Four Ways to Bring Your Authentic Self to School

By Bena Kallick and Giselle O. Martin-Kniep

We educators keep hoping for certainty and stability. Many of us have assumed that we could create a predictable and linear path to learning for our students. However, since the pandemic, we are humbled by the realization that our best laid plans may not address the needs of the moment. As the anxiety for living with the uncertainty of not knowing what or how to respond to the issues that continue to arise increases, so does our frenetic ambition to make up for what we feel we have lost. As a result, we may be entering this school year with a sense of loss of agency. 

What happens to us when we show up at school plagued with a feeling of not knowing how to be in the moment? How able are we to attend to, listen, and develop a shared understanding about anything, when our minds are grappling with the past or anticipating future troubles? We all have limited attentional bandwidth, so calming ourselves requires metacognitive awareness. Depending on the particular issue or situation at hand, we may feel more or less stress or commitment.  However, if we want our students to bring their authentic selves to the learning community, then we also must be willing to be fully present.  This is more than modeling behavior, it is about being reflective and aware of what is going on both internally and externally: that is, listening with understanding and empathy, thinking flexibly, questioning, and posing problems rather than seeking simple and reductive routines.  

It’s important to recognize that within schools we are working in an interdependent learning environment—and that we can work to modulate that environment by authentically paying attention to our presence and the presence of others. As educators, our actions and feelings are always being read for their authenticity, and they have a direct influence on the behavior and feelings of others. It is only when we are able to modulate our emotions and thoughts that we regain the agency to be committed to genuine relationships with our peers and students, and to what lies behind our school’s vision and mission.

Building relationships with our students is a high priority as schools reopen their doors, and we need to make sure that we don’t treat it as just one more item on a checklist. There is a difference between asking students to complete a survey to share their perceived strengths and needs, versus making that activity a first step and then using what they and you have learned to inform deeper conversations about their interests, create working groups, and pursue different questions they have raised. There is a difference between simply asking students to complete reader response journals, versus using the journals as a starting point for the class to engage in a continued dialogue about the questions and connections they’ve written about. How we bring ourselves to the classroom has a deep impact on our interactions with students, and our state of mind can make the difference between a surface effort, however well-intentioned, and a deeper engagement with students’ needs and interests.

We suggest that you consider the chart below to assess what you are bringing with you to the classroom and how you could move into a more genuine presence with your students. Once you have used this as a self-assessment you could try using it with your students. We distinguished three levels of questions to reflect upon. The first level is one of awareness–what is going on inside my head right now?  The second level identifies emotional states—what words might I use to describe how I am feeling? The third level identifies possible opportunities for agency—what might I do to increase my energy, participation, and commitment?

Self-Assessment Compass for Engagement

Adapted from Kallick, Martin-Kniep and Zmuda’s “Cultivating Learner Discourse
Click for full-size image.

Students and teachers alike require some healing work in the wake of a traumatic event such as a pandemic. Our work with educators suggests that taking the time to calibrate our social, emotional, and cognitive state of mind will help to energize hope, possibilities, and the joy of learning together. 


Bena Kallick (@benakallick) is the co-director of the Institute for Habits of Mind and program director for Eduplanet21, a company dedicated to online professional learning and curriculum development based on the Understanding by Design framework.

Giselle O. Martin-Kniep (@GiselleLCI) is the president of Learner-Centered Initiatives and the founder of Communities for Learning: Leading Lasting Change, two different organizations that promote sustained school improvement.

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