Teaching is personal

We are invited to teach information as though it does not emerge from bodies.

~bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress

Often times I hear the phrase, “separate your personal and professional lives.” Of course, this catch-all phrase assumes a dichotomy and that separating our personal and professional lives is actually possible. It makes the issue a matter of black-and-white. It’s as if our home and work lives are completely distinct.

I can’t speak for other professions (I’ve only ever been a teacher), but I’m more and more convinced that this just isn’t so for teaching.

Teaching has always felt like a profession that does a great job of blurring the lines between the personal and professional. The work we do in the classroom is so humanistic in nature. We are in the business of helping other humans better themselves through learning. We help them uncover new ideas, connect it to what they already know, and reflect on why it matters in the long run. For me, these are the types of human interactions that require my full self to do effectively.

Similarly, my last post hints at how my professional life has influenced my personal life. I probably wouldn’t have made the decisions about buying custom t-shirts and using sidewalk chalk to make accessible math for my community had I been a construction worker or a dentist.

I suppose we can help students uncover objective facts neutrally. We can attempt to “remove” ourselves from the delivery of content. We could teach by focusing only on the purely academic (see definition 2) side of things. But by doing so, we disregard every human in the room.

And that’s crazy because every day in my classroom there are over 30 wildly diverse humans converging. Naturally, this explosion of knowledge and social and emotional capital cannot be forced to do anything that’s worth doing. As a result, I must learn who my students are as learners and people. I must plan for them, their dispositions, their vulnerabilities, their cultures, their identities, their families. I must take who they are as people into account (not just their studenthood) in order for me to acheive success. Over the course of a school year, I’ve realized that this happens awfully slow, like a tugboat pushing a barge, and often climaxes near the close of the year. At the same time, it also happens collectively and in unison — and this makes it beautiful. In a recent talk, Patrick Honner so eloquently said that teaching brought him “back to the edge of human knowledge…and it’s not lonely out there, because we’re out there together.”

Because we are bound to our students on this adventure to better ourselves each day, how can we be expected to be mindful of our students’ personal lives and lived experiences if it is expected that we forget about our own once we welcome them into the classroom?

Who I am as a person outside of the classroom universally affects what I do inside the classroom. If I am teaching genuinely, my two “lives” are inseparable. Do I forget this at times? Definitely. When I do forget it, I say and do things at critical points that separate who I am from my pedagogy. Usually, my decision is one that dodges conflict and that allows everyone to sit peacefully in their comfort zone. I don’t challenge the given.

As the inherent leaders of our classrooms, acknowledging and embracing our personal lives and attitudes in the classroom is critical to its ultimate success. This happens when we plan before students arrive and also during class. I don’t think most teachers realize when it’s happening. Many of us (myself included) place much of our energy on addressing our students’ needs and forget about our own selves in relation to that work. But just like our students, we too have personal histories, interests, identities, and biases. These things are deeply rooted in who we are as people and, consequently, who we are as teachers. As important and involved as teaching is, I’ve found that it demands that I purposely recognize — and integrate — my personal self as part of the process.

As teachers, who we are matters. A lot. In fact, whether we like it or not, our personal lives are already part of our professional lives. If we can do our best to welcome that into our practice by design, while it won’t make our work any easier, it may make what we do with students more relevant and forthcoming. Maybe.


4 thoughts on “Teaching is personal”

  1. Brian, your post is thoughtful, as the kind of teacher I know you are. I would like to add that we can’t absent our identities from the classroom (whether or not we think we are doing so), and it behooves us to examine both our identities and implicit biases we carry. It can be a difficult line to walk, but teaching is inherently political, and for the sake of our students, this is work we need to do. Thank you for sharing so honestly.

    1. Wendy, yes! I was talking to someone today about how being critical of our own identities is a precursor to serving our students and their identities effectively. It starts with us. I’ve found that because I’ve been doing a better job at this sort of personal introspection during the last few years, my classroom culture reflects this in many ways and my students are better for it.

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