Develop Your Teaching Persona 

Build rapport by helping students get to know you. 
by Lea Hart 
Published November 08, 2016

Students who have good rapport with their professors are more likely to be engaged in the classroom. Your teaching persona—the version of yourself that you present to students—is a key element of building rapport. It can be helpful to give some thought to the person you are in the classroom and whether there are some aspects of your image you may want to tweak to forge better connections with students.

One way to strengthen your persona is to take inspiration from other teachers. We spoke with some seasoned accounting faculty members on the ways they try to reach students. Here are some ideas to consider:

Share a little of your personal life in class

Think about areas of your life to which students might relate. Sharing some aspects of your own life can help you appear more genuine to your students.

Christian Wurst, CPA, Ph.D., associate professor of accounting at Temple University in Philadelphia, is an outdoorsman who makes no secret of the fact that he lives in a house in the woods, hunts and fishes, and enjoys spending time in nature.

So it makes sense that when Wurst shows up for class, he’s wearing jeans and Dockside shoes. But he’ll also tell students about his experiences back in the 1960s, because, as he said, it gives him credibility.

“Being a professor today, I think right now, especially in larger urban universities like ours, students want to know you’re authentic,” said Wurst, who has won multiple awards for his teaching.

Wurst’s background gives him another way of connecting with students: He was the first in his family to graduate from high school, and he knows he’s teaching at a school full of first-generation college students.

That’s one reason, in his teaching, he tries to help his students understand the world beyond the university. He has a small private practice and will tell stories from past and current accounting clients during class. Or he may show students a video of a board chairman discussing an issue with shareholders so his students can see the real-life applications of what they’re learning.

Ask yourself what you’d want if you were a student

Give some thought to your teaching philosophy. Ask yourself how you would want students to remember you, then consider whether this ideal matches up with the persona you present in class.

One place to start is to think about what life was like when you were in college. Recall which aspects of a class made it meaningful to you, and look at ways to incorporate those elements into your classroom.

Andrew Brajcich, CPA, J.D., assistant professor of accounting at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., said his experience as a student gave him ideas about how to face his classroom.

“As a student I seemed to respect teachers that cared,” he said. “I figured that if this person is working hard for me, I owe it to them to do the best I can in class. So when I first started out, that was my guiding principle.”

Brajcich still strives to give students a sense of ownership in his classes. He solicits informal, anonymous feedback from his students at least twice each semester and discusses the comments with them in class. Brajcich has found his students appreciate and respond to the open communication.

Wurst, similarly, said he tries to be as approachable as possible. Students have his cell and home phone numbers. He’s talked to a depressed student all night, and notes that, even if he was not be able to do much for that student, he could still listen.

Find a role model

Consider the people who inspired you. Ask yourself what made those people meaningful to you and whether there are lessons you can draw from to use in the classroom.

When Joe Hoyle, associate professor of accounting at the University of Richmond in Richmond, Va., began teaching more than 40 years ago, he channeled the attitude of one of his own childhood heroes, Vince Lombardi, the legendary former head coach of the Green Bay Packers.

“He was well-known for taking average players and turning them into champions by pushing them extremely hard and showing them how to do the job right,” Hoyle said. “I still go into class every day with that type of goal in mind—I want to turn every student of mine into a success, into a champion.”

That attitude manifests itself in Hoyle’s pushing all students to do their best and helping them learn the materials in an effective and efficient manner. To this day, Hoyle said, if he gets stuck on how to handle a situation, he asks himself, “What would Vince Lombardi do?”

Use humor

Think about what brings energy and enthusiasm to your classroom. Do you want to lecture for the full class, or might you need to give your students a break? Are there times when you might want to switch gears or lighten the mood?

Brajcich, who clearly has a sense of humor inside and outside the classroom, has a cat at home who owns a bowtie. He might run through several accounting slides in his class and then throw in a slide with a picture of his cat wearing the bowtie. It’s exactly the break Brajcich feels his students need to then reengage in learning.

Bring the outside world into the classroom

Keep up with what’s going on in the world, and focus on topics that will be of interest to your students. That could mean keeping up with how the football team played in the game over the weekend, or maybe this week’s hit song. Find topics that are relevant to your students’ lives to make it easier to relate to them.

C.J. Skender, CPA, clinical professor of accounting at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, weaves sports, movies, stocks news, trivia, and more into his classroom experience in an effort to connect with his students.

“Every teacher teaches the accounting,” he said. “Bring something else, and set yourself apart.”

Skender, who was profiled in a Bloomberg series about business majors’ favorite professors, notes most students at the undergraduate level will have an interest in pop culture and, by being knowledgeable about topics that interest his students, he becomes more relatable.

“They’ll talk to you, and they’ll warm up to you,” he said.

Differentiate yourself

Find small ways to make yourself stand out to your students. Maybe that’s a consistent habit you have in class or a funny quirk that catches their attention. Either way, it helps students see you as a person.

One of Skender’s trademark moves involves taking off his suit jacket halfway through class. Not “more or less” halfway, but exactly halfway—if it’s a 50-minute class, he’ll take his jacket off at the 25-minute mark. What began as a creative way to mark the halfway point of class has become something that keeps his students’ attention. Skender noted he has even seen comments in student evaluations noting he took his jacket off two minutes early one day or maybe three minutes late another day.

Keep experimenting

Consider each semester a chance to try something new or dispense with practices that aren’t working. In Hoyle’s words, it’s important to “experiment, evaluate, and evolve” in developing your teaching persona. Every day of teaching, he said, should be seen as a new challenge and a new adventure.

Lea Hart is a Durham, N.C.-based freelance writer. To comment on this story, email lead editor Courtney Vien.

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