Liberal Education

On Being a Teacher: Self-Portrayal in the Classroom

Like most professors, I have spent years mastering the content and skills of my discipline; as a veteran instructor, I have also spent years contemplating how best to share what I’ve learned with my students. I have come to realize that, in working to expand what my students know and can do, I have also—for better or worse—affected the kinds of individuals they are becoming. But in entering into areas related to personal development—particularly those in which attitudes, values, and aspirations are at stake—I still lack the confidence more readily evident in my conveyance of content and skills. While I’ve come a ways since my novice days of over twenty years ago, I haven’t come as far as I had hoped. I still need to understand—as I suspect others do—the less visible linkages among knowing, doing, and being.1 I need to consider, as Parker Palmer once asked, “Who is the self that teaches?”2

Knowing, doing, and being

If faculty members wish to contribute to who our students are becoming, we need a better grasp of how being is intertwined with knowing and doing, the more conventional objects of our focus. Our commitment to expanding what our students know (disciplinary content, theories, and models) and can do (critical thinking, ethical reflection, and collaborative work) is, at a philosophic level, uncontroversial. But the relation of such intellectual growth to students’ being remains relatively unexplored.

Once we begin to talk about who students are—their attitudes, values, and aspirations—we enter an uncertain, potentially even inappropriate, terrain. What legitimacy might we bring to such an endeavor? Do our degrees and training give us any special expertise in reflecting upon values or critiquing aspirations?

While these are important, indeed essential, questions, they skirt a fundamental reality: that it is ultimately impossible to contribute substantially to what students know and can do without affecting, in subtle or complex ways, who students are becoming. Learning to think critically, for instance, inevitably involves scrutinizing and developing previously held assumptions; and altering one’s assumptions can unsettle one’s attitudes, values, or aspirations. Fostering critical thinking in a student can lead the student toward becoming a different person.

It is incumbent upon us as educators to attend closely to who students are becoming as their knowledge increases and their capabilities expand. A better grasp of the links among knowing, doing, and being will assist us in this work.

Creating my character

The formal connections among knowing, doing, and being are part of a rich story about the student-teacher relationship. Every such relationship is unique, but all encompass the distinctiveness of each person and the attitudes, values, and aspirations that emerge from the ongoing interaction between student and teacher. At its best, such interaction changes the student and, just as significantly, the professor.

David Brooks has suggested that we only learn from those we love.3 If this is true, a teacher must become someone lovable, even someone students may want to emulate. I do not mean that students must aspire to their teachers’ career paths or even share our disciplinary passions, but rather that they must desire to see in themselves the qualities we exhibit as we pursue those careers and passions. The qualities that matter most relate to our character, our fundamental way of comporting ourselves in the world.

My view of the student-teacher relationship is informed by Aristotle’s view of friendship as based on pleasure, utility, and nobility.4 We may enter into friendships because we enjoy others’ company, finding pleasure in our interaction with them. We might pursue relationships in a utilitarian manner, as when we develop professional contacts. Or we may be attracted to others because of their noble character—because we find them admirable in some way. All three elements are important to the student-teacher relationship, but nobility is the most challenging.

Of course, presenting a noble character doesn’t require us to tell our students everything about ourselves. Make no mistake: teaching is a kind of performing, and the performance must be one that exhibits our best. We must be authentically ourselves, but we also must be admirable—not only the selves that we strive to be, but selves that are worth striving for.

Portraying myself

If I examine what it means to present a self worth striving for as a contemporary college professor, what comes to the fore? Such presentation is a complex affair, as I’m continually learning. It requires a mixture of posturing and revealing.

The posturing comes first. In the classroom, I appear more confident and skilled, more knowledgeable and caring, than I actually am. Some of this is relative—students, after all, are beginning an intellectual journey I’ve been on for a while—but it’s also a perception I encourage. It helps establish my authority in the classroom, but more significantly, it suggests to students a model worth emulating. Thus, early on, I am more likely to tell students about my academic successes than about how I forgot my lunch that morning.

At the same time, I am also careful in the first class to say something that offers a glimpse of the imperfect person behind the performance. I might mention that I flunked my first college quiz or was late to a first-semester final because I couldn’t find the room. At first, I offer only a glimpse of my shortcomings, but I build on that information as the semester continues. In short, the nobility I’m after does not mean hiding my flaws.

Prudently exposing one’s shortcomings involves a kind of admirable courage—and at the right time and place, is something to be encouraged. One’s comportment in the world, if it is to be praiseworthy, must ultimately be an integrated affair, involving the whole self.

Guarding against risks

The evocative interplay between posturing and revealing is more art than science. Determining what and when to reveal and to whom involves an ongoing series of provisional judgments. Some students need more information; some less. Some classroom dynamics enable revelation; others do not. Some points in our lives make us inclined toward sharing; others less so.

The important thing is to make this interplay part of who we become in the classroom. For being a teacher means presenting a praiseworthiness that is always in development. This presentation grounds the moral underpinning of whatever knowledge or skills we wish to provide our students. As Elizabeth Kiss and J. Peter Euben emphasize, “both the character of the teacher and the performative dimension of his or her teaching are central . . . aspects of moral education.”5

Such a grounding guards against two risks that arise when we admit and embrace the idea that by teaching, we inevitably affect the persons our students are becoming. The first risk is present whenever we foster critical thinking; as Ruth W. Grant notes, such thinking has the potential to “undermin[e] commitments to social conventions and social authority.”6 While fostering critical analysis is laudable, it also involves responsibility; we should never callously or casually unsettle a student’s worldview.

The second risk is that a student’s education “will be employed to construct sophisticated rationalizations of self-serving actions and beliefs.” As we are all too aware, “intellectual development can proceed apace without producing corresponding progress in character development.”7 The potential that we are equipping a student to act in deceptive or harmful ways is an uncomfortable truth of which we should be mindful.

The interplay between posturing and revealing buttresses our ability as teachers to ensure that students remain attuned and responsive to these twin risks. The praiseworthiness exhibited by posturing as one’s better self in the classroom is a tacit reminder of the moral responsibilities that students’ newly acquired knowledge and skills entail. Revealing one’s shortcomings is of equal importance, reminding students that the intellectual insights we display in the classroom are part of—indeed, are shaped by—our fallible selves.


In the end, the self I present in the classroom reflects the hopes I have for my students. These hopes include the acquisition of knowledge and the development of new capabilities. But such knowledge and capabilities must be informed by a greater attentiveness to character. Who I am as a teacher is present in the persons my students are becoming. That is at once a humbling and hopeful thought.


1. For a discussion of the relationship among knowing, doing, and being, see Srikant M. Datar, David A. Garvin, and Patrick G. Cullen, Rethinking the MBA: Business Education at a Crossroads (Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press, 2010).

2. Parker J. Palmer, The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1998), 4.

3. David Brooks, “The Building Blocks of Learning,” New York Times, June 14, 2006, A27.

4. Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, 2nd ed., trans. Terence Irwin (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 2010).

5. Elizabeth Kiss and J. Peter Euben, “Debating Moral Education: An Introduction,” in Debating Moral Education: Rethinking the Role of the Modern University, ed. Elizabeth Kiss and J. Peter Euben (Durham, SC, and London, UK: Duke University Press, 2010), 21.

6. Ruth W. Grant, “Is Humanistic Education Humanizing?” in Debating Moral Education: Rethinking the Role of the Modern University, ed. Elizabeth Kiss and J. Peter Euben (Durham, SC, and London, UK: Duke University Press, 2010), 290.

7. Grant, “Is Humanistic Education Humanizing?,” 291.

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JEFFREY NESTERUK is professor of legal studies at Franklin and Marshall College.

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