Creation not Emulation: Developing teacher persona

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Edward was a quiet, some might say timid, chap.  When he started his teacher training it was hard to imagine him standing in front of a hardened year 8 class, let alone ‘managing’ them during a wet and windy Friday period 5.   Edward was great when working with pupils one to one, but that rabbit in the headlights look just wasn’t going to cut it.

Fast forward 10 months and Edward was one of the most effective beginning teachers in our programme. His quietly confident and calm classroom persona was appreciated by pupils. There was an almost palpable sense of relief exuding from the children as they entered his lessons knowing their teacher would be consistent and steadfast.

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One of the aspects of teaching that PGCE students often find most challenging is developing a teacher persona. Their first forays into the classroom are cast under a cloud of anxiety about whether they will appear to be ‘the real deal’, as exemplified in a 2006 study by McCann, Johannessen and Ricca:

‘They apparently struggle with questions such as the following: How am I supposed to act in this situation? How do real teachers do this? Am I aggressive enough in contending with management challenges? Am I overreacting? Am I insisting on unreasonable standards? Am I being too lax? These are the kinds of questions that must be answered over time and by means of comparing one’s behavior against a recognizable and legitimate standard.’

A privileged few seem to be naturals in the classroom, exuding confidence and authority. This is, however, an incredibly small number, and is often connected to having already had extensive experience with young people. For the majority, defining a teacher persona needs to be encouraged, shaped and practised just as they would with any other aspect of their practice.

What can a mentor do?

Value their individuality

Every teacher is unique, bringing their own personality and experiences to the role. Yet, most beginning teachers enter the classroom either trying to emulate the ‘style’ of teachers they knew and admired, or aiming to adopt the opposite approach of a teacher in whose hands they had a negative learning experience (Borg, 2004 & Johnson, 1994).  However, in doing this from the perspective of a student they are necessarily limited in their insight and understanding of motivations (Borg, 2004).  As a mentor your first job is to get to know and understand your mentee, and help them to understand the qualities they might bring to the classroom that can be exploited as part of their teacher persona.  Praise them for these characteristics rather than making them feel like they’ve failed because they are not a carbon copy of the rest of the department. Value them as an individual and guard against suggesting they should be just like you. It can be helpful to find them someone to observe in school who shares their characteristics, but this should be combined with helping them analyse teacher behaviour to avoid further entrenching this notion of imitation.    

Model authentic relationships

Model and praise authentic relationship building with colleagues and pupils which suit individual personalities.  It’s ok to smile in week 1 and ask pupils if they did anything exciting at the weekend – this isn’t being too lax, it is part of being human and forming positive relationships. It is also right to have high standards and to be consistently applying the behaviour policy and insisting pupils do their homework on time – this isn’t being too harsh, it is part of showing respect in relationships and having a reliable and consistent approach.  Beginning teachers need support to understand that you neither need to win students and make them like you, nor frighten them into submission; they need to be supported to developing assertive, consistent and respectful relationships with pupils.

Teacher Act

Whilst allowing your mentee to be themselves sits at the heart of this endeavour, providing a safe space in which they can ‘try out’ a range of personas before evaluating them for effectiveness is also helpful.  Help them to understand the ‘teacher act’ and the art of exaggeration.  This does not involve becoming an entirely new character in the classroom, but exaggerating qualities you already possess.  This may involve exaggerating your own enthusiasm for a task or topic traditionally seen as a bit dry, or simply embracing silence to create an ‘insistent wait’ which demands pupils settle to work. 

Purpose Driven Classroom

Supporting your mentee to developing a teacher persona needs to go beyond how they behave and act with pupils and colleagues and in their classroom space.  At the heart of any teacher’s persona is their philosophy of teaching and learning which informs their approach in the classroom.  If the teacher is clear about the value and intent of their curriculum, they can carry this sense of purpose into their planning.  And, where the rationale behind the substantive, disciplinary and activity content of their lesson is well conceived, they can communicate this clearly to pupils and create a purpose driven classroom.  In supporting a beginning teacher to understand and achieve this during their training year, we lay deeper foundations for their teacher persona, ones which move beyond external projection.  We need to support them in such a way that they are allowed to continually reframe their teacher persona as their understanding of pedagogy and subject discipline grows, and in turn develops their teacher identity (Korthagen & Kessels, 1999).

Creation not emulation

Trainee teachers need to understand that emulation does not necessarily result in effective teaching.  We need to support them to understand that their pre-conceived notions of effective teaching are likely to change as they begin to form their own teacher identity.  The Edward’s of the teaching world need to be encouraged to recognise how different teacher personas contribute positively to our schools, and be allowed to develop a persona of their own.    

References

Borg, M. (2004) Key concepts in ELT: The apprenticeship of observation, ELT Journal, Volume 58/3.

Cook, J.S. (2009) “Coming Into My Own as a Teacher”: Identity, Disequilibrium, and the First Year of Teaching, The New Educator, 5:274–292.

John, P. D. 1996. ‘Understanding the apprenticeship of observation in initial teacher education: Exploring student teachers’ implicit theories of teaching and learning’ in G. Claxton, T. Atkinson, M. Osborn, and M. Wallace (eds.). Liberating the Learner: Lessons for Professional Development in Education. London: Routledge.

Korthagen, F.A. and Kessels, J.P.A.M. (1999) Linking Theory and Practice: Changing the Pedagogy of Teacher Education, Educational Researcher, 28(4), 4-17.

McCann, T.M. and Johannessen, L. (2009) Mentoring Matters: The Challenge for Teacher, The English Journal, Vol. 98, No. 5, pp. 108-111

McCann, T.M., Johannessen, L. and Ricca, B.P. (2006), Supporting Beginning English Teachers: Research and Implications for Teacher Induction. Urbana: NCTE.

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