Chapter Overview

Teaching composition at UW can be very rewarding, but it also involves a lot of responsibility, which can lead to some anxiety. This portion of the manual is meant to acknowledge and address that anxiety by focusing on the day-to-day dynamics of being a teacher in the classroom.

A Teaching Persona?

A Teaching Persona is a sense of self that an instructor presents and establishes with students (Richardson & Alsup, 2015). A teaching persona is negotiable and fluid – a useful tool for instructors to establish boundaries in, build connections to, and enhance the classroom experience.

While some instructors are “pretty much the same person” in and out of the classroom, others take on a particular teaching persona. Don’t be shocked if you find yourself acting differently as a teacher than you predicted you would; because of the cultural baggage that comes along with teaching, this is normal. Every one of us has things that we have to deal with because of how we are perceived and/or how we navigate the world as a certain kind of person. The classroom is no different, and it has its own set of stakes and pressures that will affect how you opt to navigate it. Keep in mind that:

  • Your teaching persona can benefit you. If things about who you are as a teacher are not in your own best interest, think about ways that you can adjust. Such adjustments aren’t about hiding who you are as much as about figuring out for yourself what it feels and looks like to take on the role of a teacher in a classroom. For example, some younger teachers may decide to resist casual banter with students to establish a clearer sense of authority while others may want to bond over shared references!
  • Your teaching persona can benefit your students. Even slight movement in either direction along a continuum ranging from highly-directed teaching to the less-directed teaching may benefit your students. If you find that students need something you are not offering them (strict deadlines? firm rules? one-on-one instruction? more jokes?) consider adding these things to your teaching repertoire and seeing if you still feel comfortable.
  • Your teaching persona may differ from “who you are” in day-to-day life . . . and don’t be shocked by this! While it is not true for all teachers, some find that in order to really be good at what they do major or minor adjustments are necessary. It may even come naturally! Some examples of these kinds of adjustments can include dressing more or less formally, asking students to use a title such as Professor or Mr./Ms./Mx., or adjusting your speaking pace.
  • Your teaching persona can and will most likely change over time. Particularly if you are new to teaching, you may find yourself experimenting with your teaching persona over time. What you think is causing a problem in your classroom (your way of addressing students, say) may or may not be as important as you think it is. Your students’ needs may also change from quarter to quarter. Fall students often need more hand-holding instruction on getting integrated into UW and Canvas, for instance, while students in Spring may have found themselves falling into some unproductive student habits that you’ll want to counter.
  • Your teaching persona (as well as how you are perceived by students) will also be affected by many things in and beyond your control.  Your identity, age, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, body, mannerisms, manner of speaking, philosophy, politics, and so on, all affect what persona you might feel comfortable adopting or even have available to you. All these factors will also impact how different students perceive and interact with you. Figuring out how to be a teacher in any classroom will always be a negotiation, and, at times, an uncomfortable one. We recognize that marginalized instructors (women, queer, disabled, and BIPOC) instructors and multiply-marginalized instructors, including women of color, often experience more microaggressions and/or student resistance than do cisgender white male instructors.  (If you ever feel unsafe, troubled, or overwhelmed as you navigate teaching or interacting with students, please reach out to the PWR Director, Faculty Mentors, Associate Director of Writing Programs, or Assistant Directors for supportWe are here to help you.)
  • Practice Makes Perfect. Your teaching persona is something that takes time and practice. Whether you adopt one that works well during your first day or continue to develop it long after your first year of teaching, keep in mind that you are not alone in building a teaching persona. Speaking with staff in the PWR, fellow colleagues and other instructors as well as observing other classes can help hone your teaching persona and reinforce those positive aspects while locating and shedding those aspects that you would rather not carry into the classroom. That said, every teacher comes from a different background pedagogically, racially, economically, etc., and so what works for one teacher’s positionality may not be as effective for others.


Maintaining your authority, by which we mean a productive sense of order and responsibility in the classroom, while expressing to students that you care about them and their work, can be a challenging balancing act for even the most experienced teachers. For new teachers, trying to navigate this challenge sometimes leads them to be more rigid or firm toward particular classroom behaviors and practices and not always being able to be flexible toward students and express pedagogical caring. As you negotiate this balance, though, remember:

  • You are well qualified to teach English 131. As a graduate student (even if you’re new to graduate school), you have been recognized for your critical thinking skills and ability to write well. You enter the classroom with a considerable amount of knowledge and experience about culture, language, learning, and education, making you fully qualified to be your students’ teacher. Too, your experiences as a particular kind of person are all resources you can draw on to be a reader and interlocutor for your students.
  • Your position as a graduate student can be an asset. Your own current engagement in the educational process as a graduate student means you are particularly well positioned to facilitate academic discussions in the undergraduate classroom.
  • Students know that you are the instructor. This title alone confers a certain amount of authority upon you as a teacher—something most students will never question.
  • Recognize that you are not the end-all, be all. You may encourage students to learn each others’ names and exchange contact information in learning pods so that you are not the sole source of make-up information. They can also develop upon their peers’ opinions and feedback in class discussion and in writing, as you are not the only audience that matters.
  • Establish your accessibility, guidelines and expectations early. It may feel unnecessary to explain classroom behavior, attendance, and assignment expectations in a college class, but keep in mind that the majority of your students, especially in Fall quarter, are new to college and need these guidelines. Too, different classrooms will have different norms – students who are taking a lot of lecture classes alongside your composition course may bring “listening-to-lecture” behaviors to the writing class, for instance.Establishing clear expectations and requirements from the beginning builds a foundation for your class and can help prevent problems further on.

Being in the classroom, then, requires you (or any teacher) to negotiate between your qualifications and how you are perceived. As the quarter progresses, the balance you maintain between asserting your authority and expressing pedagogical caring about your students will be the product of your daily interactions with your students—in other words, being in the classroom.

Obviously, there is no one way to “be in the classroom,” and what works for one instructor may not work for another. Some things that construct your authority in the classroom are:

Your accessibility in and out of class.

The way you choose to address students.

The way you ask students to address you.

Forms of teacher/student interaction you enable.

Forms of student interaction you encourage.

How you conduct conferences.

The tone and choice of language in your syllabus.

How you choose to respond to student writing.

How you present yourself in the classroom.

The types of classroom dynamics you foster.


Expectations & Explanations

Whatever style you adopt in the classroom, you will need to tell your students repeatedly what you expect from them and what they should expect from you. You may develop shared expectations around participation goals, respectful dialogue, hand-raising, and technology use in the classroom—technology can of course help for note-taking and accessibility, but may hamper student focus, so you may decide to address specific participation expectations directly with the class. Once you have established those expectations, you will need to tell the students how they are (or aren’t) fulfilling your expectations and learn how you are fulfilling theirs. Circling back to the relationship of daily activities and reading and writing assignments to the course outcomes will help students know what they’re doing and why. Making this a practice helps create a shared understanding of how the assignments and outcomes are linked.

  • Begin the explanation process on the first day. Whatever topic you have chosen to take up through the essays you assign, be very clear about the relationship between the development of that topic (no matter what it is) and the development of student writing skills as detailed in the outcomes and in Writer/Thinker/Maker.You cannot be too clear about learning goals.
  • Demonstrate the topic’s continuity. Spend a few minutes at the end of class or conference summarizing important points from the discussion. Consider beginning class by asking your students to recap the previous day’s discussion and speculate upon connections between established terms and new material.
  • Emphasize goals. Throughout the quarter, the goal of 131 is to produce flexible writers who are prepared for the variety of writing tasks that will be required in other classes. Students need to know that difficult paper topics are practice for the even harder papers they will be asked to write later, not an unnecessary complication of a simple process. Most of all, share with your students the learning outcomes and traits you are targeting in each assignment so students know why they are doing what they are doing.
  • Offer “meta” comments. Frame daily activities and discussions with references to course goals, or more specifically, upcoming writing assignments (“Today we’re comparing Harriet Jacobs to Harriet Beecher Stowe because you will be asked to write on both authors this weekend”). Similarly, use writing assignment topics to reiterate the goals you established in the syllabus. Your students need to be reminded that your decisions about course content aren’t arbitrary.
  • Explain portfolio grading early and often. Familiarize your students with the PWR’s four main learning outcomes and emphasize the advantages of portfolio grading: they get to decide what gets evaluated, and they get more time to revise. Students will still be nervous about not knowing their grades until the end of the quarter, so be prepared to explain (both to individuals and to the class as a whole) how students can assess their standing in the class using paper comments, conference feedback, and student-initiated check-ins.

Establishing patterns that clarify, ground, and reinforce how learning goals/outcomes and assignments are related benefit both you and the students as it keeps those goals and expectations visible and relevant for the class to interact with or question, if necessary.

Monitoring the Classroom

Not every lull in discussion, or low-energy group assignment, is a reflection on you or your abilities as a teacher. Such lapses, however, can help you to gain insight into how your students work and are learning. If, for example, an assignment produces unexpected problems in your class, you may be able tolearn from them. You will want to use such moments, as well as solicited and unsolicited feedback from your class, to think about ways to address problems in your classroom (many instructors express concerns about discussion particularly). Monitoring the state of your class, both formally and informally, can allow you to begin to improve classroom dynamics. Some things to try:

  • Keep a teaching log. Taking a few minutes to write an account (even informally) of a day’s teaching can help chart what works and what doesn’t for a specific class, as well as provide the opportunity to monitor individual reactions to the material.
  • Have your students reflect on the class. One-minute freewrites at the end of class, in which students write down the most important point from the day’s discussion and pose an unanswered question, can be useful. So can impromptu discussions starting with such questions as: “So, what’s not working today?” or “Why isn’t anyone talking?”
  • Stop everything and talk about the class. This may not always solicit the most frank comments from students, but sometimes such a discussion can improve class dynamics.
  • Consider tech usage and other community norms. Of course, technology can be a great tool for notetaking and making classrooms accessible, but students (or instructors!) scrolling social media while their classmates present information typically does not make a cohesive classroom community. Consider making a classroom covenant to decide on norms of communication and focus in class, and/or to address this in discussion mid-quarter. E.g. are there times it would be better if students lowered their screens?
  • Use conferences to get feedback. Conferences can be a good time to address the needs of individual students. Asking a student what you can do to help them participate more effectively in class can be useful and show that you care about their learning.
  • Have students fill out mid-quarter evaluations. Students can respond to the class with the comfort of anonymity, while you can assess what’s working and what isn’t. Decide what changes you are willing to make, and follow up evaluations with a discussion of those changes. This gives students the chance to see the results of the evaluation process in action, and if possible, to take responsibility for the changes.
  • Take inspiration from other instructors. As graduate students, you have access to watching, critiquing and learning from other instructors, specifically those who are teaching classes you are enrolled in. You may consider talking with instructors with whom you share a positive relationship to learn how they manage their own classes. While this advice may not directly relate to your own teaching experiences, it may produce new insights that you can take into the classroom.
  • Emphasize (and re-emphasize!) that you want to see your students in office hours. This can be a time for students to talk about their writing, reading, or other tasks in the class, but you may also receive useful feedback about the class during short chats in your office hours.
  • Invite an outside observer into your class. You are required to be observed by the PWR staff once during each of your first two quarters of teaching, but you can always ask to be observed more often. One of the PWR staff will be happy to come in at any time for a general observation or to help you with a more specific issue (slow discussions, problem students, etc.), and these observations will be kept confidential.  While it may be scary to have someone come in and observe you teaching, it can be extremely productive, and you will learn positive things about your teaching approach that you were never aware of!
  • Consider resources outside the PWR like the UW Center for teaching and learning. If you seek an even further outside perspective, the CTL is happy to schedule consultation (https://teaching.washington.edu/about/ctl/ctl-services/) to troubleshoot teaching issues and offers many other course design and teaching practices on their website.


Put simply, you must be conscious of the decisions—however mundane—that will define your authority and accessibility in and out of the classroom. This sounds quite simple but requires a certain amount of thought on your part, and making decisions may be difficult when you find yourself in the midst of a heated discussion, or faced with an unexpected question. In addition, you will find that as the quarter progresses, it becomes harder and harder to alter patterns of interaction that have been established early on . . . even in the first day or two!

  • As a teacher, think about what kind of presence in the classroom you want to create and what kind of presence comes naturally to you. For example, trying to be stern with your students when you gravitate toward a more easy-going demeanor may not make you a more effective teacher—only uncomfortable. On the other hand, if you’re comfortable being even more stern as a teacher than you would be in daily life, and you see that as helpful to students in your classroom, you may want to enact that kind of presence.
  • Be clear about your expectations, particularly regarding respect and other classroom values. The classroom should be a “safe space” and a “grace space” for discussion, and students need to see both that they play a role in developing and maintain that space, but also that you hold authority in decision making in that space. Heated disagreements and discussions need not happen at the expense of respect.
  • Pay attention to the patterns you establish in the early days of class. Whatever patterns you establish early on are likely to become the culture of your classroom. If you want discussion to be part of that culture, have discussions right from the start. If you want students to write in class, get them writing as soon as you can.
  • Establish reasonable guidelines (e.g., extensions for illness, less reading during midterms) and accommodations. Telling your students you won’t give extensions and then crumbling at the first well-crafted excuse will only undermine your authority. At the same time, remember that it is much easier to start out strict and become more lenient. Many instructors offer something like a two-day grace period before requiring students to come in to office hours for feedback, unless asked for an advance accommodation.
  • Respond to passing comments. Although not every aside you hear a student make will need a response from you, indicating to students that you are paying attention in class can help establish your presence in the classroom. Addressing minor complaints, for instance, can show your willingness to take into account the specific circumstance of the class, demonstrating your accessibility.
  • The bottom line: you are the teacher. In the classroom, this is inescapable. You may be interested in changing power dynamics in the classroom, in creating a student-centered learning environment, but ultimately you’re there to teach. Depending on where you fall on the spectrum ranging from directed-instruction to less-directed instruction, you may find it helpful to use clear demarcations—such as the ringing of the bell—to mark the divide between “you the ___” (recent college grad, fellow student, fan of Buffy, etc.) and “you the teacher.”

While all of this information may seem daunting to keep in mind prior to your first day of teaching, remember that whether this will be your first time teaching or your twentieth, the expectations and practices that you develop in the classroom are often in flux. As the quarter ends, you may consider examining what worked and didn’t work, making adjustments for the next time you teach. The PWR staff would be more than happy to talk through successful and unsuccessful moments in the classroom. Additionally, at the end of each quarter, you will be expected to create evaluations for students to respond to. The evaluations, which will be discussed in the next chapter, are yet another way for you to receive feedback on your teaching practices.


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2023 English 131 Instructors Manual Copyright © 2022 by kersch is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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