Sometimes when I’m out running, especially along the stretch of bike trail that is closely flanked by forest on one side and a thirty-foot high wall on the other, I’ll pass a woman and wonder if my presence causes her any concern. Do I appear threatening? Does she grip a little more tightly a concealed container of mace or review the self-defense tips she learned from her sensei?

I like to think that I don’t inspire fear, that my smile (forced as it is when I’m running) is one of encouragement and not lascivious deviance. But here’s the thing: it’s not up to me. Ultimately, she is going to think what she is going to think and all I can do is keep running (and definitely not wink or compliment the gracefulness of her stride).

This past year I realized something: students see me the same way and I have little control over it. In a new building this year, students will know nothing about me except that I’m a teacher (and even that simple fact is open to diverse interpretation).

In the past, I’ve fed classes quick autobiographical sketches filled with tidbits of information that were meant to humanize me and demonstrate my professionalism. These introductions included facts like these (with the implied message in parentheses):

  • I am married and have three kids (Someone loves me).
  • I’ve taught now for X years (I have experience and you should respect that).
  • I have published blah, blah, blah (Bow, suckers, in the face of genius).
  • My name is pronounced sker, as in, “Don’t be sker” (Don’t worry, I can also be cool and speak just like you!).
  • I’m scared of swans, whales, and emus (I’m so crazy—you’ll just love me when you get to know more things about me like that).

    artifacts

    Some of my artifacts: a piece of my art from high school that my mother saved, a rocket football trophy, and a paperweight for 10 years of service in my district.

This year I will say nothing about myself. I will let my life speak for me and allow the students to share their own perceptions. I have compiled a set of artifacts and primary documents from my past, which includes:

  • My birth certificate, marriage certificate, and the certificate from my college dorm where I was voted Most Laid Back.
  • A magazine with an article I wrote, but also a stack of rejections, including one that complimented my use of “poop jokes.”
  • My own IEP from when I needed speech therapy, the result of a cleft palate (a letter from the Cleft Palate Clinic is included)

Much like any primary source document analysis, students need to study each piece to see what they can learn (will anyone notice that the minister who performed my wedding shares the last name of my wife? and will they correctly infer that it is her father? or that my wife was born in the Philippines?) So instead of me talking about myself with nobody listening, students are actively involved. The benefits as I see them:

  1. Instead of students silently judging me, I get to hear what they think (do they seem impressed by my publications or put off?) and I can respond accordingly.
  2. Not only do I learn about what they think of me, I get a glimpse into how they think. How keen are their powers of observation? How well can they infer and how willing are they to speculate? Do they synthesize what they learn from different information?
  3. And lastly, who knows, maybe I’ll even learn something about myself. 

    before_and_after

    Then and now. Strangely, I don’t miss the hair.

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