Teacher Revelations in the Classroom
Shortly after walking across the stage and receiving their diplomas, graduate instructors are thrown out of the frying pan of undergraduate education and into the fire of graduate school and classroom instruction. Almost overnight, undergraduate students rapidly transition into newly commissioned instructors, requiring an almost shoot-from-the-hip teaching style. Notwithstanding this rapid transition, most beginning composition instructors enter the classroom with confidence and excitement about teaching. However, they frequently feel insecure about the slight age difference—often as narrow as a couple of years—between themselves and their students. With this tight age gap, the teacher-student relationship can become particularly delicate, especially because of its potential long-range effects for both parties. A vital portion of this relationship hinges on the personal and biographical information the teacher willingly supplies the students. Notwithstanding the minimal age difference with their students, new composition teachers should volunteer positive personal information because such disclosure can connect them to their students, increase student learning, and exposes the teacher’s humanity. But it can also help create the appropriate professional distance between teachers and their students, thereby establishing their authority in their newly appointed positions.
Teacher self-disclosure is inevitable. Psychologist Paul Cozby defines this self- disclosure as any information about a person divulged to another person (qtd. in Cayanus 6). Teachers naturally disclose personal information in the process of interacting with their students. As psychologist Owen Renik notes, “The question becomes not whether to disclose, but how to manage the unavoidable condition of constant disclosure” (468). Peter Elbow pursues this further and asks, “Should I tell things about me that will make many of my students look down on me or scorn me or be threatened or even disgusted by me?” (qtd. in Skorczewski 141). Disclosure should include personal experiences relevant to the subject material that enhance student understanding, learning, and interest, such as past personal writing experiences, both successes and difficulties, and methods for good academic performance (Cayanus 8). Because teacher self-disclosure cannot be avoided, first-year composition instructors should advantageously and willingly disclose such information. This self-disclosure can be powerfully effective in motivating and encouraging students, acting as a catalyst for their education.
The benefits of self-disclosure far outweigh the disadvantages for new instructors. As Dawn Skorczewski states, “Talking about our own lives in the classroom can lead to moments of authentic connection to our students, moments when the class consists no longer of students and teachers inhabiting their roles but of a group of human beings working together toward understanding” (123). Teachers thrive on this authentic connection because students become more invested in their learning.
Teacher self-disclosure further connects students and teachers by encouraging student reciprocation. Psychologists John Berg and Valerian Derlega report that “the most consistent and frequently cited finding regarding the interpersonal effects of self-disclosure is disclosure reciprocity” (4). Jeffrey Berman accounts similarly: “Self-disclosure has a reciprocal effect, encouraging others to disclose themselves” (53). When teachers volunteer personal information, they essentially open what was a one-way street, granting permission for students to make it go both directions (Jacobson 56). Because sharing personal matters can be a risky undertaking, the teacher’s initial plunge gives students confidence to share their own personal experiences with the teacher and class.
When teachers share personal experiences, students not only feel part of a powerful learning environment where they can make personal connections with a teacher, they also reciprocate personal information and consequently become more invested in their writing. When students are personally invested, they participate more in the learning process. John Boehrer confirms, “Without some personal sense of investment in reaching a solution, the individual is poorly motivated to withstand the disturbance that accompanies genuine learning” (qtd. in Duffy and Jones 49). Students take this vital personal interest in their writing when teachers disclose biographical information, developing a “personal commitment to the process of learning” (Duffy and Jones 49). Writing experts like Linda Flower and John Hayes would argue that writing is a personal, goal-oriented process (286-290). Robert Coles fittingly suggests that it behooves teachers to elicit student stories and then listen intently to fully connect with the student (qtd. in Duffy and Jones 48). For students to internalize this personal writing process, they need to feel they can write personally. I motivate my students to become more invested in this writing process, encouraging them to avoid discouragement when they struggle to produce eloquent prose on their first attempt. I share my similar struggles with writing, relating how polished writing is indeed not only a process but also a product of constant revision and effort.
My classroom thrives on discussion. The wealth of classroom knowledge doesn’t rest solely in me; rather, it rests with the students collectively. A study conducted by Gary Goldstein and Victor Benassi links increased student participation to teacher self-disclosure, disclosure which provides personal and concrete examples that clarify the content (212 and 215). Student participation resulting from teacher self-disclosure has other correlative learning benefits. Jacob Cayanus reports that “when teachers engage in self-disclosure, students report greater interest” in the subject matter (7). Students more actively participate because teacher self-disclosure and teacher clarity are positively related (7). David Bleich acknowledges that disclosure “desentimentalizes writing groups, teaches the discipline of interacting with others, and adds collective achievement to what can be learned in school” (qtd. in Berman 53). Students feel more comfortable in the classroom when teachers volunteer personal information. They naturally participate more frequently within the classroom atmosphere and are also urged “to engage in out-of-class communication” (Cayanus 7).
New instructors must also create an empathetic environment where a student writer can trust his or her teacher audience (Berman 55). In this environment, teacher self-disclosure highlights the teacher’s humanity and reflects the trust between students and teacher. Students need to know that teachers care about them. Consider the importance of the freshman composition instructor: often freshmen are experiencing their first extended stay away from home and are living on their own. While many find this exhilarating, others do not do so well and struggle to stay afloat in the ocean of the academy. A freshman, just like any human being, needs others to care about him or her. Freshmen can feel lost in large classes until they come to freshman English, where the teacher knows their names, notices their absences, and listens to their stories (Eichhorn 50). Perhaps more than any other freshman class, freshman composition is vital to the students’ future success because they can feel the teacher’s compassionate care. A glance at most course evaluations reveals high ratings for teacher-student conferences, which students suggest that they need someone to care for them in the academy. Freshman English provides this personal touch most notably through teacher self-disclosure.
At BYU, freshman composition is housed in the English department, which is in turn housed in the College of Humanities. If anywhere on a large college campus, freshman composition courses should boast compassionate teachers. A young inexperienced instructor, close to the students’ same age, can shine in this regard. Jane Tompkins therefore calls for a “more holistic approach to learning, a disciplinary training for people who teach in college that takes into account the fact that we are educators of whole human beings” (218). When teachers tell stories about themselves, they are forced to step away from their role as an academic in order to present themselves as humans (Scorczweski 131-32). We teach humans, not composition, and students should feel that personal touch. Dawn Skorczewski aptly notes, “Our students want to know that we are human beings as well as teachers and that we recognize their humanity as well as their position as students” (142). Unlike science, which is formal and often static, rhetoric and composition are informal, intended for specific human audiences. In short, rhetoric revolves around human interactions, and students should personally feel that most keenly as the teacher connects with them through self-disclosure.
A personal story or biographical experience signals to students that teachers care. New instructors could reap great insight from Mitch Album’s Tuesdays with Morrie. In a case study of Tuesdays with Morrie, Michael Hyde argues that students need devoted teachers and teachers likewise need devoted students (43). Moving past mere recognition, teachers need to acknowledge their students’ presence as humans. This acknowledgement also results in positive student reciprocation, which Martin Heidegger describes as letting “that toward which it goes come toward it” (qtd. in Hyde 23).
Morrie is a prime example of one teacher highly concerned about his students, motivating them in their studies. He reveals deeply personal information and students respond, even decades later. Morrie discloses personal information because he “saw [the student] as a raw but precious thing, a jewel that with wisdom could be polished to a proud shine” (qtd. in Hyde 32). Morrie yearns to disclose personal information, entreating Mitch when he says, “I want to tell you about my life. I want to tell you before I can’t tell you anymore. . . . I want someone to hear my story. Will you?” (qtd. in Hyde 34). Mitch accepts Morrie’s request and reciprocates with his own story. The book details their interactions as student and teacher based on their reciprocal self-disclosures.
On a very basic level, teachers acknowledge students by knowing them and calling them by name. They acknowledge them more fully when they elicit student comments and consider student ideas. They fully acknowledge them, like Morrie, when they disclose personal information, essentially communicating their trust and confidence in the student. Personal narrative exchange between teacher and student, like Morrie and Mitch’s, is an “effective way of acknowledging student thoughts, feelings, and experiences throughout the course” (Duffy and Jones 47).
Disclosing personal information lets students know the teacher is compassionate. This humane factor is often lost with first-year graduate instructors who, because of the age proximity, fail to open up, fearful of becoming too personable with students. The result is a sterile classroom with sterile discussions and forced interactions with students. Graduate instructors would never want students to believe that they rule their classrooms as gods or omnipotent judges. Joseph Harris states that teachers must balance the role of judge with that of advocate (115). Volunteering biographical information leans towards advocacy, allowing students to feel the teacher’s humanity. Often teachers and students fit nicely into other pre-fitted molds, where the teacher is the evaluator and the student is the performer (Brooke and Hendricks 33); the teacher acts as a critic, handing out points for student performance. But in a humane and personal composition course, where the teacher discloses information, these molds become less rigid and produce increased student learning.
There is often an insignificant age difference between instructors and students. Yet, ironically, teacher self-disclosure solidifies the gap. Often teachers are tempted to bridge the age gap by descending to the students’ level, accepting happy hour invitations and the like. Dawn Skorczewski states, “A teacher’s self-revelations can illuminate the slight difference in age and experience between teacher and student, drawing a useful line between varying levels of expertise in the room and making students feel safe to be in the presence of someone who has struggled with the same issues, but a short time ago” (131). Defining this useful line through self-disclosure is vital for new teachers in establishing themselves as a classroom authority. They need the professional distance in order to be a powerful figure to the students, and self- disclosure delineates this line.
In my first semester teaching, I often referred to both my undergraduate education and previous writing classes. I established my credibility by saying, in effect, “I’ve been there. I’ve done that. You can trust me. I’m qualified to be your instructor.” When students were struggling with a concept or an issue, I would say, “I had a professor who explained it to me this way.” I hoped by linking my professor’s doctoral degree and knowledge with my bachelor’s degree and knowledge, the students would believe I had similar knowledge and experience—and they did.
When the age gap is narrow, many graduate instructors avoid revealing their age. This fear limits them from reaping the benefits of self-disclosure. Instead, they want to remain as professional as possible. Revealing their age or other personal information would, in their minds, open the floodgates and potentially ruin their credibility, so they refrain from engaging in personal conversations. The opposite is true. Jacob Cayanus reports that “too little self- disclosure can lead to students’ perceptions of teachers being stiff, unyielding, and unfriendly. . . . Too little self-disclosure leads to a negative learning environment” (8). When the age difference is so narrow, graduate instructors need to reveal personal information that can show they are the classroom experts. Standing in front of a class with a satchel at their side and chalk in their hand does not qualify them to teach freshman composition in the eyes of the students. Once one has convinced the composition office to give him or her the job, the next important audience to be convinced is the students in the classroom.
Students need repetitive reminders of a new teacher’s prior experience. Students do not care that the teacher may never have previously taught a class; they care that the teacher represents classroom authority. A teacher can easily establish authority by sharing experiences from prior meaningful courses. For example, I could have briefly told my students, “I remember my advanced writing class. It was a night class and the teacher frequently came unprepared. If class would have been more structured, I could have learned so much more. This class is going to be structured. You will know exactly what I expect of you and will have many more opportunities to grow and put your writing to work than I had.” Such revelations not only strengthen the student-teacher relationship, they also empower the students to learn and solidify the teacher as the classroom expert. There are obviously other means to establishing classroom ethos, such as reminding the students that the teacher holds the power of their grades. But although grades hold great weight with students, they do not open up the classroom dialogue, nor do they establish the roles of the student with the teacher as the ultimate classroom authority. Fortunately, self-disclosure does both.
While teachers should divulge personal information to show they care about their students and to connect with them, teacher self-disclosure should be used strategically (Cayanus 7). Students are at the edge of discovery, forming their own beliefs and self-identity. Teachers should share positive personal information and avoid views on topics such as their gender- orientation, political affiliation, or religion, which could restrict students in forming their personal opinions because the classroom restricts it (8). Maxine Hairston describes a disturbing writing model “that puts dogma before diversity, politics before craft, ideology before critical thinking, and the social goals of the teacher before the educational needs of the student” (698). Classrooms should never degrade into such personal political or ideological forums where students are force-fed unwanted material and their educational needs are overlooked. A good rule of thumb for new instructors to remember is that personal information disclosed should clarify the composition content and motivate the students to excel.
When new instructors come underprepared to class and struggle to fill the allotted class time, they run the risk of sharing too much information. When a teacher discloses too much, this merely underscores a teacher’s lack of confidence in feeling qualified for the job (Skorczewski 131). When new instructors talk openly about their personal lives, it can create too casual an atmosphere and may reflect the discomfort the teacher feels in the role of instructor. Berg and Derlaga observe that one of the interpersonal consequences of self-disclosure “is for self- disclosure to result in increased liking for the discloser. . . . The basic idea was that if the disclosure was perceived as personalistic, it would lead to increased liking” (4-5). While having teachers and students like each other improves the classroom atmosphere, liking should only be part of a teacher’s motivation for self-disclosure. The self-disclosure should ideally increase student learning and interest in the subject matter, and not be merely offered because the teacher is ill prepared.
Revealing personal information can be risky, especially when new teachers want to maintain the appropriate professional distance and do not want to give students any clues about their age. Taking such risks is necessary when these teachers “attempt to engage in authentic relationships in the classroom” (Skorczewski 141). Granted, sometimes personal experiences fall flat and leave the teacher feeling frustrated and misunderstood. But such feelings are natural and are a necessary part of learning and learning to teach. When new instructors take the plunge to volunteer personal information, they will see immediate personal and classroom benefits. The teacher-student relationship will be strengthened, students will more keenly feel their teacher’s humanity, and the teacher will be established as a believable classroom figure instead of as another study buddy. In spite of their fears and the risks, new teachers of freshman composition should volunteer personal information to become better teachers and to more deeply influence their students.
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