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Express yourself

It was in 1961, just after our family had moved from Massachusetts to Indiana, that my mother got me thinking about something I have been reflecting on ever since.

Like many 14-year-olds, I was insecure, self-conscious, uncertain about everything. I remember saying, "No one knows me here. I can be anyone I want to be."

"Why don't you be yourself?" she suggested.

Those few words, simple yet laden with meaning, have stayed with me through school, college and into my professional life as a teacher.

Whenever I felt like hiding behind a mask borrowed from others who seemed to possess the experience or panache I lacked, like magic there arose the memory of my mother's words, persistent and gently guiding: "Why don't you be yourself?"

Early on in our careers as educators, it's almost inevitable that we will evade ourselves in the classroom because of sheer inexperience: we don't yet know ourselves as teachers. But imitation can be an important step towards authenticity. We may parrot the voices, emulate the mannerisms, even copy the approaches and attitudes of our own best teachers - until slowly, with luck and patience and through many frustrations, our real self begins to emerge.

Along the way, others help us. Like a colleague who sat in on one of my classes during my second year, and afterwards said something that knocked me off my perch: "Don't try to teach as if you have 35 years of experience, because you haven't."

Or we will read something, such as Harold Bloom's The Anxiety of Influence, in which he argues forcefully that if artists want to grow in the direction of their talent, then they must "kill off" the influence of their precursors and create their own voice in their own work.

Or we will be filled with an astonishing sense of epiphany, as I was one day about 10 years into my career. Suddenly, during a lecture on Thoreau's Walden, I realised with startling clarity that I was not simply talking about the author but explaining ideas with an insight and passion that coloured every word.

But what does this have to do with students? "From 1st grade through graduate school," a friend told me, "I never suspected a teacher of being anything except his or her true self. I was too inexperienced, maybe."

But it's been my impression that students do know whether their teachers are genuine. They have a deep instinctual knowledge of when an instructor is faking a persona and respond to insincerity by showing their disapproval through a grimace, a sarcastic tone or a disengaged attitude.

And so, if we expect to be effective, if our aim is to really connect with our students, then we must discover and relax and luxuriate in our own voice, our own self.

We can emulate supremely talented teachers by modelling their dedication, their discipline and their habits. But when we settle into our own voice - when we learn to be and to believe in our self - there's a real sense of coming home to the very best of all that's within.

Dale Salwak teaches English at Citrus College in California, US

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