Accessing Your Authentic Self to Foster Classroom Community 

by Kitty Donahoe

Oscar Wilde is reputed to have said, “Be yourself, everyone else is already taken.”

Here is what I believe: being your true and genuine self is a freeing experience which leads to joyful teaching and deeper connection with students. 

But can you achieve this? And why would you even try? Educators have enough to deal with in the midst of a pandemic. Trying to incorporate something new might just be the proverbial straw on one’s back.

Here are some simple ideas that help me. I am hoping, in turn, that they can help other educators without adding pressure to a teaching day.

1. Share childhood stories and photos with students. 

Growing up I was my big sisters’ live dress up doll. You may ask, did I like it? The answer is…it depended. Once when I was four, they decided it would be grand to dress me as The Highwayman, based on the poem by Alfred Noyes. I was NOT impressed. When they recited the poem, I was to act out this part of The Highwayman’s fate as written here:

“…When they shot him down on the highway,

Down like a dog on the highway.

And he lay in his blood on the highway with the bunch of

lace at his throat.”

Even the sprout I was then realized my experiences were too minimal to use the method acting technique! Performing as a dying man, sporting a blood soaked lace cravat was out of my repertoire! Some protestations in the form of screaming ensued – most likely stopped only by a bribe. 

Photo courtesy of the author.

One of the reasons I recall this episode so well is because I have a photo of myself in the make shift costume my sisters created: a coat set at a rakish angle to emulate a cape, an artfully tied scarf around my neck, all topped off with my father’s cap. The marked disdainful expression on my face was captured for eternity.

Kids love that photo of me and hearing about the exploits my big sisters enjoyed at my expense.  It opens them up to their own experiences as younger or older siblings. It is a great strategy for facilitating talk during social emotional learning or for exemplifying personal narrative in writing.

2. Go off the script.

We all have curriculum to follow. I say, go off the script and make it your own. It is all too easy

in times of stress to be robotic and follow the formula piece by piece. Your students love YOU.  Bring YOU into the pedagogy. During reading, pull in books that you think resonate more than the suggested curricular ones. Students will sense if you are reading or referencing a book that leaves you cold. It’s highly likely that the book is not lighting a fire under them either. There are so many resources to find new and vibrant books which exemplify diversity and good writing. Teachers College, Columbia University is an amazing resource for great books. If you haven’t joined Twitter, do it! There are so many wonderful educational resources on Twitter. You can follow authors, and publishing houses. In fact, no matter what disciplines you teach, you can find resources for those disciplines on Twitter!

3. Bring your own unique teacher gifts to the classroom as a catalyst for kids to share their talents.  

Maybe you are a gardener and can start a garden with your class. (True confession…I love gardens but lack a green thumb. However, we have a classroom garden and parents and kids are the ones who keep it alive.) Maybe you are a music expert and can share this with students.  I play guitar very badly. But guitars come in handy for class sing-alongs. Heck, all you need is a few chords, and you are Eric Clapton as far as young kids are concerned.

Some of my favorite memories consist of me and my class serenading the school office with Irish ballads on St. Patrick’s Day. My students are all too willing to join in when I tell them that my dad ran an Irish pub/restaurant for years and he insisted I sing in it. (Much to my horror!) And my great grandmother used to dance the jig in old San Francisco with Gracie Allen. So I tell students about this and demonstrate it myself on St. Patrick’s Day.

Years later former students ask me if I still dance on the table….  

Please note, when I say I play guitar badly, that I’m not exaggerating. But it just reinforces that nothing has to be perfect to inspire community. Everyone has talents, whether you are a true musician or someone who plunks three chords like me. Use your talents!

Recently, I had a budding magician in my class share a magic trick with me. (Remember, I teach really young children.) He was squealing with excitement about a magic trick he needed to show me.

Student: Ms. Donohoe, I can make this key disappear.

Me: Please show me!

So his enthusiasm was palpable, even with a face mask.  This young fellow held up the key and

VERY OBVIOUSLY, slipped the key behind the mask. Then, held up his hands to show the key had disappeared.

Student: Ms. Donohoe, I stuffed the key behind my mask.

Me (trying to keep a straight face): Magicians never reveal their secrets.  Remember that!

I hope that some of these ideas may be of service to you as an educator. Right now I am recalling my older sister telling me about Peter Pan and company flying to visit her at night.  But, I was to keep the secret and not tell anyone else. At six, I of course believed her even though I never witnessed this miracle personally. We, as educators, have it in us to remind kids that they can soar, over covid, over anything, and fly! And all we need to do is help them believe. I believed Peter Pan visited my sister, your students will believe in the potential you see in them. 

Kitty Donohoe has taught primary grades at Roosevelt Elementary School in Santa Monica, CA for over thirty years. She received her B.A., Master’s in Education, and Multiple Subject Teaching Credential from UCLA. She and her husband Homi live in Los Angeles, near UCLA. Kitty’s first book, HOW TO RIDE A DRAGONFLY comes out in May 2023. The publisher is Anne Schwartz Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House. You can follow Kitty on Twitter: @donohoe_kitty. She has just launched her children’s author website:

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