Don’t build your brand

Over the years I’ve met a lot of new teachers who haven’t decided that they are committed to the profession. Especially when it comes to English teachers, it seems like most recent college grads who have been hired are just thinking of it as their day job while they work on what they view as their true calling: playing music, writing poetry, etc. I’ve got no problem with that; everyone should have a dream and chase after it. However, teaching isn’t the same as waiting tables. It’s a career. And it is enough.

Teaching is enough to occupy one-hundred percent of your intellectual energy, keep you challenged and growing, and express yourself creatively. At some point (age 30?) the dilettante wanna-be-rockstar teacher turns into a career teacher, and the band turns into a hobby. Perhaps that’s a tragedy, or perhaps it is part of the transition to true adulthood, supporting a family, and so forth. I don’t mean to insist that it’s an either-or choice. I’ve known some mid-career teachers who devote superb energy and attention to both their teaching and their artistic pursuits. They are organized people, and they use their vacation time well. 

What concerns me today is the pressure being put on teachers who aren’t very driven to be teacher/rockers or teacher/poets or teacher/authors to “build their brand.” This involves maintaining a blog, promoting it/oneself, “curating” media on Twitter or Pinterest, becoming a “thought leader,” etc. I’ve been traveling down this road myself, and I’m worried about what I’ve seen both in terms of the pressure it puts on me (to produce original content, to read every trending article in the education sphere) and on young teachers trying to establish themselves. Again: teaching is enough.

There are lots of reasons why teachers might want do some of these activities other than “building a brand.” Blogging is a good outlet for your intellectual activity and it’s therapeutic. If you are assigning blogging tasks to your students, then leading by example is de rigeur, too. Sharing great posts or ideas on Twitter is generous, and I wholly embrace the PLN concept. But frankly, if every teacher is online producing original content and building their brand, who is going to read all of this stuff? If we are all broadcasting and no one is receiving, what’s the point? If everyone is a general, where are the soldiers? 

Some of the pressure must surely come from the lousy economy. Teaching jobs are harder to land today, and people who have them might be nervous about losing them. Building a personal brand that serves as a kind of portfolio during a job search makes sense. But my experience serving on search committees for the school where I work leads me to believe that what schools are looking for is not human brands, but employees with excellent technology and communication skills. If your personal brand seems unduly strong, then as an employer I would worry that you are narcissistic and spending too much time online updating all of your social media platforms. In the independent school world, our personal brands are subordinate to the school’s umbrella brand. If the school is doing well, I am doing well.

There are those (literally) one in a million teachers who have something original, brilliant, and important to share. Rafe Esquith (of the Hobart Shakespeareans) and Dave Burgess (of Teach Like a Pirate fame) spring to mind. They inspire me, and I’m endlessly grateful that they’ve shared their work with the world through their books and other efforts. Who am I to say that the teacher down the hall from me isn’t another Esquith or Burgess? Perhaps they are. Just as I would never discourage a student from chasing his or her dreams, I wouldn’t want to discourage my colleagues or teachers anywhere who are reading this from chasing theirs. Still, my message remains: teaching is enough. You aren’t a failure if you aren’t Rafe Esquith or Dave Burgess. Teachers are heroic in their everyday efforts; regardless of whether or not those efforts bring them acclaim or publishing royalties. You don’t need a thousand Twitter followers; you need twenty young learners who are on the edges of their seats in your class, four or five times a day. That is enough.

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