By Teachers, For Teachers
“Can I do an impression of you?”
“What?” I wasn’t sure I heard him right.
“I asked if I could do an impression of you.”
“Right now in class?”
He was serious, and we had a few extra minutes, so I relented. I figured he would say something English teacher-related and we’d have a small laugh, but I didn’t expect what came next: A spot-on impersonation. He had the tone, the timing, the phrasing, the facial expression, the gestures. It was like watching a mini-version of me. I hadn’t laughed that hard in a long time.
But this brief moment made me realize something more serious: I was being watched. I wasn’t just teaching strategies my students the discipline of reading, writing, speaking, and listening. They were paying careful attention to my every move whether or not it was on the syllabus. They knew when I got my haircut, when I got a new tie, or even when I was having a bad day by my tone or expression. The students were definitely watching me, and while I hoped they’d leave with a solid grasp of our course’s core concepts, I recognized that they might leave with a solid grasp of other things I implicitly shared with them, too.
If you think about the typical student’s day, it makes perfect sense that they pay attention to their teachers’ behaviors. Aside from their parents and other close family members, teachers are one of the few adults students consistently spend time with. As students of all ages look at the adult world for cues and models for their own development, the teacher they see in front of them each day is an obvious resource to emulate.
Conscious that my students are watching me, I try to make sure that I live my life in such a way that I portray what an appropriate, successful adult ought to look like. Although I hope my students leave my course having mastered the required standards, I understand that they are likely to come away with much more. Here are some of those behaviors and teaching strategies I intentionally try to role model for those many innocent sets of eyes staring at me each day.
I never talk explicitly about what I eat, but when opportunity arises I show students how I make decisions about food. It has become my habit to stand in the hallway to greet students as they enter the classroom, and recently I’ve taken to grabbing a quick snack before certain classes begin. As students walk into their English class, what do they see? Their teacher eating a piece of fruit!
If students ask about it, I might say something as simple as, “I need my brain food!” On multiple occasions, students have even brought their own fruit and spent a minute or two eating a healthy snack right beside me.
I feel fortunate to have a high level of education, and I don’t try to hide it when around students. No, I don’t hang my diplomas up on my classroom walls. Instead, I talk to students the same way I speak with anyone else: With an educated vocabulary, sophisticated sentence structure, and not dumbed-down content. When I speak and write in front of students, I try to articulate myself like an educated adult professional.
My hope is that after listening to me for a school year, students might begin automatically picking up my vocabulary and manner of speech. This is not because I vainly want people to sound like me. It’s because I want students to feel comfortable “sounding smart” and finding more mature ways of expressing themselves.
Being a teacher is my job. It’s my career and profession. So when students see me, they don’t just see a bookish scholar chatting about English-y topics, they have an intensely personal firsthand view of what an adult at work looks like.
First, I try to look the part. Each day I dress with nice pants, a button shirt, a tie, and dress shoes. I avoid the jeans-and-gym-shoes look, tempting though it may be. I tell students that how you look matters, and if I look professional then I’m more likely to feel and act professional too.
I also do my best to exhibit other characteristics of professionalism: Timeliness, courtesy, conflict resolution, maturity, preparedness, and so on. Each of my students will have a career of their own someday, and I hope that I conduct myself in ways that illustrate for them what good professionalism looks like.
I’m not perfect, and it doesn’t take long for students to recognize that about me. But I intentionally avoid fixed-mindset phrases, such as “I’m just not good at technology,” or “I can never do math … that’s why I teach English.” Disparaging statements like these indicate to students that I believe my skills or intelligence in these fields can never change. Doing so would give students tacit permission to think about their own abilities in the same way.
Instead, I try to tell students what I’m not good at but how I’m working on it. I often talk about what I’m learning, where I’m growing, and how far I’ve come in certain areas. If students see that I’m optimistic about my own ability to learn and grow, then hopefully they’ll find themselves becoming more optimistic as well.
Along with the growth mindset comes an ability to acknowledge my own failures and reflect on them. If a lesson goes horribly, I confess that to students and tell them what I learned. If I failed in a particular role or let someone down, I admit that and do what it takes to get it right the next time. I’ve always believed that failure is a part of learning; so if I want my students to learn, then I also want them to know that they don’t have to be perfect. All they have to do is admit when they’ve fallen short, reflect on the experience, and commit to growing.
Though I spend most of my time working with students on their English-related skills, I often bring up other areas of personal interest. Why? Because I want to show students that it’s OK to be diverse, to have hobbies, and to pursue interests in more than one field. I talk about instruments I play, poems I’ve written, places I’ve visited. I share stories when I was a teenager, talk about my family, and display on a poster the book I’m currently reading.
When students see someone who embraces passion, their own passions are ignited. No, I don’t spend unprecedented amounts of class time talking about myself. But when opportunity allows, I don’t hesitate to share a personal passion.
A smile and good attitude go a long, long way in life. I like to describe myself as a happy person, and I genuinely try to exhibit this to students. When I greet them, I smile. I tell them I’m having a fantastic day. I laugh hard at jokes and enjoy the privilege of sharing time with students.
I believe that happiness is a choice, and I encourage students to choose to be happy. Sure, there are circumstances that weigh down our moods from time to time, but happiness is contagious. If I bring a smile and positive persona to class, then the entire atmosphere of the classroom is likely to follow. My good feelings give students permission to exhibit their own good feelings, too. And ultimately they see an adult who loves his work, shares positive vibes, and doesn’t let sour circumstances turn his smile into a scowl.
I typically avoid talking directly about political issues with students, but when I vote in elections I make sure students know about it. Part of my job, I believe, is to prepare students for successful participation in a democratic society. So while I don’t usually talk about whom I voted for, I do talk about the ways I research candidates, speak with others about political issues, and ultimately make my decision. When I receive my “I Voted!” sticker at the polling place, I wear it all day long in front of my students.
The way we conduct ourselves goes a long way for what students learn about becoming an adult. As one of the few adults our students see on a regular basis, it’s our privilege and responsibility to ensure that we exhibit the very best qualities of life. Whether we like it or not, everything we do sends a message to students. It’s time we become fully cognizant of ourselves as role models and embrace the opportunities for demonstrating the very best ways for living life.
What else should we add to this list? What do you do at your school to make yourself a positive role model to your students? Tell us your story in the comments below!
Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.