Teacher Person(a)

In my first year of teaching several older and wiser educators told me: Don't smile until Christmas. 

They had discerned quite quickly that I would need a tougher exterior.

The subtext of this advice was: being yourself won't cut it.

I recall one teacher in particular whom the students especially feared. She was a veteran in the English department, and her classroom was very different from mine. In some ways I envied the order and discipline of that space, which I believed had led to so much of her success.

On the other hand, I was as terrified as the children in her room. I wondered if I could ever make my class feel like that.

Around the office, she would joke that she spent years developing her teacher persona. Her classroom self and her real-life self were unrecognizable to one another.
The toughness and severity of her teacher-self, she explained, were necessary to get the job done.

I didn't have a strong sense of how this idea fit into my life or career.
It didn't quite fit, for me, but I didn't have an alternative plan here, either.

Questions about a teacher persona lingered in my brain for a while, especially during the early years of my career when I felt like I didn't have classroom management completely under control or when it was a struggle to consistently build dynamic and engaging lessons every day. I wondered if I should have been developing a stronger act,
a bigger presence,
a different me
to play this role.

I never did, and I'm glad.

Now I kind of resent ever having heard that advice, actually.
I push back on that thinking about this work. A lot.

I'm very much myself, inside and outside of the classroom.

For better and for worse,
to the students who realize my corny jokes are my real jokes,
and my friends who have to discuss character development and thematic consistency about books and movies and TV shows.

The confidence to not change didn't come immediately.
But it was essential.

Now I play the role of guiding younger teachers.
Some of them are in my building, and some of them have very different teacher-lives than me.

And my biggest piece of advice is the same:

Be yourself.
In this gig, who you are matters as much as the work you do.

Students see you and know you and appreciate you.
Because it's not about English or History or Algebra II,

it's about people.
And relationships.

I'm reminded of this every day.
In the middle of the lessons with the newest students in my care,
in the meetings with parents and families about good news and concerns,
in the conversations with colleagues near and far,
in the messages and notes from alumni and students long ago.

Truly. I don't recommend waiting to smile.

How can you even help it?
It's the best part.

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