This article appears in The Best of the 2021 Teaching Professor Conference (Magna Publications, 2021).
For all the talk in faculty development circles about transforming our classrooms, there is very little guidance for faculty attempting to navigate the mindset shifts necessary to approach their work differently. We each want to create a classroom where our students feel included and able to learn to their full potential. Much of what we encounter in workshops and teaching books, though, focuses on teaching techniques. Before we identify the right tool, we must determine what exactly we’d like to accomplish. For me, the overarching goal is this: How can I create a classroom environment filled with energy, enthusiasm, curiosity, and a true sense of belonging?
Creating a classroom where each student can succeed requires us to begin by looking at ourselves. The professor in a college classroom holds more power than any other single person; how we enter the teaching space and how we frame our work with students will have the single biggest impact on what learning takes place. Our work will fall short if we don’t begin by understanding how our mental and emotional states influence how we teach and how our students learn. As Harriet Schwartz writes in Connected Teaching, we “have the responsibility to “create learning spaces and relationships that balance challenge and support . . . and to prioritize student learning and development” (p. 40).
Sociologist Irving Goffman argued that we engage in what he calls the “presentation of self” in different parts of our lives. It’s as though we are inhabiting a character; indeed, Goffman talked about “front region” (i.e., the stage) and “back-stage” selves, the difference being whether we are within seeing or hearing distance of our audience. In these performances, Goffman writes in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, “we find performers often foster the impression that they had ideal motives for acquiring the role in which they are performing, that they have ideal qualifications for the role, and that it was not necessary for them to suffer any indignities, insults, and humiliations, or make any tacitly understood ‘deals’ in order to acquire the role” (p. 46). As a faculty member in a classroom, we want to exude authority and competence—for good reason—and so we put on this persona of subject matter expert. To admit a gap in our own knowledge or a failure in working with students would be to break that illusion of total authority and competence . . . in other words, to be vulnerable. In theatrical terms, doing so requires us to break the fourth wall.
The process of shedding our teaching persona and becoming a more authentic person in our classroom is what I call presence, and it happens when we narrow the differences between our front- and back-stage selves. There will, of course, always be differences between who you are among your friends and with your students. The more differences, though, the more cognitive bandwidth you must use to regulate your behavior and speech, a point made especially clear in Annie Murphy Paul’s book The Extended Mind. That self-regulation steals valuable—and quite limited—cognitive resources from our primary task of teaching, which is to attend to our students and their needs.
To narrow those differences requires comfort with who you are separate from the confident persona we project when we assume the role of Very Knowledgeable Professor. Academia poorly equips us to do this, though. Inner work helps you understand yourself, your motivations, and your emotional states. The tools below will provide potential inroads to engaging with that inner work. Each is just a tool. Ultimately, each of us has a responsibility to understand ourselves in ways that help us be present with our students and their learning needs. As Parker Palmer counsels in his seminal book The Courage to Teach, “Understanding my identity is the first and crucial step in finding new ways to teach: Nothing I do differently as a teacher will make any difference to anyone if it is not rooted in my nature” (p. 74).
Ultimately, by engaging in an intentional process of cultivating greater self-awareness, you will bring a fuller, more authentic self into the classroom. You’ll be able to see your students more clearly, which will reduce their anxiety. You’ll bring more positive emotions into the classroom, which Sarah Rose Cavanagh tells us in her book The Spark of Learning will influence the emotional states of our students. Your classrooms will be characterized by a more prominent sense of community and care, and all of this will yield greater learning. This is not an empty promise; I’ve seen it happen, and I hope you will too.
Those who lack a regular meditation or mindfulness practice might imagine that developing one requires Herculean levels of self-control or inner calm. But that’s simply not true. Indeed, the human mind is designed to patrol our environment constantly, looking for potential sources of danger; that instinct is an important survival tool! The practice of mindfulness is to step outside of judging your wandering mind and bring your attention back into focus when you notice it’s wandering. The benefit of working on this skill is that it can help you step outside of an emotional cascade when you start to feel caught up by negativity or anxiety.
One of my favorite meditations is metta meditation. Metta means positive energy and kindness to others. As a meditation style, metta focuses on directing that kindness to others rather than trying to completely still your thoughts. My favorite metta meditation is below, and it proceeds in several rounds. First, repeat the first four lines while thinking of yourself. Second, repeat the next four lines while thinking of someone whom you love and hold dear. Finally—and this is the hardest part—choose someone with whom you currently have a difficult relationship, then repeat those second four lines directed to them. (Prefer to listen? Here’s one free version online, though there are many!)
(Directed to yourself)
May I be happy.
May I be well.
May I be safe.
May I be peaceful and at ease.
(Directed to others)
May you be happy.
May you be well.
May you be safe.
May you be peaceful and at ease.
The Enneagram is an increasingly popular tool for developing self-awareness. While the scientific evidence behind different personality tests is sometimes debatable, as tools, these frameworks are useful to the extent that they help us come to greater self-understanding. What I love about the Enneagram is that it helps me see patterns of actions in myself, and over time, that awareness allows me to catch myself in one of those patterns and decide whether I want to persist in it.
There are a number of internet sites offering Enneagram tests to help discern your dominant Enneagram type. I particularly like a free one from the Eclectic Energies site (I recommend the “classic” test). I’d recommend holding your dominant type a bit lightly at first; sometimes we can mistype ourselves because our ego has so much experience engaging in Goffman’s front-stage self-modulation. Once you’ve got two or three guesses about your possible dominant type, the Enneagram Institute has a robust web site with descriptions and suggestions for starting to recognize your patterns of coping with stressful or challenging situations. (They also offer a paid test.)
Tara Mohr’s book, Playing Big, and her training program of the same name are designed to help women become more present and authentic in their lives—and to do so on their own terms. While the tools of Playing Big are geared toward women, men certainly also benefit from them.
One of Mohr’s most powerful pair of tools are the inner critic and inner mentor. Self-doubt and self-criticism are hallmarks of the imposter syndrome that plagues so many of us. They spring from an “inner critic” that, for many, sounds like a loop of negative thoughts. Mohr emphasizes that the inner critic is not an enemy but rather a tender place of vulnerability and fear we each possess. Ultimately, the inner critic’s job is to keep us from failing, from hurting, from suffering. If we don’t take risks, we lose nothing. The compassionate response to the inner critic is to acknowledge the fear with which it’s leading; for example, you might say, “I appreciate your concern, but I’m strong enough to handle disappointment.”
The inner mentor, by contrast, is the quieter part of us, the part that knows what we want to do but is so often drowned out by the shouting voice of the inner critic. Mohr provides a free guided inner mentor meditation you can try yourself. The activity involves first relaxing fully and then envisioning a visit to yourself 20 years into the future. Imagine yourself, today, zooming back 20 years and giving your past self some broad advice about what to prioritize and what to let go. This is a potentially powerful practice.
I want to acknowledge that I am a White woman who has lived a comfortable life, one filled with privileges I have largely taken for granted. I’m not an expert on racial justice, anti-racism, or social justice. What I can share is that engaging with others—especially White others—on issues of race and institutionalized racism has helped me know myself better, which I can then bring into my work with students. My advocacy for this work has sprung from participating in several reading groups and communities of practice. I’ve read, listened to the wisdom and experiences of others, and tried to approach this with the most open mind and open heart I can.
As uncomfortable as this work can be, it is necessary. As Dr. Bettina Love writes in her fantastic book We Want to Do More Than Survive, “We cannot have conversations about racism without talking about Whiteness” (p. 118). Indeed, she continues, “White folx cannot be coconspirators until they deal with the emotionality of being White” (p. 144).
I recommend finding others at your institution or in your social circle and creating a community to do this together. Keep the group a manageable size—eight to 12 has worked well for me—and commit to saying the uncomfortable things. Do not lean on a person of color to lead this work unless you’re prepared to compensate them for their time (and generously). This is your work, not theirs.
Additional resources are available at https://www.liznorell.com/tpc2021.
Cavanagh, S. R. (2016). The spark of learning: Energizing the college classroom with the science of emotion. West Virginia University Press.
Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. Anchor Books.
Love, B. L. (2019). We want to do more than survive: Abolitionist teaching and the pursuit of educational freedom. Boston: Beacon Press.
Mohr, T. (2014). Playing big: Practical wisdom for women who want to speak up, create, and lead. Penguin Random House.
Palmer, P. (2017). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life (20th anniversary ed.). Jossey-Bass.
Paul, A. M. (2021). The extended mind: The power of thinking outside the brain. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Schwartz, H. (2019). Connected teaching: Relationship, power, and mattering in higher education. Stylus Publishing.
Liz Norell, PhD, is an associate professor of political science at Chattanooga State Community College.