The Teaching Life
The Teaching Life
Nobody just walks into a classroom and begins to teach without some consideration of self-presentation, much as nobody sits down to write a poem, an essay, or a novel without considering the voice behind the words, its tone and texture, and the traditions of writing within a particular genre. Voice is everything in literature, playing in the mind of the writer, the ear of the reader; the search for authenticity in that voice is the writer’s work of a lifetime. What I want to suggest here is that teachers, like writers, also need to invent and cultivate a voice, one that serves their personal needs as well as the material at hand, one that feels authentic. It should also take into account the nature of the students who are being addressed, their background in the subject and their disposition as a class, which is not always easy to gauge. It takes a good deal of time, as well as experimentation, to find this voice, in teaching as in writing. For the most part, the invention of a teaching persona is a fairly conscious act. Teachers who are unconscious of their teaching self might get lucky; that is, they might adopt or adapt something familiar—a manner, a voice—that actually works in the classroom from the beginning. Dumb luck happens. But most of the successful teachers I have known have been deeply aware that their selfpresentation involves, or has involved at some point, the donning of a mask. This taking on of a mask, or persona (from the Latin word implying that a voice is something discovered by “sounding through” a mask, as in per/sona), is no simple process. It involves artifice, and the art of teaching is no less complicated than any other art form. It is not something “natural,” i.e., “found in nature.” A beginning teacher will have to try on countless masks before finding one that fits, that seems appropriate, that works to organize and embody a teaching voice. In most cases, a teacher will have a whole closet full of masks to try on for size.
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