Why 21st-century teachers should be building their personal brand

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What is a brand? If I asked you to think of five words that you associate with the concept of a brand, chances are that you would come up with words like “logo”, “advertising”, “marketing” and “corporate identity”. However, although we do associate brands with all these concepts, in fact they constitute a list of things that a brand is NOT. Instead, a brand is a trigger for the emotions it evokes: a sense of belonging and a feeling of security, passion and confidence.

An online business dictionary defines a brand as a “unique design, sign, symbol, words, or a combination of these, employed in creating an image that identifies a product and differentiates it from its competitors. Over time, this image becomes associated with a level of credibility, quality, and satisfaction in the consumer’s mind”. The key concept in this definition is “unique” – something that differentiates a brand from its competitors, as well as quality and customers’ perceptions.

What can be branded? Products, services, places, people, even religions. The greatest sign of success, though, is when a brand becomes a verb. For example, have you ever “Photoshopped” a photo? Do you “Google” information? Or maybe you arrange to “Skype” your friends? This kind of success has a clearly defined financial value because brands are not just about quality, uniqueness or belonging: they are about money – sometimes huge amounts of money.

Why building your personal brand is essential

So why should you build a personal brand? And is it really necessary? Your personal brand is what you are known for and what people seek you out for – a combination of facts and people’s perceptions. Think about this: if I walked into one of your lessons, what kind of picture would I see? Can you think of one word that would represent what I would see? Be completely honest – no one will hear what word you have chosen. Are you happy with the picture you project?

In today’s post-factual world, in which perceptions and impressions are at least as important as the facts, the question you need to ask yourself is whether you are prepared to build and cultivate your brand or whether you want it to be defined by other people, with you having absolutely no control over it. What do you want people to associate with you when they think of your name? Your expertise on the subject matter? Or some general qualities you possess? Understanding how you would like to be perceived and remembered is a crucial step in the process of building your professional reputation.

A strong personal brand needs a strong narrative in which quality is not just an empty word. Take a second to think of celebrities such as Martha Stewart and Richard Branson, who have strong personal brands. They each have a clear story and a consistent brand. They are unique – and so are you, but you have to discover and be able to explain where your uniqueness lies in order to stand out from the crowd of like-minded ambitious professionals.

Louis Henry Sullivan, an influential American architect considered by many as the creator of the modern skyscraper, famously said “Form (ever) follows function”. In building your personal brand, start by deciding who you are in comparison to your competition, and build a narrative around how people can benefit from working with you, and how you want to be perceived. The raw material for your story is who you are, what you have achieved, what your strengths are, and what you hope to achieve in the future. The next step is deciding where and how you want to tell your story – let form follow function.

Use storytelling and authenticity

Telling a compelling story is the best way to make yourself memorable. But your personal story will not be complete if you underestimate the power of failure and the power of talking about epic failures. Why? Because you can prove that you’ve learnt from your mistakes. We all fail sometimes, and as educators we know this better than any other profession. So when you have that all-important job interview and are asked to talk about what helped you develop most as a professional, don’t hesitate to mention your failures and mistakes. For me, talking about what I considered my biggest failure as an ELT manager helped my future employer to see that I am serious about learning from my mistakes. That, in turn, contributed to the kind of openness and trust that is absolutely key for a smooth and effective working relationship.

Apart from developing a compelling story, what else can you do that will help you build your personal brand? Make sure you develop genuine and strong professional relationships that are based on working together, sharing and giving. It’s these relationships that might provide strong referrals when you are looking for a new, better job. It’s also these relationships that might be a saving force in difficult times.

It’s OK to discuss your successes

Don’t forget to recognise and celebrate your professional successes and superpowers. When something goes particularly well, stop for a moment and try to remember that feeling of the wind in your sails. Make sure that you stop to think about what it is that drives you in your work. If you feel motivated and happy in what you do, that feeling will project outward and make you stand out from the crowd.

Maya Angelou, an American Nobel prize laureate, once said that, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” If you can recognise which aspects of your work make you feel good about yourself, others will feel good about working with you. Your emotional appeal is a crucial part of your personal brand, and something that makes you and your brand unforgettable.

Don’t ignore your online self

When talking about the way you are perceived, it is impossible to dismiss social media. Your online interactions with people will create impressions of who you are, and some employers will check your social media profile even before they invite you to an interview. So it’s in your interest to be in control of these impressions and to consciously build your professional reputation over time. Think about what your Facebook or Twitter profiles say about you and remember that your online behaviour will make people draw conclusions about your offline behaviour. If your profile is full of mistakes or unfinished posts, for example, you might be perceived as someone who generally does not pay attention to detail. If you don’t follow netiquette, your potential employer might think you could be a rude person.

As educators we always strive for the best performance in the interest of our students. Building a personal brand requires long-term commitment, determination, strategic thinking and patience. But isn’t this precisely what “best performance” means? After all, if personal branding is about being your best self, then who understands this challenge better than you?

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