By Jenel Cavazos, Ph.D., University of Oklahoma
I first started teaching college courses at the age of 25. I was in my 2nd year of graduate school and had just finished my master’s degree, which was the requirement to be an “instructor of record” at my institution. I taught a summer class – Introduction to Personality – to a small and largely uninterested group of psychology students (including a few very large football players, but that’s another story). I vividly remember the advice that was given to me, a 5’2” female, before I began teaching. I was told I would have to work hard to make sure I was respected, and the way to do that was to distinguish myself from my students through attitude and dress. I shouldn’t be too friendly or too casual with the students or they would see me as “one of them” and I wouldn’t be respected. Along the same lines, I was told to always dress formally so that they would see me as the one who was in charge. I definitely got the message that authority was more about how you look than who you are.
Now I’m not necessarily saying that this advice was incorrect because it works very well for some people (and women do generally have a harder time establishing authority in the classroom than men, which is a whole other topic). I will say that when I look back 15 years later, I realize I wasn’t the teacher I could have been in those first classes because I was overly concerned with making sure I had the “right” look and demeanor. We only have so much mental bandwidth, and mine was focused on living up to the image in my head of what a professor was “supposed” to look, sound, and act like. Through a lot of trial and error, I have learned that there are many other, much more effective ways to communicate authority in the classroom.
I am thankful that in today’s world, dress seems to be less of a definitive marker of status than it was in the past. The students know who their professor is, and that person is in charge regardless of what they look like. With some unfortunate exceptions, most students afford their instructor some measure of authority just by virtue of being the instructor. So, if a suit or a dress makes you feel uncomfortable, don’t wear it. You won’t be as effective of a teacher if you are thinking more about your clothes than your class. Of course, I’m not suggesting that you wear sweats and a baggy t-shirt to teach – but as a general rule, students are going to respect you based on what you do, not what you wear.
So if clothes don’t communicate authority, what does? The simple answer is confidence! Have you ever heard the phrase, “fake it ‘till you make it?” This is absolutely true of teaching, especially when it comes to your attitude when you’re first starting out. You may be nervous and unsure of yourself, and that’s completely understandable. But it’s your confidence in what you know and what you can do that communicates the most to the students. It tells them that you are in charge, and that you can be trusted. The best teachers aren’t those who know everything; the best teachers are the ones who aren’t afraid to make mistakes and admit what they don’t know. They are able to be human in front of their students and to learn alongside them. They don’t let their fear of imperfection get in the way of taking a risk and trying something new. If the students know you will always do your best for them, then the mistakes don’t matter – they trust you to fix them. So be confident in yourself and your abilities. You were put in your position for a reason, so go out there and make the most of it!
Dr. Jenel Cavazos is an Associate Professor and Master Teacher in the Department of Psychology at the University of Oklahoma. As the Introductory Psychology Program Coordinator, she teaches an average of 1500 students per year, supervises sections of PSY1113 taught by graduate students, and conducts a graduate mentor program for teaching. Her emphasis areas include curriculum development, the implementation of technology in the classroom, and program assessment. Her research focuses on the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Introductory Psychology. She has received several university teaching awards and was named a College of Teaching Excellence Faculty Fellow for 2017-18.