Dangerous Authenticity?


Here’s an odd question: is it ever a bad idea for teachers to be authentic?

In a recent study, Johnson and LaBelle surveyed students to discover the teacher behaviors that struck them as “authentic.”

By closely analyzing the students’ descriptions of “authentic” teachers, they came up with four broad categories. According to their findings, authentic teachers are…

Approachable (for example: they tell appropriate personal stories and jokes)

Passionate (they’re excited about their subject matter)

Attentive (they know their students’ names)

Capable (they stay on top of assignments)

Unsurprisingly, “inauthentic” teachers do the opposite (and, are Disrespectful to boot).

Johnson and LaBelle acknowledge that this research includes some methodological quirks.

In particular, paradoxically, the fact that students describe these behaviors as “authentic” doesn’t mean that they are authentically “authentic” for all teachers.

For example: “authentic” teachers are approachable, and approachable teachers tell jokes. But, what if you’re not a joker? Maybe your sense of humor is quieter than that. Or maybe, while you appreciate a good joke told by others, you’re just not comfortable telling them yourself.

Should you adopt “authentic” teacher behaviors even if they’re not authentic to you?

Zooming Out

This question–which Johnson and LaBelle raise but don’t answer–hovers over much of the research you’ll hear about at Learning and the Brain Conferences.

Let’s imagine that you come to the November LatB conference, which will focus on the intersection of teaching and technology. You might attend a session that warns about the distractions that technology creates, and the attentional benefits that movement can provide.

On the one hand, this argument might make good sense to you. You know of several computer programs that might help your students, and you’re happy to know that they’ll be less distracted by technology if they’ve had a chance to move about recently.

On the other hand, as you listen to the speaker’s list of movement strategies (Have them move into small groups! Require students to change their seats every 20 minutes! Ask 5 students to write their answers on the board!), you might feel a growing dread.

Those strategies might seem like a good fit for the speaker. And, based on the fact that everyone around you is nodding energetically, you conclude they’re eager to give them a go.

But here’s the thing: that’s just not you. You simply can’t imagine directing your students about in some elaborate traffic-control exercise. You’re feeling a little embarrassed just thinking about it.

We’ve got good research showing the benefits of this particular teaching behavior. And, alas, that beneficial teaching behavior just doesn’t mesh with the persona you bring to the classroom.

So, what should you do?

Hard Questions, Tentative Answers

For starters, I think you should be suspicious of anyone who thinks this is an easy question.

On the one had, research has powerful answers to lots of questions about good and bad teaching. On the other hand, research mostly looks at AVERAGES.

And here’s the thing: you are not average. Your students aren’t average either. Your school isn’t average.

You are an agglomeration of unique particulars, and some research-established average might not apply to you.

That hard truth goes double when the teaching practice under discussion runs counter to something deep in your personality.

Here’s the best answer I got. In my view, you can decline particular teaching practices, but you shouldn’t ignore the broader topic within which those practices reside.

To go back to my “attention and movement” example: you can decide that you won’t rely on movement to focus your students. After all, that’s just not you.

But, you can’t overlook the topic of attention itself. There are MANY other teaching strategies you can use to foster attention, and–especially if you’re going to set this one strategy aside-you’ll need to be even more attentive and thoughtful about the other strategies that you have at hand.

Imagine a Venn diagram. Once circle represents all the teaching practices that have research support. A second represents those that students find “authentic.” A third represents those that are, in fact, authentic to you.

Find the teaching practices that fit in all three of those circles–you’ve found the best place to be.

tags: category: L&B Blog

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