Sunday, March 11, 2012

Fake it 'til you make it...But be Authentic

As an educator, I often think about who I am. That is, who I am compared to who my students are. As a well-educated, white, heterosexual, middle class woman, I have worried that my identity will somehow get me in trouble with my audience. In other words, because I belong to a number of majority groups, I have worried that I will not be taken seriously, that I will not be able to relate to my students, that someone will think I’m a fraud, or that I will be passed off as some outsider pushing condom use on at-risk populations.

These feelings became particularly troublesome during my practicum last fall. I was working at an organization whose focus was on education for at-risk youth, Latinos, and the HIV positive community. I was planning a late night event where I would be going into some of the gay bars to do sex education. During a meeting with my supervisor, she suggested that I should look the part, aka “queer it up”, before I went to the bars. At first I thought this was a great idea, remembering that sometimes education is like acting and I would be playing a role. The more I thought about it however, the more I became uncomfortable with the idea of faking me.

I brought my feelings of uncertainty to my practicum class and I was reminded by my professor that yes, as an educator sometimes you need to fake it til you make it. But that sentiment refers more to a person’s confidence and familiarity with content, not personality. After some further class discussion, I realized that “queering it up” would probably do more harm than good. Not only would I feel uncomfortable faking who I was/am, but I risked losing the respect of my audience. And without their respect, I sure as hell would not have their attention.

So, I decided to be authentic. Unapologetically me. Now, that doesn’t mean I went into the gay bars advertising all the ways that I represent majority culture. What it meant was that I felt like myself walking it. It meant dressing the way I like to dress. And it meant being the educator I want to be. When I walked into that bar, I was taken seriously. I didn’t stand out (in a bad way). I didn’t appear or act fake. I was approachable. And I got a great response.

As an educator, I know that I cannot expect to reach everyone. As a high school teacher, I was able to reach some teens but not others. As an outreach educator, some adults came to me while others shied away. After having this experience and really working on my authentic educator persona, I feel so much more confident in my abilities as an educator.

And since this is an online blog, I thought I’d share one more tidbit on authenticity in the online world, for those of you who do more blogging, tweeting, etc.


  1. Rebecca, I think you bring up a great and important point in your post: be yourself! I too have often thought about how seriously I will be taken in rooms where I am "not fitting in", in which ever way that may be. I think you bring up other good points, such as not being able to reach everyone in our audience. I think this rings true if we are part of the majority or not. Another point I'd like to bring up is how much we might forget how often certain communities get sex education just for the sake of their ethnicity or their orientation. For example, I think about our practicum class discussion on how gay men might be less apt to going up to your booth which is promoting safe sex because its been a consistent theme for years. However, incorporating new ways of approaching such groups can really make the distance. I don't think you need to become a lesbian for a night to reach this population, rather be yourself and bring to the table what others haven't been able to do so in the past.

  2. Congratulations to you for staying your authentic self! I know that it is easier to adapt to those around you in certain situations where you may feel uneasy or uncomfortable being yourself but I am glad to read that you stuck to your guns and did not change yourself. I applaud you for that. I feel too that if your audience found out that you were "lying" to them about who you were then they may question the reliability of your information and become suspect of your motives in delivering the information to them. I would like to be the eternal optimist in these situations and say that being yourself and presenting yourself honestly will open doors in your audience but I am aware that is not always the case. It is my hope though that in most situations where you are working with a group, especially for an extended period of time, that showing them who you really are, and as different from themselves in a non-threatening way, can foster trust between everyone. Then, if that trust is in place, you can delve into your group deeper and learn that cultural component to them that we discussed in class so that you may become a more effective educator. In my opinion you took the correct steps in maintaining your authentic self for your audience.

  3. Rebecca, great points! In the process of doing practicum and taking classes at Widener, I think we are all finding and fine-tuning our "teacher personas." Though I have been teaching for years, I feel as though I am a brand new teacher and figuring out who I am again. It is important to stay true to myself while being aware of culture and differences. Like you, I worry about how I will be perceived being in the majority culture. Being a confident, authentic person is important, while having a cultural awareness of the group I am working with.

  4. Thanks so much for sharing your experience. I really appreciated your insight and I imagine it was very difficult to go against the suggestions of your supervisor. For me, your post brought up the importance of good supervision and having a supervisor who respects your personal decisions. I think your fears are common and there is little space for professionals to discuss what it is like to work with populations that are also not familiar with you or who have been stigmatized by the culture you are a part of. I also wanted to comment on how many people in the gay/queer community do not connect with the stereotypical "gay" culture. By "gaying it up" you might have connected with a certain group of people, but i wonder about who you were able to connect with by not "gaying it up". Also, healthy sexuality is all about feeling comfortable in your own skin. The message you send being yourself and staying true to you, highlights that message.

  5. Rebecca
    As educators you will always run into conflicts. Kids will think you're too young or too old to teach them. Or they think you don't know what it's like to be like them, but if you're honest right away with who you are and what you represent, students will relate to you in a more positive way. I have to agree with you not wanting to dress or act like someone you're not. I would feel really uncomfortable trying to be someone I'm not in order to be taking as an expert or part of their culture. I think it was great that you went with your gut and did what was comfortable for you!

  6. Rebecca,
    Great post! During practicum, I was also hoping to learn how to develop my teaching "persona" and tried on a few different personas before I realized how uncomfortable it made me feel. I think I do best when I just act the same as I usually do and try not to worry about each and every single member of my audience thinking about whether I "fit in" or not. In reality, you just can't please everyone, and it would be impossible to make every person in the room feel like they can relate to you. No matter what your persona may be, you still might end up alienating someone anyway.
    I'm so glad you decided to go against your supervisor's advice to "queer it up". You may have looked the part, but I think it could make matters worse if they caught on. As others have said, I've found that just being honest and open and willing to learn is enough for students to be willing to listen to what you have to say!

  7. So accurate! The only thing I would add is that being yourself doesn't always mean being your same self. In your personal life you don't act the same way with a parent as you do with a friend and even among friends you act differently. There are many different ways to be your true self and I'm sure that comes out when each of us teach. You can be your self in two entirely different situations and still teach differently. You would not (I suspect) teach a group of Christian parents the same way you would do a workshop at a gay bar. It's sometimes something we don't even think about but being authentic takes on so many different forms.

  8. Great string of thoughts on authenticity and its many forms. I have felt many of the same things articulated above and recognize that my own sense of authenticity as an educator has shifted during my training as a sexuality educator. I recall, in particular, the class with Dyson on Kinesthetic Teaching of Sexuality Education. Our comfort zones as sexuality educators were stretched as a result of all the improv we did in that class. I discovered new aspects of my teacher persona that I can choose to use or not depending on the nature of the content, the participants, the day, other factors. Regardless of how I choose to present myself I can be authentic as long as my educational goals, methods, and objectives are sound.

  9. I think you bring up some really good points! I too have had this internal fight a few times with myself before meeting groups of individuals who are seemingly unlike myself. One of my biggest struggles is when I am with a group where most of them have had past drug/alcohol addiction problems. Even though this is not something you can generally visually see, after a few minutes of trying to talk to me about substance abuse anybody would quickly figure out that I have no experience and only book knowledge about the topic. Unfortunately, this puts a bit of a disconnect between you and your audience. When this happens I usually feel like a fraud and think that everybody is secretly thinking "She has no idea what it's like. Why would we listen to somebody who has never even been through it before." After some awkward moments and at one point even wishing that I had tried drugs when I was younger (yes.. really..) I realized this. I will never really know what its like to be on drugs and have it be intertwined with my sexuality. Even if I read all the research and literature in the world I will never really know and that is okay. I can still be a competent educator and address the topic of substance abuse and addiction without personally experience it. The audience may not see me as one of "them", but I don't need to be one of "them" to do good work. I just need to be myself and have confidence in my ability to teach to the needs of the learners.

  10. I agree with everyone about the importance of being authentic to ourselves; which, as Norah mentioned, does not stop us to use different approaches when needed depending on the audience we will have in front of us.
    Though there may be situations in which you may want to present yourself purposely in certain way (like wearing more formal clothes when doing presentations for professionals, etc), we should be able to do it without compromising our identity.
    From a supervisor perspective, I think it is completely counterproductive to ask an educator to present themselves as something they are not. It is almost like trying to full the audience; which I consider it unethical.
    I remember a year ago; one of the educators in my team told me how she was feeling a little uncomfortable working with a group of adult men who were starting their recovery process in a residential setting. She mentioned that a couple of them had made comments about how much they liked her skirt or her blouse; and she felt that there was some sexual content on the comments. After asking her if she felt safe in the setting or if she needed different arrangements; she said that she was ok but that she was going to be more mindful of using clothes that were more “gender-neutral” –which were already part of her repertoire- on the days she had to facilitate that particular group.
    As a supervisor, I should have not even thought of the possibility of asking her to change the way she dress; but she made a strategically personal decision that made her feel more comfortable and safer with the group, without compromising her identity.