It is finally time. You are given your first teaching assignment as a graduate student, or it is time to teach as part of your first job. Sure, you sat through an institutionally required training that seemed to be more about the institution not wanting to get sued than giving you ideas about teaching. You may feel unsure about what to do teaching, or even if you want to teach at all. What and how you teach might be laid out for you already, but you still have the power to decide how to present yourself as an instructor.
You may have encountered a few different instructor personalities during your time as an undergraduate. There is the instructor who struggles to make the content relatable because everyone should get it. There is the TA who is learning the material one week ahead of you because it was the class they were told to teach. You may have had the instructor like the one Robin Williams played in Dead Poets Society, who wants to inspire you to greater things. Another person you possibly have encountered is the uninspiring instructor who clearly doesn’t want to be there and whose only goal is to get you out the door at the end of class. Finally, you may have had the new instructor who is nervously going through their first experience with the class; but at least they were very personable. An instructor earns many personas. It is important to establish the type of persona you want to adopt as an instructor at the outset. Putting some thought into who you want to be as an instructor can help guide your lesson plans to better suit who you are and help you build rapport with the students. Figuring out who you are as an instructor is an ongoing process that will take time and self-reflection. By figuring out who you want to be, you can use pedagogies that better align with who you are.
- What cues instructors use to form their teaching identity.
- What it means to teach as your authentic self.
- The benefits and drawbacks of being authentic.
Forming a Teaching Identity
When I taught my first class as the instructor of record, I knew I should not lean into my personality to the fullest extent possible. I know that being funny (I am downright hilarious) is an important part of my identity. It is something I cannot escape, and I choose to embrace. In one of the most serious moments of my life, I was trying to be funny. I was in a car accident about ten years ago. After the emergency personnel cut the car door off with the jaws-of-life, they were about to cut my seat belt. I stopped them and unbuckled myself, and said, “Don’t worry, I got this.” Later, it was reported, the first responders could only laugh. In more personal settings, humor is a preference. Using humor in a professional setting is a challenge as the consequences for bad attempts are more severe. However, humor has its benefits in the classroom, such as reducing anxiety, lightening the mood, and occasionally being thought-provoking (Chiarell, 2010). I try to use this core part of my identity to my advantage when possible; however, I know it cannot run rampant. Using lots of sarcasm with students, for example, can hurt the instructor’s credibility (Banfield et al., 2006).
Two concepts central to this chapter are teacher identity and authenticity, each of which can fill up a textbook on their own. Within identity, there are two aspects of interest, our identity as instructors and the identity we assume when teaching. That is to say, how do we see ourselves as instructors, and what role does that play in our jobs? These aspects of identity are fluid, changing in response to the environment, and changing over time as we grow (Shelton, 2018).
Within academia, instructors are commonly split between the professional identities of researcher and instructor (Kreber, 2010). Do you see yourself as a researcher forced to teach, gaining little fulfillment from teaching? Or, do you enjoy teaching but feel like research, and administrative tasks are viewed as more important? Instructors draw on cues from different levels of the institution to help form a teaching identity. High-level cues come from the institution, the broader culture around education, research-teaching interface, and effort expected (Fanghanel, 2007). Many of these cues are out of an instructors’ control but serve to emphasize the value of teaching at the institution. Interpreting the signals of the larger institutional forces is important for understanding what is expected of you as an instructor.
Instructors can draw cues from three levels, high, mid, and personal, to get a better sense of what teaching is like at an institution (Fanghanel, 2007). Most high-level cues are out of an instructor’s control, and may offer contradictory signals. The institution may say it values teaching but offer little support and recognition for teaching effectively. There are mid-level cues to draw from within your discipline and or department (Fanghanel, 2007). Within this level, instructors can seek community with others in the department that teach similar discipline topics. New graduate student instructors at Virginia Tech can join the Academy for Graduate Teaching Assistant Excellence to learn from other graduate students at the university about their experiences teaching as a graduate student. In addition to community, instructors may also experience the strongest administrative forces that set job expectations (Kreber, 2010). Finally, at the personal-level, one’s beliefs about teaching inform our identity (Fanghanel, 2007). These would include our previous experiences as an instructor and student, our assumptions about students, and what we believe is effective. What is the goal of our teaching? Do we want to convey information or teach skills and ideas that are beneficial outside of the classroom? While instructors teach content specific to their discipline, many see it as their duty to teach other skills like critical thinking or writing (Kreber, 2010). It is also at this level that the personal identity that we teach is formed.
The first time I was a TA, I taught an introductory insect identification lab. This lab had a reputation for being relatively easy, and most students took the class to meet general education requirements. It was a class many students knew was taught by a graduate student. This class was also an easy assignment for the TA, as the course content and schedule were already laid out. Any changes made were at the TA’s discretion, but we could not alter the course content; for example, we couldn’t change which arthropod was taught. TAs were not allowed to change the insects on quizzes, but a TA on Thursday could change the order of the questions on quizzes from earlier in the week to keep students accountable. I liked to spice up lectures with any fun or interesting media or information that I could find. For example, did you know the shiny green flies in the family Calliphoridae that bother you when enjoying a picnic are also the ones that provide the larvae used to clean wounds with maggot therapy? It felt more like acting than teaching. I enjoyed the experience, but the lack of ownership always reminded me that I was a graduate student teaching predetermined content. It felt like the student reviews were more about who you were rather than what they learned.
A related concept that pairs with identity is authenticity. Instructor authenticity has emerged as an area of study; the question is, how does instructor authenticity affect interactions with students? Authenticity is a nebulous term that is difficult to define in a scholarly sense, and there are many scholarly definitions of what authenticity is. In a review of the different definitions used, a common theme was being as open as possible about your values, beliefs, and biases (Kreber et al., 2007). Other aspects of many of these definitions relate to showing passion for the course subject, genuinely expressing yourself, and engaging students with topics that matter (Taylor, 1991). In the context of teaching, authenticity is also associated with being kind and sincere with students—it is possible to be an authentically evil person (Chickering et al., 2006). Considering authenticity along more practical lines means reflecting your values and passion and making an earnest effort to know your students (Kreber et al., 2007). As an instructor, there are many ways to reflect your authentic self through the things that you do in the course.
One way to reflect on yourself is through the assessments that you use. In a class I taught about how ecological principles are applied in agriculture, we frequently discussed what we believed are the best options for agriculture. The majority of students in the course were not in a field related to ecology nor agriculture. However, everyone engages with agriculture on some level, namely choosing what to eat. As part of an assignment on biodiversity, students chose a diet scenario from a paper that they read, then they had to explain why it is the best choice. Each diet has an environmental cost to the production practices that the students had to explain, but they also had to convince their peers why this was the best choice. For me, it was fun to hear about the reasons why students chose the diets they did and to follow-up by asking if their actual diets are reflective of this choice. There were a few vegans who lived out their proposed diet, but most of them acknowledged they did not follow their own proposed diet. This was mostly due to convenience and time. This assessment allowed me to talk to students about a question with no correct answer and provided an opportunity to understand better the values and judgments students make around food.
Lessons that let the students do most of the talking can hide some potentially difficult aspects of your authentic self as well. I categorize myself as more of an introvert than an extrovert. That is not to say that I am fearful of public speaking or being in front of the class. Rather, talking for extended periods is mentally exhausting for me. One of my least proud moments is when I lectured for nearly an hour straight about plant diseases. However, there are times when a lecture is necessary, such as when laying out the organization and relationships of a new topic.
By creating lesson plans and assessments that have the students take the lead, I can reduce the amount of time that I am at the center. However, there are still classes where I lecture. In these classes, I follow a TV schedule. I talk for 8–12 minutes, then ask the students a short discussion question. In total, I try to limit myself to three of these talking periods. That leaves time in the end for some form of assessment as well. This format allows the students to interact with material and provides me a break from talking.
Being authentic with the students can help build trust with them. Share your experiences with the students, maybe they have not previously encountered a perspective such as yours. And, by offering your own experiences you give permission for your students to bring their whole self into the learning environment (Elliott-Engel, Amaral, Westfall-Rudd, & Rudd, 2020). The authentic sharing of experience builds trust. By building trust with students, you can help them feel like a part of a classroom community, a place that they would feel comfortable sharing their identities and their lived experiences.
Benefits of Authenticity
Thinking about who you are can help inform your approach to designing your course to maximize your strengths—design assessments and lesson plans that do not require you to be the leader. For one assessment, I had students make infographics to summarize the unit we just covered. I printed out everyone’s infographic, with their names removed, of course, and taped them to blackboards in the room. Everyone had an opportunity to write comments next to the infographics before we discussed all of them. I was still able to gauge the students’ understanding of the material but to do so in a way that did not require lots of talking from me. Another activity that I enjoy using is having students lead a discussion on a paper reinforcing an important concept from the unit. While I still participate, it gives me a break from being the leader and lets me be an observer.
What if this is your first-time teaching, or you simply want to get through your teaching assignment to get on with your research? Are there some characteristics that you can utilize to get a start and avoid getting negative student reviews? Student evaluations of instructor quality are often tied to the different personality traits displayed by instructors (Kim & MacCann, 2018). Students have their own definition of what it means to be authentic and which traits they associated with being authentic. Students use five broad traits to evaluate the authenticity of an instructor: approachable, passionate, attentive, capable, and knowledgeable (Table 1) (De Bruyckere & Kirschner, 2016; Johnson & LaBelle, 2017). By being organized, providing timely feedback, and clearly relating course concepts, you can fulfill some of the indicators used by students to assess authenticity for being attentive, capable, and knowledgeable (Johnson & LaBelle, 2017). To be thought of as approachable and passionate, students are looking for excitement, for you to share personal stories, and to talk to them outside of class (Johnson & LaBelle, 2017). Having enthusiasm for what you are doing is another common trait described by students as beneficial for instructor authenticity (Keller et al., 2018).
The behaviors that make an instructor seem inauthentic are the opposite of the aforementioned traits: not sharing personal stories or details, not getting to know the students, being bored by the content, being slow to provide feedback, being disorganized, and being unsure of the material being taught (Johnson & LaBelle, 2017). Sometimes, it may seem difficult to avoid these negative behaviors; but, by trying to play to your strengths, you can still be authentic.
|Indicators of authenticity||Indicators of inauthenticity|
|Approachable||Using personal stories
Talking with students outside of class
Availability outside of office hours
|Unapproachable||Not sharing personal stories
Ignores students outside of class
Lack of office hours
Does not attempt to get to know students
|Passionate||Excited about content
Enthusiasm for teaching
|Lack of passion||Seems bored
Not excited to be teaching
|Attentive||Listening to students
Checking in on well-being
Does not know names
Does not help students
Avoids student feedback
|Capable||On-time and prompt
Detailed assignments, syllabus, and expectations
|Incapable||Unprepared and disorganized
Reading from presentation or book
|Disrespectful||Rude and/or dismissive of students
I was a TA for two sections of a lab for a class called woody landscape plants. The lab was essentially walking around campus and teaching students how to identify the plants they learned about in the lecture portion. This was one of those class experiences where the TA is only a week ahead of the students learning the course material. I know insects, not plants. I took a risk with the students and let them know I was learning the material a week ahead, rather than hide behind an authoritarian streak and tell them what everything was with no room for questions. For graduate student TAs, this can be a strategy when forced to teach a class outside of your expertise. Being honest rather than authoritarian maintains your credibility with the students (Pytlak & Houser, 2014). I also used the students as a resource by having them demonstrate how they remembered the characteristics of the different plant species.
The nature of this lab gave me the chance to talk more informally with the students. We would trek across campus for the lab looking at plants, providing ample time to talk with students. Getting out of the classroom did not require me to be a talk show host. I often asked about the lecture portion of the class. Or, after spring break, we all shared photos of plants that we recognized from class. Once it warmed up enough for insects to become active, I could tie some of my passion into the course content that I was less familiar with. I was always ready to seize the moment and the insect when the opportunity presented itself to bring insects into the discussion. There were some natural opportunities to use insects to enhance the class experience by providing more details about some specific interactions between plants and insects. I pointed out the little balls of fluff on hemlock trees that are the invasive hemlock woolly adelgid. There I was, describing the unique pollination relationship between yucca moths and the yucca plant. The most engaging opportunity was giving everyone a leaf from a boxwood plant and having them split it open to see the boxwood leafminer’s larvae on the inside. The students in the class seemed to enjoy these little asides, as it brought the course content back to an area that I am passionate about.
Challenges of Authenticity
Not all graduate TAs may feel the pressure of getting good student reviews. But there may be some who feel pressure to perform for the students to get a good review. Leaning into some of the attributes that students are using to gauge your authenticity can help, but be warned that faking those attributes can have negative consequences—constantly putting up a façade of enthusiasm when teaching class often results in personal dissatisfaction with job performance and emotional distress (Taxer & Frenzel, 2018). Furthermore, if you are bad at acting, people will be able to tell that you are acting differently than you really feel (Grandey & Gabriel, 2015). It might be tolerable to push through a semester of acting to benefit a class as a graduate student with little to no training in teaching. Just know, if you are acting for positive student reviews, you can get those reviews from students at the potential expense of what the students will achieve in your class (Kim & MacCann, 2016). If you are new to teaching and it is a big part of your job, you may want to take a moment to reflect on who you are as an instructor.
One other challenge that comes to mind with trying to be authentic when teaching is what to do with an online course. With more limited means of interacting face-to-face and providing nonverbal cues, expressing who you are can be challenging. I have not taught an online course, nor was I one of the many instructors who had to transition rapidly to an online course due to COVID-19. However, I have had some experiences with online courses as a student. These experiences have taught me one lesson for when I inevitably have to teach online: put yourself on the screen. The courses I have taken have largely been presentations that were narrated by the instructor. I had no idea who the instructors were. I think it is necessary to hold virtual office hours and recitation sessions to allow the students to talk to me to get to know me. Even if you are not comfortable in front of the camera, try to express who you are on the syllabus. Be specific about the reasoning and rationale behind the policies you have. What does it mean to share personal details about yourself in an online class? Another tactic could be sharing social media information with the students, but that may blur the line too much between professional and personal. While you are allowed to share personal views on topics, it can be difficult to disentangle those views because you are an instructor at an institution of higher education. There may also be deeply personal or slightly embarrassing content that students may not need to know. To choose to share that information with students is your choice. Just be prepared for anything you post potentially come up in class. Being able to express yourself through technology is something that instructors continue to grapple with as more learning occurs online (Shelton, 2018).
One of the first places students will encounter who you are is on the syllabus. Be explicit in explaining your rationale for course policies to let students see more of who you are. Instead of a late assignment policy that says you lose a certain amount of points per day late, say you understand that life happens. You are willing to work with a student about what is appropriate, provided they communicate with you. Provide them with a snippet of reasoning about why you have the assessments you do. Let them know the course is about developing them as people, not just students to fill with information. Infographics assignments succinctly summarize the important aspects of a unit; debates are important for picking a position and defending the topic.
When trying to teach as your authentic self, it is important to take time to reflect on who you want to be as an instructor. Developing who we are as instructors is a fluid process that takes time (van Lankveld et al., 2017). Taking the time to reflect on teaching, especially with the support of institutional resources, helps instructors solidify their teaching identity and makes them more likely to adopt student-centered teaching practices (Nevgi & Löfström, 2015). I consider myself a bit lucky to have had varied teaching experiences and be part of programs during my time as a graduate student to allow me to reflect on who I want to be as an instructor. With every class we teach, we gain new experiences that we can shape ourselves. For example, I had a student who was putting in the bare minimum to get by. Then suddenly, he was gone for a month. He emailed saying a relative had passed away. I was skeptical of that being the case, because he had not done much to earn my trust. Shortly after his return to class, I got a note from the student services office confirming the details of the student’s experience. While I never said anything to the student, I had made some bad remarks to fellow TAs. After that experience, I realized I had little choice but to trust students. At best, I get a three-hour window into their lives every week during the semester. The rest of the time, they are dealing with life.
You need to think about who you are as an instructor and how you will express that before, during, and after teaching your course. Before you begin teaching a course, think about how you are going to approach it. Are you going to sequester your identity in an air of professionalism and neutrality? Will you approach a topic from an intersection of your own identities? When you are teaching, moments may arise when you need to set aside or redefine your authentic self. If you have students debate a topic, do you try to remain impartial or show a bit of bias toward the ideas you like? After the course is over and you have read the student evaluations, ask yourself if the comments reflect you or the course content? It may feel nice to read positive reviews of who you are; but, if the class average was a “C,” what is that saying about how well you taught? Was your authenticity being perceived as being nice, or did you engage the class with it?
This is the beginning of your teaching journey; do not expect it to fall perfectly into place right away. This is a process that will take time. Before you start thinking about what your teaching persona will be and what your goals are for teaching, talk with other instructors at the institution to learn from their experiences and about what motivates them to teach. Also, seek out other resources that the institution may have to help with teaching. At Virginia Tech, there is the Academy for Graduate Teaching Assistant Excellence. This is a group of graduate students who are willing to share their experiences with all aspects of teaching in formal and informal settings. Finally, take time to reflect on the course and your teaching once it has passed.
- What are your motivations for teaching this class? Is the topic an area of passion for you, or is this simply part of your job duties?
- What identities do you possess that could be prominently featured while teaching? Are there lessons that could be designed that allow you to utilize these?
- Are there resources at the institution such as professional development opportunities, teaching groups, or mentors to help you develop your teaching practice?
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Figure and Table Attributions
- Table 2.1 Data Source: Johnson, Z. D., & LaBelle, S. (2017). An examination of teacher authenticity in the college classroom. Communication Education, 66(4), 423–439. https://doi.org/10.1080/03634523.2017.1324167
- How to cite this book chapter:
McCullough, C.T. 2022. Authenticity. In: Westfall-Rudd, D., Vengrin, C., and Elliott-Engel, J. (eds.) Teaching in the University: Learning from Graduate Students and Early-Career Faculty. Blacksburg: Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. https://doi.org/10.21061/universityteaching License: CC BY-NC 4.0. ↵