Should I Take Up the Banjo? or The Question of Charisma

I’d already been thinking about the issue of teacher charisma when I saw Paula Willey’s terrific BEA write-up in which she, after seeing some especially entertaining authors, wondered:

What do you do if you’re not a natural speaker? Or if you freeze up on stage? In fact, I imagine that most authors are more the cave-dwelling cheeseater type than the camp counselor type. (Literally – a lot of authors honed their public speaking skills as camp counselors or teachers.) It’s not fair, and all I can suggest is – learn to play the banjo.

Sorry, lovely Paula, but I disagree. I realize I’m probably swimming upstream without a paddle, but I try to think deep within me that I can be a good teacher, good author, and good critic without the ability to entertain in public. For I very much will admit — it is not something I can do. Entertain in public, that is. (I think I do a pretty good job entertaining in print, say here. That is something quite different.) While I am very comfortable speaking in public when the focus is on what I’m speaking about rather than on ME, I dislike intensely the focus being on me. I am not the sort of teacher who happily will spend the day at school dressed as a cow (as one of my colleagues did this year for a fundraising thing), play the goofy ‘bad” kid in a skit with colleagues at an assembly, or otherwise do stuff that focuses attention on me. In other words, charismatic (in the magnetic dynamic personality sense) is not me.

I suspect there is something of that going on for book creators. When I first met Jon Scieszka he was still teaching at a school close to mine. And I bet he was the sort of teacher who loved dressing as a cow. Mr. Charisma. Don’t get me wrong — I think teachers and book creators who enjoy this sort of thing are great fun. Some of my dearest friends are wonderful at this. I adore Jon and Mac and love nothing more than watching them at play. But I don’t think they are the standard that we teachers and book creators need to aspire to. Rather, I think we need to recognize differences. Those like me who detest being in the spotlight should not contort themselves into trying to do so. Frankly, I can think of nothing worse than watching an unhappy book creator on stage playing the banjo (me, you really, really, really don’t want to see that — it would be squirm-inducing painful).

I think and hope that there is still room for those of us who teach/create and do the stuff and then stand back and let it do the work. The books and the assignments. Me, I adored Battle Bunny all by itself.  In fact, I have never experienced Jon and Mac doing their staged reading of it. Sure, I’d enjoy doing so, but I have had just as much fun reading the book aloud with my students taking an active role.

As a contrast to Jon and Mac, Let me offer one huge example — Suzanne Collins. Know who she is? None other than the creator of The Hunger Games.  I don’t see her on the conference circuit shooting arrows a la her protagonist or similarly entertaining the legions of Hunger Game fans. Note the difference. I didn’t write “Suzanne Collins’ fans.” Indeed, her books, her characters, her stories are doing just fine without her having to be up front and center. So can I just make a plea for us shyer types — don’t push us to do what we can’t do. Instead, appreciate us for what we can do. Charisma is a personality trait, something that isn’t required, I don’t think, for success.


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4 responses to “Should I Take Up the Banjo? or The Question of Charisma

  1. Thanks so much for speaking for the quiet, but effective teachers out there. There are other strengths that one can have that help to make an impact in the classroom. And the entertainer, whose classroom may be loud and rollicking, may not create the best learning environment for the shy, quiet student who needs help making her voice heard.


  2. Uma

    Thank you Monica! Great post.


  3. Pingback: The Public Side of Being a Writer | Uma Krishnaswami

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