Wardrobe of personas

2nd October 2015 at 01:00

I am occasionally Will Smith. Not the one from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, nor the one from Men in Black; it’s much more specific. I’m Will Smith from his appearance on The Graham Norton Show in 2013. Have a look – it’s worth a Google. He radiates charisma like a Ready Brek glow, unfazed by whatever is asked of him. His performance of himself on that show is the epitome of calm, self-assured leadership.

My actual personality is more akin to Gonzo the Great from The Muppet Show: relentlessly optimistic but frequently enraged; a huge ego yet riddled with insecurities. That sort of thing doesn’t always shout leadership material. So when I find myself in a boardroom in front of a line of bigwigs – usually asking for coin to support an FE project – I have to pretend. It’s a race against time: I can only keep Smith going for about four minutes before the blue weirdo shoots back out of the cannon, waving his ridiculous arms.

Multiple other versions of me emerge depending on who I’m with and how I want to be perceived. Everyone has a wardrobe full of personas, none more so than teachers.

“Don’t smile until Christmas” is a metaphor for keeping your guard up, showing students who’s boss by taking on an authoritarian persona and not allowing a more authentic you to slip out. It’s an outdated idea that assumes a teacher’s higher status must be hammered into students. It’s as silly as marching into a class shouting, “I have a nose!”

We always have highest status in the classroom, no matter if our students are older, better qualified or more experienced than us. The teacher is boss. Overplaying that doesn’t emit confidence, rather a lack of it.

Half-term is near and the behavioural honeymoon is over. Killing them with kindness has always been my way. Not owing to my inherent loveliness – quite the opposite. Through experience inside and outside the classroom, I’ve learned that the best way to combat hostility is to project a wall of love. Responding to an aggressive learner by asking “Are you OK? How can I help?” unnerves most and allows them a moment to take stock of their behaviour. Their anger is often a defensive persona they’ve thrown on, just as I wear a Will Smith overcoat to combat nerves.

But the concern strategy only works when your status is at a culturally agreed higher level than the angry person. If you are of lower status, throwing a love bomb usually blows up in your face. Once, a senior colleague aggressively confronted me with an issue she believed I was to blame for. I’m a big apologiser – I irritate myself by automatically saying sorry when someone bumps into me – but on that occasion I felt I was being treated unfairly. I accidentally went into “dealing with a student” mode. The louder her voice grew, the more serene I became. Then I asked if she was OK. Her volume hit 11, her face flushed puce and I’d temporarily unhinged her from sanity.

I didn’t think I was at fault, but I’d have been more open to her perspective if she’d approached it as a discussion rather than a rant. Sometimes we all need to be a bit more Will Smith and a bit less Gonzo the Great.

Sarah Simons works in FE colleges in the East Midlands. @MrsSarahSimons

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