Critical to an instructor’s ability to confidently, clearly, and effectively communicate with students is an understanding of the truism that communication begins with the self (Watzlawick et al., 1967). To engage in productive interactions that result in student learning, we must be broadly but simultaneously acutely aware of ourselves and how we want our students to view us generally and in specific situations common to our work. Some instructors are strategic and goal-directed in terms of how they wish their students to perceive them—testing various personas to determine the type of teacher they want to be. Others may give little thought to the nature of their communication with students, relying instead on their content expertise or pedagogical strategies to promote student learning. The latter approach may not serve the instructional process well, as extensive research suggests that our relationships and communication with students play a central role in their learning. An exclusive focus on expertise and pedagogical frameworks is shortsighted since it ignores the importance of communication to teaching and learning.
In The Art of Teaching, Parini (2005) introduced the concept of the teaching persona, writing that one’s teaching identity is often discovered by using pretenses or disguises to determine what best serves a teacher’s goals: “Most of the successful teachers I know have been deeply aware that their self-presentation involves . . . the donning of a mask” (p. 58), and “a beginning teacher will have to try on countless masks before finding one that fits, seems appropriate, that works to organize and embody a teaching voice” (p. 59). The idea of teaching personas, and how they contribute to our ability to have a positive impact on students and their learning, is an interesting one that Jennifer explored with 2020 Teaching Professor Conference participants as an extension of our research team’s work. This brief article summarizes the concept and will guide readers through the process of identifying an authentic, flexible teaching persona that reflects their beliefs and assumptions about teaching—and learning how to communicate in ways consistent with that identity.
Essentially, we construct our teaching personas based on how we answer the question “Who am I as an instructor; who do I want to be?” Some archetypal teaching personas include “the serious scholar,” “the buddy,” “the nurturer,” “the helper,” “the rebel,” “the strict one,” “the social justice warrior,” “the intellectual elitist,” and “the fun one.” Think about your closest colleagues. What labels would you use to define the identities that they portray in their interactions with students and with their colleagues? Now, what about yourself? If students were asked to label you as a teacher, what would you want them to say? You probably have a general belief about who you want to be as a teacher, but you should be realizing at this point that it’s difficult to maintain that “face” in all instances with your students. For example, the “buddy” who strives to relate to students in positive, prosocial ways and eliminate power differentials in the classroom is required to adjust that approach when discipline or a difficult conversation is in order. Thus, although social scientists have found evidence (Mottet & Beebe, 2016; Waldeck et al., 2019) that one’s teaching persona is a fairly stable and consistent presentation of who we want to be in the classroom, a competent instructional communicator will display versatility in how they present themselves in interactions with students.
Authenticity is key to all of our work with students, but a completely stable teaching identity is an impossible goal. Nor would this kind of robotic approach to our work be effective. Linda Shadiow and Maryellen Weimer (2015) noted that, in contrast to Parini’s contention that personas are a type of “mask,” they can be strategic and planned but authentic at the same time. The mask metaphor encourages teachers to be inauthentic and to conceal their identities rather than expose them—to the detriment of student learning.
Earlier we noted that different instructional situations call for the enactment of different teaching identities. In addition, although more research is needed to illuminate the transitions that college instructors
experience (by design or as a result of unexpected external forces) over the span of their careers, we believe that at various points, instructors may enact a new and different primary persona. Less experienced teachers face a difficult balancing act of goals and concerns—wanting to develop rapport and connection with students and being seen as credible experts despite a lack of experience or age, for example. Newer instructors may still grapple with the question, “Who am I, who do I want to be, and how do I want to be seen by my students?” and try out different identities that reflect their sometimes competing goals until they find one that feels comfortable, or, in other words, establish their identity. Over time, we may simply become different teachers, with different goals and concerns. For example, the senior tenured professor may feel free to experiment with innovative teaching methods, have more time to spend informally with their students,
and worry less about student evaluations than new tenure-track instructors—leading to a new answer to the “Who do I want to be?” question.
The literature reflects a great deal of speculation about what teaching personas are most common. In 2019, we conducted the first empirical study that asked instructors a variety of questions related to their teaching identities and related goals, and identified three primary personas. First, the caring instructor is one who prioritizes compassion, support, and openness in their interactions with students. Second, the knowledgeable instructor makes a point of demonstrating expertise and competence. This type of teacher places their primary emphasis on the hard work and heavy lifting of learning, cognitive growth, and an impassioned approach to the subject. Finally, the professional instructor wishes to be seen as rigorous, tough, and unflinching. Firm but fair, the professional instructor emphasizes equity, ethics, and high standards.
Take a moment now to reflect and write about who you want to be as a teacher, and why. Use these questions as prompts: (1) How do you want your students to view you, think about you, and label you? Why? What are your motives for wanting to be perceived this way? (2) How do you want your colleagues to perceive you? And again, why? Thinking through both sets of relationships, those with students and those with colleagues, will help you to construct an integrated, holistic approach to strategically enacting the self-presentation behaviors that portray you as a professional.
Competent communicators are distinguished from less effective ones by their ability to select from a repertoire of strategies—a sort of tool kit—and their motivation to select the right tools for the task at hand. So simply knowing how you want others to perceive you in your professional role, generally or in specific situations, is not enough. You must also analyze the behaviors that will allow others to understand you in the manner you intend. For example, consider how you dress, the nonverbal communication and language you rely on, the degree to which you are available and accessible to students (including online), and the media and technologies you are willing to learn and use to communicate with students as they prefer and are accustomed to outside of the educational setting. Claire Major (2015) further discusses personal characteristics such as age, height, and weight as factors that may contribute to or distract from our desired personas.
Another important self-presentation strategy is how you establish credibility with your students. Remember that credibility is much more than your expertise or knowledge. It also pertains to how you build trust with your students and communicate to them that you care about their learning. And finally, the instructional communication literature suggests that to authentically communicate who you are and who you want to be for
your students, you must balance the dialectical tension between building prosocial relationships and rapport with your students and emphasizing course content and cognitive learning. Realize that your concern for students as people and your desire for them to learn and master the material are not mutually exclusive.
Although one’s teaching persona is relatively stable at any given point, versatility and authenticity are key. We must be flexible in enacting our identities with students and colleagues depending on the demands of the situation, and perhaps our career needs and goals. Versatile, credible instructors are concerned with establishing personas that value students as people with their own needs and concerns. They care. They should also be concerned with the content and difficulty level of their courses and be clear and confident in their facilitation of the course. Although you certainly have some basic assumptions about who you want to be as a teacher, reflect on those goals and the persona you strive to communicate as often as possible. Key questions to consider include “Am I being authentic?,” “Am I being flexible in response to situational requirements?,” and finally, “Does my persona give equal care to my relationships with students and my
content—or do I favor one over the other?” If you find an imbalance, try to identify strategies that will help you attend to both sets of concerns. This will support your efforts to become the most confident, caring, and clear teacher you can be.
Major, C. H. (2015). Teaching online: A guide to theory, research, and practice. Johns Hopkins University Press.
Mottet, T. P., & Beebe, S. A. (2006). Foundations of instructional communication. In T. P. Mottet, V. P. Richmond, & J. C. McCroskey (Eds.), Handbook of instructional communication (pp. 3–32). Pearson.
Parini, J. (2005). The art of teaching. Oxford University Press.
Shadiow, L., & Weimer, M. (2015, October 26). Six myths about a teaching persona. Faculty Focus. https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/philosophy-of-teaching/six-myths-about-a-teaching-persona
Waldeck, J. H., Johnson, Z. D., & LaBelle, S. (2019, November 14–17). Instructional identities: What personas do college instructors enact in teacher/student communication? [Paper presentation]. National Communication Association 105th Annual Convention, Baltimore, MD, United States.
Watzlawick, P., Beavin-Bavelas, J., & Jackson, D. (1967). Pragmatics of human communication: A study of interactional patterns, pathologies and paradoxes. W. W. Norton.
Jennifer H. Waldeck, PhD, is a professor and associate dean in the School of Communication at Chapman University.
Zac Johnson, PhD, is an associate professor of communication studies at California State University, Fullerton.
Sara LaBelle, PhD, is an associate professor and assistant dean in the School of Communication at Chapman University.
This article originally appeared in The Best of the 2020 Teaching Professor Conference. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.