Teenagers are among the most interesting people on earth, combining paradoxes in fast succession:
- They are oddly predictable and unusually unpredictable at once.
- They are idealistic, able to wish for a better world with a zeal many adults cannot fathom – but they’re unbelievably cynical about even the smallest thing.
- They are passionate and emotional and also can put up emotion-squelching walls that nothing can pass through.
- Working with them can be exhilarating. Working with them can be devastating.
How can a non-teenager connect to teenagers – visiting their world for inspiring, aiding, supporting and encouraging — for teaching — without being sucked into the chaos and instability?
Create a persona.
Rely on it.
Now, let me begin with what a Persona is not.
- A persona is not “being fake.”
- A persona is not “inauthentic.”
- A persona is not a “mask.”
On the other hand, a persona is:
- Your best self.
- A professional identity that can defer your own needs — and focus on children’s needs.
- Endlessly positive, endlessly patient.
Is this possible?
It is. On the one hand, this isn’t different from what professionals do all over the world, every day. If you’re a barista at a coffeeshop, the fact that you detest the ever-popular triple-double-decaf-halfcaf is irrelevant. You’re there to make drinks to order.
If you’re a zoo keeper, the fact that you prefer pangolins to penguins is irrelevant. It’s feeding time for both.
On the other hand, some careers require a deeper-dive into the persona.
Stand-up comics: the moment they become frustrated or angry with their audience is the moment they’re booed off-stage.
Therapists: the moment they demonstrate their boredom with the client’s complaining is the moment they lose their client – and deservedly so.
Teachers: the moment their frustration with teenager’s admittedly frustrating behavior becomes evident is the moment they lose the respect of the students. It’s the moment they undermine their own potential to teach.
Your persona is your voice-box. Your buffer. Your shield. It’s the point of contact between you and the children. It’s the difference between Evan Wolkenstein and “Mr. Wolk.”
When I enter the school, I am Mr. Wolk. You can find your persona, too. Maybe our personas can have lunch.
Persona Dos and Don’ts:
Dress the part. Wear something nice every day. Show that you respect your profession, you respect the students, and you respect yourself. For more on the power of a great outfit, check out my blog, Style For Dorks!
- Reflect on the kind of traits you’d want for someone teaching a child close to your heart. Write about them, talk about them, and look for them – in other people, in movies, in books, and on the street. Practice and emulate.
- Do develop phrases and mini speeches to help you communicate potentially frustrating messages in a non-emotional way.
Example One: “I just want to remind everyone that this is quiet work time. If you’re talking with your neighbor, now is the time to refocus back on your work.”
Example Two: “I just want to remind everyone that this class is for this class only. If you are [working on homework for another class, passing a note, surfing the net on your phone], it’s time to stop.”
Example Three: “I just want to remind everyone that when I say it’s worktime, it’s not a good time to start a conversation. I’m looking for people to move quickly into work groups.”
Bottom line: You don’t have the brain-space to be creative – and you can’t afford to be reactive. So memorize a nice, little speech, and if you need to repeat it – or say it louder – or call a student’s name and then repeat the speech, so be it. My tip: start your speech with, “I want to remind everyone that…”
For a deeper dive, check out my blog post and animated cartoon, here.
- Don’t Boast or complain about anything in your life. This is not about you. It’s about the students. That said, disclosure as a way of connecting to students and teaching is acceptable – as long as you never share anything private. Be reflective as you share about the message you are sending. The line is blurry one, so play it safe. If it feels weird to talk about it, it’s probably weird for them to listen to it.
- Don’t Drop your persona when a student comes to you for a one-on-one on an emotional subject. That’s the time to be your most patient, kind, collected, and professional. Sharing your own pain on any subject isn’t helpful to the student. Being a kind, comforting, professional presence for the student is.
- Don’t Confuse mock debates for actual debates. Argue about the superiority of the Rolling Stones vs. The Beatles. Do not argue about politics, religion, or personal values.
- Don’t Drop your persona when you think students are not listening. Gossiping in the cafeteria with other teachers, cracking crass jokes – the students will see it. And it will undermine their trust.
- Don’t Yell. Ever. There has never been a time when I yelled and didn’t regret it afterwards. Speak clearly, speak truly – and be controlled.