It's a favorite refrain: “The best teaching is teaching that is a genuine, authentic representation of who you are.” Yes, in the classroom we are obligated to be professional, but being professional should not prevent students from seeing their teacher as a real person.
It seems pretty simple and straightforward: let students see who you are. But this is more complicated than it looks at first glance. Start with how teacher authenticity or the lack of it is communicated by things we do and say. We select certain strategies, approaches, behaviors, and policies to use when we teach. Both what we use and what we say about these techniques help to define us as teachers. That definition may or may not accurately reflect our personal identity—what we value and care about. If what we do and say is perceived as being inauthentic, not honest, not genuine––that affects the quality of the relationship we have with the class and with individual students in that class.
Authenticity then isn't just about how we teach; it is also about how we build relationships with students. Communication is the vehicle through which those relationships are built and cultivated. If we come to class early and chat with students and if we ask how they are doing, then that tells students something about the way we want to relate to them. Add to that the uniqueness of the teacher–student relationship. It is not a friendship, or a long-term, intimate partnership. That makes how authenticity functions in our relationships also unique and challenging. We must find ways to be friendly but not friends, ways to be caring but not intimate partners.
Most often, authenticity is understood from the perspective of the self. Are you being authentic? Do you actually care for students, or are you pretending that you care? We cannot ask students (unless perhaps a student knows us very well), “Does this teacher act in ways that are consistent with his or her values?” Only the teacher knows that for sure. But perceptions of authenticity (or the lack of it) are important. If students do not think teachers care, have time for them, or are interested in them as individuals, that changes the relationship but it also affects how students approach the course and what they learn in it.
Zac Johnson and Sara LaBelle recently studied how authenticity is perceived by students. They used a grounded theory approach, which allows meaning to arise from the data rather than being imposed. They wanted to try to “determine the behaviors and communicative messages that students perceive as indicative of teacher (in)authenticity” (p. 424).
They gave 297 undergraduates, mostly business or business administration students, a description of teacher authenticity, asked them to think about a teacher they believed to be authentic, and then had them identify those behaviors and actions that made them feel the teacher was being authentic with the class and with them as individuals. They also provided a description of inauthenticity and had students write how they knew when it was absent in a teacher.
A content analysis of the results revealed five behavior sets students associated with authentic teachers. Each is briefly highlighted below.
- Approachable: Authentic teachers tell personal stories. They share parts of their lives with students. They use humor. They talk with students before and after class. They let students know they are available during office hours and can be contacted electronically. “Overall, approachable teachers make it clear to students that their lives are open to them” (p. 430).
- Passionate: Students perceive teachers to be authentic when they are excited about their content or about teaching. They talk joyfully about what they are teaching or about teaching. They wear their love of what they do openly, without shame or embarrassment.
- Attentive: Authenticity is conveyed by careful listening, providing feedback, offering advice, and knowing students' names. These teachers work hard to discern whether students understand or are confused. They try to clarify what is not understood or appears confusing. Authentic teachers have standards and expectations, but they are also caring and kind.
- Capable: In this category, authenticity involves being adept in the role of teaching—arriving to class on time, prepared, and well organized with a syllabus that spells out what students need to know about the course. Authenticity here flows out of how the teacher handles the noncontent-related aspects of teaching.
- Knowledgeable: This behavior set is related to authenticity communicated by passion and by being capable, but it is more focused on the content and was frequently described by these students as the level of confidence the teacher has about the content. It is the depth of knowledge that allows teachers to expand on the content, offer other examples, and answer questions.
The student descriptions of teachers without authenticity were mostly opposite. They were perceived as unapproachable, ignored students outside of class, and showed no interest in developing relationships with students. Their classroom presentations lacked passion. They were inattentive, avoided student questions, and failed to ask for feedback. They did not appear capable, tended to read from PowerPoint slides or the text, and showed a lack of respect for students by being authoritarian and rude.
In their conclusion, Johnson and LaBelle reiterate an important point, cautioning against interpreting their findings “to mean that to be authentic is merely to practice effective teaching behaviors. Rather, the indicators of authenticity reported by students in our sample reflected their perceptions that teachers were acting out of genuine concern, respect, and care for the students” (p. 433). Said more bluntly, authenticity is not something that can be easily faked. As in life, at some point in relationships of any length, who is real and who is pretending becomes clear.
Johnson, Z. D. & LaBelle, S. (2017). An examination of teacher authenticity in the college classroom. Communication Education, 66