On Authenticity

So last weekend, I was a bit under the weather (I had tripped and hurt myself), and I helped emcee my family’s holiday party. When my role was complete, a few folks who weren’t close relatives complimented me on how well I had done, and I was a bit surprised, considering it had felt like an intellectual challenge to me.

I thought about that, and throughout this week I’ve been thinking about why this surprised me. Most of my best public speaking has come after days, weeks, or months of preparation, and I’ve long thought it was the time that led to such things. But in retrospect, perhaps it was truly the authenticity that led to connecting with the audience.

I ask you today about your best experiences as a member of an interactive audience. As a student, or as a paying customer, or as a partygoer. The way we conceive of such events, it’s something ineffable like “charisma” or “showmanship” that we think leads to success. But I think it might be authenticity, emotional honesty clearly conveyed. This doesn’t mean every possible nook and cranny must be revealed, but it also means a deliberate distance can backfire.

This may not be true for everyone or every situation. For some, perhaps a distance is necessary. But I would argue that for those men and women, said distance is indeed authentic. Whatever level of openness works for you is what you should seek to attain.

If you think back to educators you’ve had – or been – and remembered your best experiences, I suspect a vibrant authenticity was present in their every choice. And I also believe that, if ever you were let down, it was likely because they tried to play a role they didn’t actually fit.

Sometimes you have to do things outside of your comfort zone in education. The response isn’t to simply give up, of course. But as educators, we have to think consciously about how our tasks can match up with the authentic people we otherwise are, and align ourselves with every part of our work. We’ve all had teachers who were clearly going through the motions, and I’d argue that those teachers were considerably more damaging to our learning than those who genuinely struggled with the materials they were handed. To return to my original example, I genuinely struggled at the party last weekend, but the honesty and openness shone through nonetheless and carried me through on its own.

There is more to being a great educator than authenticity. You can be wonderfully true and not know how to manage a classroom. You can be extremely real and yet be bowled over by our many cognitive biases and heuristics. But without authenticity, we do our students, our colleagues, and ourselves a massive disservice. So on this New Year, I wish only that we can find a way to imbue our output with the spirit of the authentic people we are at the moment we wake up every day.

Peace and love.