Thursday, January 3, 2019

Does Instructor Personality Matter?

"To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment" -Ralph Waldo Emerson

I've been asked by many in one form or another about instructor personality. The basic question is, "Does personality matter?"

Let me get this out of the way first. Any professional instructor can teach effectively and can get students to buy-in and learn effectively, no matter what a person's personality is. Teaching, like being a craftsman or artisan, is a profession and as such can be learned by hard-working, thoughtful teachers. My belief is that personality does not really matter in terms of whether one can be successful at teaching via IBL. What matters are skills, vision, professionalism, effort, and passion.

With that out of the way, let's get to where the question, "Does personality matter?" comes from. There is a conjecture that certain personality types are better suited to IBL compared to others. For example, Mike Starbird, University of Texas, has been a strong proponent of IBL. He has a big personality, and he's an accomplished scholar and speaker. Some think he's the type of personality that can do IBL. But there are other personality types, other forms of learning, and the value of diversity of experiences, which combine to imply that there are range of ways to be successful as a teacher.  You'd don't have to be like Mike.

Mike is *an* example of a highly effective IBL instructor, and every instructor, who cares and puts in their time and focused energy, can be highly successful, while being true to their personality. You can be you, and carefully and effectively implement IBL methods. I really believe that. I'll also note that while Mike Starbird has a certain persona when he gives talks, I have been in his classroom as an observer, and he knows to pull back and let students do the talking and work on the material. It's learning first and foremost, and the teaching techniques that make that happen.

Let's refine the question. We could ask instead, "How do instructors use their personality as a strength?" Excellent teachers come in many forms. Math class is not a narrow, tall, and immutable monolith of a single, specific experience. It's a diverse landscape, drawing upon the varied experiences of instructors and students. Just as there exists a variety of music teachers and soccer coaches, math teachers are also a varied, diverse bunch (despite stereotypes trying to put us into a neat little box).

Here are a couple of oversimplified examples to get across a basic point. Assume say you're a more introverted, and not an animated speaker. You like to be thoughtful, and cracking jokes is not your style. But you are good at collaborating and understanding what students are saying. Then your strengths lie in the area of 1-1 interactions with students. It then makes sense to design your course using groups more. Groups can put you in a mode where you ask and listen to students, and build learning experiences from the small group interactions.

Now suppose a you are the type that does better with writing (versus speaking). Many of us prefer to write.  Then consider making more class handouts, supplemental handouts (recaps), and use email communication or LMS features like blogging or message boards. This might even be paired with flipped learning to further enhance what you can do in class. Then class time can be more focused on student-centered activities.

Hence, a basic point is that the IBL framework can be adapted to your strengths. Instructors can tune the course structure to take advantage their strengths. Personal strengths are not the only factor, but they can be factored in.

Another essential piece is communicating your strengths to your students. Informing students that "I'm not the type personality that gets in front of the class and does the big speeches... my strengths are in other areas, and I setup my courses so that I can better help you succeed in ways that utilize my strengths. Here's how I am setting things up so you get the best possible learning experience..." A core part of the message is letting students know you care and that you are thinking about how best you can help them.

Lastly, I'll also note that identity and culture are real factors. I won't get deep into this, but it needs to be mentioned. We know that gender and race influences perceptions and expectations. This is where advice gets tricky. I know what works for me, and what works for people I know. But what works for me may not work for you. Underrepresented faculty have added challenges compared to those who are more privileged. Yet, despite the fact that the terrain is not yet a level playing field and that some have to deal with more obstacles, there exists practical solutions that can allow you to be true to yourself.

In summary, instead of thinking of whether personality is good/bad for certain types of teaching, I believe it's more useful to start with your strengths and see where that puts you in Big Tent IBL. Every teacher is good at some aspects of teaching, and brings value to the classroom. Building off of these strengths, then is a key area to focus on. We can design our classes so that we take advantage of our strengths, and inform (repeatedly) to our students how and why class it setup in order to maximize their learning.

So what are your strengths? How do you use your strengths to shape your classes, while being your authentic self?

Happy New Year! It's 2019, and I wish you all the best!