Finding My Authentic Teaching Self

At the time of writing this post, I have not taught a college class before, however, I am on my third semester as a Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA). I believe that the journey of realizing someone’s authentic teaching self is a process that could start way before they formally become a teacher. I have always practiced the idea that the best way to reinforce a concept that you learned is by teaching it to others or “While we teach, we learn” as Seneca said. By doing that with colleagues and friends, in academic and non-academic settings, I unintentionally began my journey of exploring my teaching self. In addition, being a GTA has been providing me with valuable insights into my teaching approach that I am using today as basic ingredients to refine my teaching self while being as true to myself as possible.

Popularity vs. Authenticity 

As I read Sarah Deel’s post, the point that resonated with me the most was the one about popular professors. I also used to think that a reasonable goal would be to become a popular professor. I thought that by analyzing well-liked “comedian” professors I can reach a formula to recreate their style to become successful, perhaps that was due to the fact that they were the most memorable professors, and students liked them and engaged in their classes. As I reflect more on this point, not all my favorite professors were the popular/comedian type and vice versa! What my favorite professors had in common is that they were being themselves which allowed them to be authentic and teach effectively.

In my continuously evolving analysis of my favorite teachers, I found that regardless of their personalities, they shared some common threads that contributed to their success as effective educators, at least from my perspective. For example, they notice the progress of each student individually, they actively seek feedback from students (verbal and non-verbal), and they make the learning experience a two-way communication as opposed to a passive audience watching a rehearsed lecture. The latter point is where they are able to humanize the relationship with students, each one of them gets to make teaching an extension of their personality, comedians would crack a relatable joke or laid back professors would tell an anecdote.

Shaping my Teaching Self

I think that the next stage of exploring my authentic teaching self revolves around taking the principles of successful examples and apply them to myself while still maintaining my personality. I found that what has been working for me is stepping outside myself and ask some basic questions: does what I say make sense in the context of what we discussed so far? Does it leave room for engagement? Is it challenging enough to strike interest? Interacting with students during office hours is currently my chance to apply this method to help me discover my authentic teaching voice, additionally, I used feedback from students at the end of the semester to refine my style.

The Classroom is my Stage(🤔?)

As I think more about essential elements that make up a teaching self, I find that consistency is a good one to include right next to authenticity and being approachable. Even though I strive to remain as authentic as possible, I think that just like a performer or a musician, a professor needs to hit certain “notes” to create an effective and engaging learning experience.

The “Tips on Finding Your Teaching Voice” by Shelli Fowler resonated with me in the comparison between performance and teaching. I find that there is a lot of transferable  skills and techniques between the two, teaching is an art in the end of the day! Being a part of a music ensemble that performs on a regular basis since 2015 in addition to other occasional performances from time to time, I can relate to similarities when it comes to the stresses associated with both acts, being under the spot light. Warmup techniques are extremely helpful. However, teaching is different than performance when it comes to your audience, we need to think of students on an individual basis and provide them with the tools that they can use to learn the most efficient way that works for them, so the feedback loop is a lot more active. In music performance for example, you need engagement, but the expectation is often that the audience is here to receive what you are presenting to them, so you often think of the audience as a collective.


8 thoughts on “Finding My Authentic Teaching Self

  1. Hi Sam, thanks for the post with the very good perspective. I agree that it’s good for instructors to think about what experiences and skills they can bring to their teaching from outside of the traditional classroom environment–I’ve mostly TAed and given guest lectures at this point, but my initial desire to teach sprung from tutoring all of my classmates in math in middle school when I finished my work early, and I also think that running tabletop rpgs has given me a lot of skills in facilitating and improvising that translate pretty well to classroom mangement. I’m glad you’re also thinking about your cross-applicable skills and I wish you well in your future teaching endeavors!

    1. Thank you for reading my post! Glad to see that other people are also bringing skills from other activities into the classroom. Best of luck to you too!

  2. I genuinely believe that we learn better while we teach. I always tried to study for exams in a group of people to have the opportunity to teach them the problems as I studied. This has created a much deeper understanding of the concepts for me.

    I also believe that what makes a professor popular is connecting with students as individuals. The way you can do that is by being your true self and accepting and considering the differences between your students. This is not much different from other types of communications. People don’t care how funny you are. As long as you are caring and honest, they would enjoy your company.

    1. I agree, although I enjoyed listening to the funny professors, I hardly remember any of their jokes! Authentic connections leaves a lasting impact on students for sure.

  3. I really appreciate your thoughts on distinguishing being a popular or an authentic teacher. Many times teachers are popular because they are authentic and honest with how they present themselves and their teaching material. However, I believe new and soon-to-be teachers, like ourselves, may fall into the trap of striving for popularity, rather than effectiveness. Popular teachers may stay in our memories for things other than being a successful teacher. Thinking back to teachers I’ve had, I can make a clear distinction between some who simply created a fun classroom and those who truly accomplished their teaching purpose. Part of being authentic is being honest with yourself and your student about your purpose: to teach.

  4. I agree with you, the journey to find our teaching self begins way before our first official instruction appointment. I find myself thinking about how I used to help my peers learn and study when I was in my undergrad, and how I apply the things learned back then to my teaching practice now. I also like how you mentioned that we do need to observe how others teach and try to apply some of their practices in our own teaching. This, as long they align to our personality, and of course, our teaching self.

  5. Sam,

    I really appreciated your post, particularly when you talked about effective teachers you’ve had that “make the learning experience a two-way communication” and “humanize the relationship with students”. Having done my Master’s, and now being 2 years into my PhD, I’ve come to appreciate these two traits in a major way. Compared to undergrad coursework, my grad classes (including this one!) have emphasized the open communication between faculty and student. And my mentors and committee members have shown the human side of academia, and I’ve found that makes them far more approachable. I often tell undergrads I work with in the lab about these experiences, and I find that by demystifying their perception of the academic hierarchy, we can have greater respect and more open communication. I hope that as I continue to TA that I’ll have the same results with my students.

  6. I enjoyed reading about your perspective on teaching, Sam. I also remember longer the professors who added some “character” to their teaching by being authentic, maybe have a sense of humor here and there and lead the class as in a show. Making the class interesting keeps student’s attention more than the first 20 minutes and builds a bridge of connection between students and professors.

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