Knowing Who You Are

As we’re coming to the end of the semester and year (we had graduation Saturday, for example), I’ve been reflecting on what makes an average professor good or a good professor great.  At our university, we give out a few faculty awards around this time, which always leads me to think about how and why some people not only succeed, but thrive, and why others merely exist and sometimes seem to prevent learning from taking place.

One characteristic we don’t talk much about is self-knowledge or simply knowing one’s self (to go back to the ancient Greeks).  It’s one of those things that we can’t measure, so it doesn’t get any real focus in our time of assessment worship.  However, it’s at least one marker of a difference between those who succeed and those who don’t.

Let me quickly say, though, that self-knowledge doesn’t prevent professors from taking feedback or continuing to grow or learn as a teacher.  In fact, the opposite is true.  If professors know who they are, they are more comfortable accepting constructive feedback (whether from peers or students) because they can see where those suggestions do or don’t fit with who they are.

For example, my classes are centered around discussion; one of my main strengths in the classroom is in creating an environment where people feel comfortable teaching.  When I lead a semester study abroad program for the university a few years ago, I wasn’t able to really build those relationships, a fact several students commented on.  On the one hand, some of those students had an idea of what our relationship would be that isn’t me; they wanted me to be their friend, not their professor.  Because I’m comfortable in my role, I knew that approach wouldn’t work for me.  However, what I did learn is that I do much better building relationships with students in class first, then moving to know them better outside of the classroom.  Their criticisms were partly valid, but I had to know who I am in order to hear what I could improve upon.

Professors who don’t really know who they are, though, suffer from two problems, sometimes simultaneously.  First, they take ideas from a wide variety of people and places, even though those ideas will clearly not work for who they are.  Because they see those people as successful, they will then try to force them into their classes (or even onto their personalities).  I remember an episode of Welcome Back, Kotter (yes, I know how old that reference is, but it stuck with me, so perhaps there’s some truth in it) where Mr. Kotter has a student teacher, and she is not doing well.  She comes in one day and tries to be just like Mr. Kotter, complete with his type of humor.  Needless to say, it doesn’t go well.  It’s only when she starts developing her own approach to teaching that she becomes successful.

Quick side note: when we start out teaching, almost all of us are little more than an amalgamation of our favorite teachers and professors.  We steal from any and all of them to try to put together our first few classes because we don’t know who we are yet as teachers.  The good/great professors work through those various masks (essentially) to ultimately find who they are (think Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence here).  There’s nothing wrong with imitation in the early days; staying there is the problem.

The second problem for professors who don’t know who they are is a refusal to take feedback or ideas from anyone or anywhere.  These professors say there is nothing they can learn from student course evaluations, yet they also don’t seem to welcome peer or administrative observations.  They stick to their teaching approach without deviation for years and years, often not only not changing their pedagogy, but not changing their classes in any way.

What’s really odd is when one sees a professor veer between these two extremes, sometime in the same week.  They complain about how their classes are going, so they run from one person to another asking for ideas on how to improve their pedagogy and classes.  Then, they end up not making any of those changes and continue to teach as they always have.

Professors often tell their students that the point of education is not career preparation; rather, it is the search for self-knowledge.  That’s definitely true for students, but it’s also true for professors.  We need to spend time exploring who we want to be in the classroom and work toward becoming those people, in the same way we want our students to do so.  If we know who we are, we can better help students find out who they want to become, as well.

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