students, I exercised my power to do so mostly on football game days—my class is taught on a Friday afternoon. Also, respect is crucial to me, and I want to be sure that the boundary of the teacher/student is clear, so I require my students to address me as Ms. Evans. I also have my students use my last name because I am aware that I look younger than my age, so, again, I do not want the lines blurred in my interaction with students. Deel explains that “becoming a good teacher [is] more than just adopting a set of techniques and strategies.” I agree because even with trying techniques that I thought would make me better, I still feel a bit lost in my teaching identity. I will heed what Deel gleaned from Parker Palmer to bring more of yourself into your instruction to become a better teacher. What is funny about this is that I gave this exact advice to new graduate students at orientation as I sat on a panel answering questions from nervous graduate teaching assistants. Just maybe, I instinctively know what to do, but I am second-guessing myself with ideas of what the identity of the “good teacher” looks like.

As I ponder on my teaching identity more deeply, I have separated my teaching identity into two separate identities: classroom identity and office hours identity. I am much more comfortable with students one-on-one during office hours and feel more like myself in that context. My redeeming qualities are that I am approachable and give the students positive reinforcement about the quality of their work. I want them to trust their writing abilities because I understand a positive attitude about their writing will help them strengthen their writing skills over time. There is something to be said about my hang-ups surrounding my “classroom identity.” I am optimistic that I will discover my teaching identity by the time I earn my Ph.D. and ready to teach as a professor.