As a young teacher, I came to teach in a school with an experienced staff. It was, and maybe still is, a blessing and a curse. It was a blessing to work with great educators who had a lifetime of experience and experiences to share with me that helped me become a better young teacher. It was a curse to work with these people because I saw what a lifetime of working in education had done to some of their thinking and outlooks that my youthful self thought was detrimental to the work. The hex that still sticks to me is how I learned from some of these people a driven nature to reflect upon what had gone on, the work done, the learning that did or did not take place and then to consider what I might do the next time to improve results.
One of the things that I saw was these teachers’ personae. Some of the teachers gleefully propagated personae that had little to do with their classroom selves, some put forth the personae that it was all about their classroom, and some did not care to differentiate their personae from who they thought they really were which was equally as carefully established as the other two. It is the first of this list that concerns me here. Let me tell a bit of a story and thoughtfully consider it.
His name is Jeff Saylor and he taught history and smoked. He was known to smoke throughout the building, even hanging out his classroom window. In the nineties there were still places in schools–incinerator rooms–where teachers could smoke. There teachers gathered, smoked, and talked brought together by their common bond. That is where I met Jeff. By then he had been teaching for nearly thirty years. He, like I, was a transplant to Iowa. And like myself, Jeff was an introvert, which means he wasn’t ever the first to speak, and often simply listened to conversations in the smoker without comment. When he did comment, colleagues listened. There was a quiet gravitas that surrounded him. This was nothing new to me, as I’d seen other men, my grandfather Weidenaar included, quietly wait to speak in a way that ensured others would hear.
The longer that I knew Mr. Saylor and worked more closely with him on the bargaining team for our local teachers’ union, the more I realized that there were parts of his teacher persona carefully crafted for school. He would deliver sardonic pronouncements in a raspy smoker’s voice with no hint of smile. My laughter, or anyone’s laughter, served only to exacerbate the comments. Until I saw him in action I only slightly knew what Victorian writers called a sharp tongue. He would pipe off gems punctuated by curse words in leadership meetings, the smoker, or the staff room. He was not indiscriminate, but well timed.
Such comments dismayed the lighter and fainter of heart on the staff. He was called scary, profane, damn rude, and a sarcastic,a know-it-all, a prick defending himself with George-Bernard-Shaw-like comments. (This latter statement obviously not voiced by a math teacher.) Such language, some said, was not fit for a school.
Jeff would not suffer fools, not among his colleagues, and certainly not among his principals. These are the types of folks that often felt his verbal bite. The lead principal at the time knew that if Jeff thought it a bad idea, which Jeff could succinctly qualify, then it was a bad fucking idea.
Having read through the above, there are leaders and teachers currently working in the profession, who would likely see Mr. Saylor as an impediment to the progress of a school. They would seek to lessen his impact on a staff and marginalize him. He would not be seen as a team player, not leadership material, not a quality advocate for a school’s brand.
I came to, and still do, respect him.
One time, I said to him, “Saylor, people on staff, both teachers and administrators, seem to respect you. Why do you think that is?” He looked at me a moment, and then in that voice that still reminds me of Bart Simpson’s Aunt Selma, said, “I’m an asshole to everyone.”
Many of the other staff thought the same. But they listened to him because he was not just right and acerbic; he was sharply analytic–worthy of respect.
And as I got to know Jeff better, I began to see a persona that he took on as the no-nonsense, shrewd, asskicker who would not brook time wasting as a way to get to the heart of issues, to cut through obstreperous debate, and perseveration about an issue. I say it was a persona that he took on because his person and personality were larger than this. Like you and I, the classroom Mr. Saylor was slightly different from the colleague Mr. Saylor. It is not as if Jeff was possessed of multiple teacher personalities–not at all. He chose to project a consistent professional persona that was complex. As his comment to me suggests, he cultivated that persona beyond the natural psychology of human interaction because not to do so would subject him to unending dialogue about educational effluvium.
Even as a young teacher this concept of cultivating a persona was not new to me. As a preacher’s son, I knew the difference between the good pastor in the pulpit and the good pastor in the manse’s parlor. I could also see that other teachers in the building were projecting personae that might more or less match what other’s in the building knew or thought they knew of them. There was the “Teacher of the Year” teacher, and “The Slacker,” the “coach,” the “students’ favorite,” the “wise elder,” and on and on the personae went. In the myriad of human interactions, even within a school building, some of these personae were as carefully tended as the digital footprint of actors and actresses today, some were put onto a teacher from other colleagues (taken up or not), some were played against, and some were flat out ignored.
One time I went to Jeff’s room between classes with a wording for a contractual point that I had bolloxed and was trying ineffectively to reword. He was standing outside his room greeting students as they came to his class. I launched into my request showing him the statement. “Say it like this…” he said. I jotted down what he said on a tablet of paper. A girl from his class approached us. She was distraught. “Mr. Saylor,” she said, “can I hand in my late assignments later this week? My family has had….” And before she could finish, the hard ass next to me melted. There was compassion in his voice and empathy in his demeanor as he interrupted her, “I’ve heard. And I am sorry that that happened. Of course you can hand in your assignments late.” I didn’t know the details. I didn’t have to. I stood wide eyed. The young lady walked into the classroom, the door shut, Jeff looked at me and said, “What the fuck are you looking at? We’re done here.”
I walked away smiling and knowing that the students weren’t the only recipients of a glimpse beyond the fiction of teacher persona. John Gardner once said that fiction is a dream. Fiction lives in a tenuous and liminal space. It must have enough “reality” to pull readers into its world, make us feel, make us care, make us keep reading. Much like dreams, the products of a loosed sub-conscious mind, exist in a world of the mind not quite asleep and not yet awake, situating dreamers in places we think we know, but are just new enough, or odd enough, of askew enough to be compelling. And so too are the fictions of teacher personae.
Teachers put their teacher selves on much like writers take on the personae of characters and much like dreamers step into dream worlds. The teacher self is part of who we are, and more. It is put on for effect. It is created in the crucible of the classroom in relation to students, colleagues, administrators, the subject(s), the building/district atmosphere, parents, and the larger public. All of the above parties are pretty damn sure that because they’ve been in one English (math/science/social studies et. al) classroom, even your classroom, they know, as one might count gospel and empirical knowledge, what you are doing, and what is going on right now in your classroom. But, even with closed circuit TV feeds, they don’t or can’t or won’t. How is this so? Because as Robert Inchausti says, “most accomplishments are hard to see, because you need imagination and competence to comprehend them.”
There is a whole lot more to fiction and dreams and teacher personae than can be readily tallied or understood. That is one of the things that Jeff Saylor taught me years ago. And what I learned from a writer called Daniel Lindley (by way of Dick Hanzelka) is that it is just that sort of magic that keeps students and young teachers coming back for more even after all these years.
Brad Weidenaar in an instructional coach for Marshalltown High School and a facilitator for the Iowa Writing Project. Anyone who meets him knows that Brad is rad. (*Editor’s note: Brad did not refer to himself as “rad.” That’s all me.)