Is There Enough of You in Your Teaching?

Defining your classroom and inspiring students by honoring your own voice and interests

As I look around the classroom, I’m reminded of all the things I like about teaching. Photographs feature our ongoing service project, and displays highlight our unit on globalism. I’ve also created a modest space that showcases me, where I inspire myself by sharing my interests with students. I feel at home in this room; I feel I’m where I belong, doing what I was called to do.

But for some years I was worn down as a teacher. The growing change and demands of the classroom left me feeling overwhelmed and unfulfilled. Finally, I decided to go back to my decision to teach and to the joy of the early years to figure out what I had lost along the way.

I started to look closely at my values and interests, my talents and goals. I began looking at how I related to others, how I used time, how I took care of myself (or didn’t), and whether or not I was making the best use of strengths I was rediscovering.

Change began when I decided to trust my instincts and intuitions in the classroom. Sometimes, it meant interrupting a lesson to take it an unexpected direction. Other times, it meant stopping everything to listen to students. Then there were the very interesting times when it meant contending with ideas that wandered into my head, intent on staying there until I found a place for them in my teaching.

I’m beginning to see that teaching for me is an inside-out process, thriving on internal hunches and urges that work their way out through my decisions and actions. Thinking back, this may have been true of my own best teachers who seemed to go beyond the advice of experts and the practices of colleagues to listen to something unique within themselves. Like these teachers, I want to hear my own voice and be free to honor it in my teaching.

Teaching has a personal face; teachers need to see themselves in the choices that define their classrooms.

You were privileged to personal faces in your own schooling. Perhaps you had an English teacher whose dramatic and practiced style left no doubt as to why literature required your time; or maybe a math teacher, able to bewitch by spectacularly unfolding precision logic on a daily basis; or a history teacher, gifted at engaging the imagination through stories.

These talented teachers had discovered a way to make teaching a reflection of themselves—an expression of what they believed in, what they enjoyed, and what they were good at doing. They were on a journey, and you, as their student, were privileged to travel along with them.

Giving the personal face life in the classroom is different for every teacher. As an instructional leader, I have experimented with ideas that accommodate these differences and have found two ideas that are practical and that succeed consistently.

Consider Why You Chose to Teach.
We begin with discussions about teaching—taking a look at the influence of our own teachers, considering our earliest attractions to teaching as a career, and recalling the immediate circumstances surrounding our decision to teach. We move on to identify our greatest strengths and talents, not only as teachers but as people. We reflect on past and current feelings of satisfaction in the classroom, and on events that precipitate those feelings. Throughout our discussions, conversation is focused on finding our most comfortable and rewarding space as teachers, a place we can call our own.

Teachers are encouraged to follow-up on discussions by doing something different in their classrooms to reinforce emerging strengths and motivations. The focus is on taking small steps in directions that hearten and inspire the teacher.

Periodically, teachers meet with other teachers to discuss what they are learning about themselves and how they are putting it to use in the classroom. Some keep journals on a continuing basis, while others find partners to talk with regularly. All are working to connect with their strengths and interests in a way that will pay off for their students and themselves.

Negotiate for Your Needs.
Bringing the personal face forward requires that teachers know how to negotiate for what they need. Whether it’s money to attend a conference or time to visit another classroom, teachers should be able to ask for what they need and be prepared to give something in return. This might mean sharing a professional skill or insight with other teachers, taking on a new responsibility, or using a special talent for the benefit of colleagues.

Negotiating and bartering are significant skills for teachers to master and practice. They are never taught in education courses or in workshops, but they can be learned in life and in the workplace. For teachers who want their classrooms to reflect a personal face—to be about who they are—the ability to bargain is critical.

Is there enough of you in your teaching? Possibly not. All too often the need to see yourself in your work is overshadowed by the lockstep of the latest new fix or the demands of the next new program.

Putting a personal face on teaching requires a different way; a way centered in who you are. It thrives on thinking and talking, receiving and giving back. It is independent of new programs, recycled reforms, big money, or debilitating pressures. It simply asks you to go inside yourself to find what you believe in, what you enjoy, and what you are good at doing.