“The best way to build a brand is to take a three-foot length of malleable iron and get one end red-hot. Then, apply it vigorously to the buttocks of the instructor who gave you this question. You want a nice, meaty sizzle.”
This was veteran Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten’s public response to the question, “How have you built your personal brand over the years?”, as asked by a journalism graduate from Northwestern University.
It is similar to how I feel when I hear people talk about teachers as brands. Only yesterday, I witnessed advice from a high profile headteacher for teachers and leaders to “work on your personal brand” if you want to get ahead. The insistence that we must think about our brand rather than say, what we are teaching (or what we are leading on), is not just a distraction: it’s irresponsible.
It’s easy to read the rest of Weingarten’s response to the student and imagine he’s talking about education. I’ve replaced the words ‘journalism’ and ‘writing’ with [teaching] here:
“You used the expression ‘built your personal brand.’
I want us to let that expression marinate in its own foulness for a moment, like a turd in a puddle of pee, as we contemplate its meaning and the devastating weight of its implications. This is a term born of the new approach to [teaching], a soulless, marketing approach that goes hand in hand with the modern tendency to denigrate [teaching] by calling it “content,” as though everything is mere filler — fluff and stuffing in the decorative throw pillows of what passes for news. It is symptomatic of a general degradation of [teaching] that rewards ubiquity, not talent…”
I am certain that people who are able to make careers out of teaching do so because of the talent they have. Why take a “soulless, marketing” approach to that career by focusing on themselves as a brand?
Weingarten says that the commodification of journalists as brands means that writers “used to give readers what we thought they needed. Now, in desperation, we give readers what we think they want.”
Is this the implication of teachers and leaders becoming brands? Does it imply no longer giving pupils (and other teachers) what we think they need and instead giving them what we think they want?
The problem with foregrounding branding is that it backgrounds the important things about teaching and leading. The things that actually count. Continuing on the subject of writing, Weingarten continues:
“Branding – the whole notion gets it backwards, as though the purpose of writing is self-aggrandizement and self-promotion. That’s what riles me about that whole idea. We want to tell truth, because we want to entertain, because we want to disclose things that need to be disclosed, because we want to hold government to a high standard, all of those reasons are good. Somewhere around reason 6,407 is where brand promotion should be.”
I feel exactly the same about teaching: we want to teach because we want to make kids cleverer, because we want them to go out and connect with and understand the world, because we want them to take part in life and join the “conversation of mankind“, because we want them to create the future. All of those reasons are good. And, likewise, somewhere around reason 6,407 is where brand promotion should be for teachers.
“Note the order. First came the work.
Now, the first goal seems to be self-promotion — the fame part, the ‘brand.'”
Teachers and leaders should concentrate on their craft, on what they are achieving, rather than answering the questions “how do people see you?” and “how do you want to be seen?” – questions which came from the advice mentioned at the beginning of this blog. Answering those questions and concentrating on ‘your brand’ will most likely lead to superficiality and, in turn, most likely more work for the teachers around you. So listen to Weingarten. Don’t let teaching go this way too:
“We are slowly redefining our craft so it is no longer a calling but a commodity. From this execrable marketing trend arises the term: ‘branding.'”