Sharing My Authentic Self

I embarked on this year of teaching with the goal that I want to be the best teacher that I can be. I spent some time reflecting on last years teaching experience, as well as reading and thinking over the summer on what teaching really is all about. As I was thinking about this, I came across an amazing article that struck a chord with me, “Spirit Guides” written by William Deresiewicz – see here (and thanks Ann, for sharing!).

“… students gravitate toward teachers with whom they have forged a connection. Learning is an emotional experience, and mentorship is rooted in the intimacy of intellectual exchange. Something important passes between you, something almost sacred.”

And I realized that while I am strong in teaching with academic rigour (challenging students to think critically and question assumptions, engaging with small group discussion and experiential exercises etc), I have left my real self at the door. And I cannot reach that sacred connection when I am not being real. I have been too focused on the content, the end result, the outcome of assignments and evaluations as proof of learning, and not focused enough on the process.

So, in the spirit of sharing my authentic self with my students, I have started out by taking two scary but wonderful actions over the past two weeks:

1. I sang for our student orientation.

Many people know that I love to sing, and there have been years in my life when you would rarely see me without my guitar. Singing is my authentic self. We were organizing for our new student orientation, and the suggestion came forward that I could sing (thanks Marilyn!). At first, I said an immediate no, as it felt ‘out-of-the-box’ and out of my comfort zone. However, I changed my mind and decided to go for it. I decided to sing the song “I Hope You Dance” (by Lee Ann Womack), which is about the importance of taking risks in life. It was captured on video, so here it is – http://youtu.be/ja7JqvTu7Z4.

Two small but amazing things came out of this. First, it inspired my colleagues to join in with their singing, and this was a fun and bonding moment. Second, it created an instant connection with my students. When I walked into my classes for the first time this week, they all commented on hearing my singing, and saying they were ready to dance. It set the stage for a creative and authentic teaching-learning connection right away!

2. I came out.

I have been out and proud for over 20 years and yet I felt incredibly stressed about coming out to my students. During this first week of lots of stressful situations to deal with, this stress outweighed everything else. It kept me up at night, as I replayed how I would say it. I didn’t tell anyone that I was going to come out, because I didn’t want anyone to question why it was important. Before my classes, I questioned myself – do I really need to do this? Does it matter? But I knew deep down, even though I was afraid, that this was incredibly important. The reason is simple: I am married to a woman, and my gay family is such a HUGE part of my day-to-day life, that if I can’t share this, then I cannot be authentic. Last year, I taught my students and never came out. I thought that I shouldn’t need to, that my personal life has nothing to do with my teaching. But, much to my dismay, I realized that I was closeting myself by censoring the words I used when I spoke about what I did on the weekend. And I shocked myself, when one student asked me about ‘my husband’, I didn’t correct him. Self-censoring how I speak about my life and my personal experience is as far away from being authentic as I can get.

What was I afraid of, before I came out? Not being liked by my students. Being judged and treated differently because of homophobia. Not being accepted. But I knew that I had to do it, for myself, and for any of my students who are gay and feel alone in the classroom. I knew there wasn’t a choice.

I did it in my ‘let me tell you a bit about myself’ beginning of the class. I spoke about my work experience, then when I am not working, I am singing or with my family. I shared that I was a ‘little famous’ because of my alternative family, and that my claim to fame (true story) is that Oprah’s producers called me to explore the possibility of our family coming on the Oprah show (in the end, they didn’t accept us, which was very disappointing, especially for my wife…). And what happened? No big reaction from the students, at least not in class. Some clear smiles from students, who felt happy that I shared this. And for me, a big weight was lifted off my shoulders, knowing that when my students ask me what I did on the weekend, I won’t need to self-censor and speak without using pronouns. I felt a deep sense of calm, knowing that I have taken small steps towards my goal of sharing my authentic self and forging that sacred connection with my students.