My Teaching Philosophy
For most of my life I have been a student, and, as such, was also an observer of teaching styles and classroom dynamics. The first time that I became conscious of feeling as if I were such an observer came in a ‘Form and Theory of Poetry’ class. I absorbed many of the aspects of language I knew only in the most tangential fashion before; and yet, that was not the strength of the class. There were no outstanding classmates and there were none who were remarkably bad either. The instructor too was seemingly unexceptional; his outward appearance was gruff, but he was personable enough once we settled into a rhythm. What made the class extraordinary was the way that discussion ebbed and flowed seamlessly and that each of us enjoyed every moment of that fantastically paced class. I knew then that it was a rarity that I was lucky to have encountered. Prior to this experience, and many times since, I encountered professors who were kinder, more scholarly-active, and more engrossed in pedagogy, but I have never encountered another class that “clicked” the way this course did. Ideally, I would love to recreate that same dynamic for every student I serve. While recognizing the impossibility of this, there are a few concrete strategies that I have gathered as a student and teacher that shape my teaching philosophy. My philosophy has five guiding principles that focus on individuality, cognitive dissonance, informal self-assessment, scholarly engagement, and flexibility.
Treat every student as a person first.
Above all, I strive to treat every student as an individual. The primary aspiration, shared by nearly all of the best teachers I have known, is a commitment to treating each student as an individual. Thus, my first goal as a teacher is to treat every student, whether in a classroom of fifteen or five hundred, as an individual. In traditional educational parlance, this means presenting material in ways that cater to students with different learning styles. While engaging students’ senses is important, providing students with a classroom or online setting that promotes and protects respectful discussion is most vital to this project. Whenever students feel ignored or disrespected, those students will disengage. Not only does a student’s disengagement remove the possibility of them learning the material, but, it also results in tension that can be felt throughout the classroom. Despite the fact that I love learning, I have been in classes where my engagement was low. In my Biology lab, for example, I was a completely unmotivated learner, until my instructor realized that the labs themselves were not interesting to me without some historical context. Finding readings to accompany the labs created more work for him, but it resulted in better engagement and learning on my part. Every student has a path to academic success, and while I cannot engage students all of the time, every student has an entry point, a way to make learning more interesting and enjoyable. Listening to students and investing myself in their perspectives creates a better atmosphere where students are more likely to find the entry point that works. Students do not engage en masse, this must be done at an individual level.
Teaching is not an act of sewing; it is an act of unraveling.
While students need to feel comfortable expressing ideas and need to feel that they are being heard, they also need to experience a level of cognitive dissonance. For many years, I perceived education as an act most akin to sewing. I delight in making connections between disparate elements. Therefore, I viewed the job of an educator as one of piecing together ideas. I saw the teacher as a sewer, providing the threads and instruction on where the position seams in order to achieve the combining effect of learning. However, I now see an educator more like Penelope of The Odyssey, using her tools to unravel that which we think we know, positioning the moment of discovery for when students are best poised to receive it. Moreover, I see the instructor’s job as one of ‘making the familiar unfamiliar’ and providing students with moments that challenge them to continually examine their preconceptions. I want students to be able to make informed choices that take into account the world around them, an act that can only happen when students are forced to confront prejudice and difference and to recognize the power of information for change.
Good teaching is improved when students understand that you care about their learning.
My next goal also originated in a college classroom. One semester, an instructor fresh out of a doctoral program asked us to take a few moments and write down our perceptions of the class. We were assured of our anonymity and asked to provide both positives and negatives. When someone questioned why we were being asked to do this, the instructor candidly remarked that end-of-the-semester surveys might benefit subsequent students, but that she wanted us to benefit from our own feedback. It was the first time I envisioned the teacher as a self-reflective professional, someone whose investment in their classroom was being measured, in every class meeting, by every student. Unsurprisingly, students responded not only to the calls for what worked and what did not but also to being asked about their perceptions. Students felt their investment heightened because they knew the instructor was listening and willing to adjust to accommodate their learning needs. When students see the instructor as invested and soliciting feedback, they feel empowered and work harder. As an instructor, I have come to understand that every moment of every class I am evaluating my teaching effectiveness, asking students informally as we go what works for them. I view student feedback as one of the most important components of what I do as an educator. I want every student to feel that I have an interest in making every class the best it can be.
Good teaching is engaged with rigorous scholarship and real-world connections.
The only way to ensure that students receive the best possible experience is to stay engaged in the scholarly community. Perhaps it goes without saying that good teaching engages students in scholarly discourse generally and more specifically in the discourse communities of a given academic discipline. But, often instructors separate research and teaching to the detriment of both activities. It is imperative for students to see scholarship as a worthy and attainable facet of the educational process. It is critical for them to understand that their teacher is a professional engaged in scholarship, constantly striving to research and create. As I continue to try and engage myself professionally, I want students to reap the fruits of that effort and to understand that scholarship and self-assessment go hand-in-hand. Further, I want them to understand the connections between the skills they are learning in my classroom and concrete applications to the world in which they are a part.
Good teaching allows for flexibility and fun.
Finally, when I look back on that Form and Theory class, the day I remember most vividly was one in April that was reminiscent of the opening lines of The Wasteland. A few members of the class were eager to get outside and enjoy the sunshine and warm temperatures. It should be noted that our classroom was an awful space: it was too small, the desks were awkwardly crammed into the room, and a large column obstructed the view of anyone sitting in the second row. Someone asked if we could have class out on the lawn. The instructor dismissed the idea outright (and the allergy sufferer in me was clandestinely grateful). However, after about five minutes of instruction, it became obvious that everyone had become distracted by the idea, so we all traipsed outside, belongings in hand. I waited for the wind, or the traffic or the people-watching to uproot the fertile discussion, but it never did. I daresay, I may have learned more that day than most because the instructor exercised flexibility and allowed for a little fun. Research shows that students learn more and perform better when they are happy, and, let’s face it, Lyrical Ballads are best discussed outdoors anyway.