Are You Willing to Be Your True Self This School Year?

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True self via Brilliant or Insane

We are just over three weeks from the start of school in Canada. Some districts in the US have already begun their 2016-2017 year, so the start of school is quickly becoming a hot topic. A quick venture onto my Twitter feed shows an abundance of back to school blogs, lists, and articles.

With that as context, I think it’s very important to write about something I’m very passionate about, something that does not show up very often in these blog posts: being your true self.

Just the other night, while watching Canadian swimmer Penny Oleksiak win a gold medal in the 100-metre freestyle (tying with US swimmer Simone Manuel, which was totally awesome), I was having a burger with a now adult former student of mine. The topic of true self came up, and she had some profound things to say about how she saw me 10 years ago when I taught her.

First, though, some introspection.

The likelihood is that you have over the years of your career in education developed a “teacher personality” that differs — even slightly — from who you really are. Dave Burgess, author of Teach Like a Pirate, says: “Building rapport is all about interacting with your students as fellow human beings, not just as subordinates.”

A great deal of succeeding at building rapport involves being your true self when in the presence of your students! It sounds simple, but it flies in the face of what many of us have been taught over our years in the profession. The term “professional distance” comes to mind, and there is nothing wrong with it, as long as it isn’t taken too far.

Do your students know anything about your personal life? They would probably love to know, if only you’d take the time to share it. Anything that makes you more human, more relatable, more real is bound to help you to forge deeper connections with your students.

When we create a personality that is separate from our true self, it is for one or more reasons.

5 reasons we hide our true selves

  1. to manage self-image (I want to be the “cool” teacher)
  2. to manage other people’s projections onto us (I want to impress my principal)
  3. to hide something, especially a need (I am worried I’m not good enough; I need acceptance)
  4. to attempt to control outcomes, to get needs met (I put on this personality so that the students will respect me)
  5. to hide behind (If the students knew things about my personal life they’d stop respecting my authority)

This “teacher personality” that we all have to some degree creates behaviours, gestures, a voice, a style of dress, habits of thought, even a world view. And the majority of the time, this personality has been created out of fear, arising to protect us when we feel vulnerable.

Who wouldn’t feel vulnerable when standing in front of a class of kids for the first time? This creation of a different personality is therefore completely understandable.

Here’s the thing, though. This “teacher personality” is not necessary.

As scary as the thought might be, your students will like you better and be willing to work harder for you — and for themselves — if they believe that you are showing them your true self.

Of course, this does not mean that you are sharing with them the sordid details of your life! It simply means that you let them feel like you are just as human as they are, that you make mistakes, that you experience numerous feelings like they do, that you aren’t perfect.

This requires a willingness to be vulnerable, to be sure, but there is plenty of research to show that this approach works wonders.

Getting back to my visit with my former student. She remembers me struggling with being my true self versus being “the teacher.”

She said there were days where I seemed so real, so human, and then the next day I would be an authority figure, closed off and inaccessible. She told me she understands why I was doing it, but she made it very clear that she preferred and learned more from me when I was being my true self.

If you are willing, share the aspects of your “teacher personality” that differ from who you truly are. Remember: our true selves will be adored by our students, and will allow us to connect with them in a way that fosters and enhances learning.

What is your plan for being your true self this school year? You need to know and if you share, we’ll all be a little better about understanding our own true selves.

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Tom Fuke

Longtime teacher Tom Fuke is passionate about true education transformation--replacing grades with feedback, student-centered learning, and valuing creativity as much as literacy and numeracy. He is also interested in gender norms and the move toward more empathetic, compassionate male teachers. Tom is a former national level competitive swimmer, and has been coaching young athletes since 1996. He lives with his wife in Ontario.
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