• August 29, 2015

4 Steps to a Memorable Teaching Philosophy

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Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

This summer I observed, with as much empathy as I could muster, the labors of two colleagues and friends who were preparing their tenure cases. Both of them asked me for advice about the area in which they thought I might have a little expertise: the statement of their teaching philosophy and principles.

Around the same time, I also received a request from a reader asking me for advice on writing a teaching statement for the job-market season. The question was the same: How do you write a statement of teaching philosophy that doesn't sound exactly like everybody else's?

In my 10 years as a tenure-track or tenured professor, I have served on more than a half-dozen search committees, all of which required statements of teaching philosophy from our candidates. Reading through those many hundreds of statements put me in the mind of a line from a Paul Simon song, "All Around the World or the Myth of Fingerprints": "I have seen them all, and man, they're all the same."

The same basic ideas and buzzwords appear in just about every teaching statement I have ever read. Everybody cares about the students, wants to challenge them, runs a student-centered classroom, relies on a mixture of lecture and discussion or other techniques, puts students first, is available to students outside the classroom, loves teaching, has learned a lot from students, integrates research and teaching, and so on and so on.

I have no doubt that most of the authors of those generic statements believe what they write, and do their best to live up to their principles. But I'm equally sure that, while a generic teaching statement won't hurt your job application or your tenure file, it won't do anything to help you, either. Its main effect will be to deepen the glaze on the eyes of readers—whether they are on a search committee or a tenure panel—who are slogging through statement after statement, searching for any evidence that will distinguish you from your fellow applicants.

The hiring season looms now, and most tenure files will be due in just a few weeks. In a late effort to help my colleagues and readers, I offer four simple guidelines for constructing a statement of teaching philosophy that will reflect your principles and help you stand apart from the crowd.

Begin with the end. A teaching statement resembles a syllabus in that you should begin by thinking about the end. Picture a student walking out of the final exam of your course: In what way is that student different from the one who entered your classroom on the first day of the semester? What has the student learned over the course of the past three months?

You can think about that question in terms of both knowledge and skills. Do you want students to have acquired some new body of knowledge? If so, why? In what way does the acquisition of that new knowledge benefit the student or the world? Will it help the student get a job? Succeed in future courses? Live a more meaningful life?

Perhaps your focus is on helping students develop certain skills—the ability to write more persuasively, think more clearly, offer more effective presentations, solve certain kinds of problems. Again, be prepared both to articulate the precise skills that the students will have gained in your courses and the reasons those skills are important. Don't take either for granted.

Most of us probably envision our courses as helping students acquire both knowledge and skills. Your teaching statement can parse your objectives in both categories.

Make distinctions. Unless you are seeking promotion or applying for a job at a major research university, you will probably find yourself teaching two kinds of courses: (1) those that draw upon your area of research and are aimed at majors in your discipline; and (2) service courses that your department must offer to fulfill core requirements for graduation. In my case, I teach both upper-level courses in 20th-century British literature (my area of scholarship) and introductory courses in literature and writing.

In teaching those two types of classes, I have different objectives and use different approaches. The courses for our majors are more content-oriented; the ones that fulfill our general-education requirements are more skills-oriented. I describe the differences in the way I teach them in my own statement of teaching philosophy.

You might be able to construct objectives that are common to both your upper-level and introductory courses. For example, my desire to increase my students' attentiveness to the written word, and its effects in the world, would apply to both my composition courses and my "Contemporary British Novel" course. However, sometimes such broad objectives tip too far toward the abstract or the generic to mean much of anything.

Be specific. The ends that you articulate will have to be at least a little abstract, which means that your next step—and the most important one, in my estimation—must be to find ways to make your philosophy concrete. You can do that quite simply by telling a story or offering a detailed description of an innovative or interesting teaching strategy you have used.

I consider a teaching statement to fall under the genre of creative nonfiction. As every teacher in that field knows, the first inclination students have when they are assigned to write an essay of creative nonfiction is to explain everything. They spill out expository prose from start to finish. As every reader of nonfiction knows, readers remember and respond to your stories, not your explanations.

So as soon as you describe your teaching objectives in the statement, tell a story or two about how your objectives have played out in the classroom. The story might focus on a particularly enlightening moment, in class or with an individual student. It might even be a moment of failure that led you to develop a new way of teaching.

If you can't or don't want to write about a specific moment or incident, then be specific by writing about some creative strategy or assignment you have used. Describe it in detail. In a two-page teaching statement, most readers would welcome a full paragraph of details about a technique you have used and refined and want the world to know about.

In the countless meetings I have sat through to discuss the applications of job candidates, the only times I have ever heard a teaching philosophy mentioned has been in reference to some memorable and specific story or strategy that a candidate described. I promise you that nobody sitting in one of those meetings will hold up your file triumphantly and announce: "Folks, we can all go home. I have found the one candidate who believes in running a student-centered classroom!"

Cite your sources. Whatever philosophies you have about teaching, where did they come from? Your own experiences as an undergraduate? A faculty mentor you worked with in graduate school? Books or articles on teaching?

Whatever your sources, it reflects well on you to explain how and why you have developed your teaching principles. And doing so allows you to add another narrative element to your statement.

Suppose that your philosophy was developed by observing and working with an outstanding teacher at your graduate university. Acknowledging that debt in your statement demonstrates your eagerness to credit those who have helped you along the way, and your willingness to learn from mentors.

Suppose, by contrast, that you have developed your ideas from reading a few highly regarded books on teaching and learning. Acknowledging those sources demonstrates that you take teaching seriously enough to view it as a discipline worthy of study—a commitment that will certainly sit well with search committees and tenure panels at teaching-focused institutions.

The story of how you developed your teaching philosophy can make for a great opening. It will immediately set your statement apart from those—and they are legion—that begin with a standard expository paragraph.

If you follow my advice, you're probably still going to end up with a teaching statement that looks pretty similar to the rest of them in some ways. Every fingerprint has swirly lines, and every teaching philosophy will very likely include whatever buzzwords and catchphrases are making the rounds in academe.

The best you can hope for is that, if you take the time to craft a good one, the same principle that applies to fingerprints will apply to teaching philosophies: They may all look the same to the untrained eye, but the experts can tell them apart.

James M. Lang is an associate professor of English at Assumption College and author of "On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching" (Harvard University Press, 2008). He writes about teaching in higher education, and his Web site is http://www.jamesmlang.com. He welcomes reader mail directed to his attention at careers@chronicle.com.


1. cmcclain - August 30, 2010 at 07:07 am

The advice that I received from several sources is to limit the teaching statement to a single page, front only. So for me, the real question becomes "how do I accomplish all of this (including stories and specifics) in a single page?"

2. kchristi - August 30, 2010 at 07:15 am

Perhaps the real point of this article should be directed at search and tenure review committees: quit requiring a worthless "statement of teaching philosophy" from applicants.

3. egpike - August 30, 2010 at 08:38 am

I suggest smaller font size, smaller margins, and no double spacing. Poof, one page.

4. morning_musume - August 30, 2010 at 08:38 am

I am still a grad student, but I have been thinking about a teaching philosophy, and how to eventually communicate it to potential employers for some time. I am printing out this excellent article and putting it in my filing cabinet so that I will remember it in a couple of years. Thanks!

5. alvitap - August 30, 2010 at 08:55 am

A while back, an educator described in this publication how he entertained his students by engaging in all sorts of weirdnes. Maybe that is what teaching philosophy writers should try to express: How I try to entertain 25 tuition payers while maintaining my dignity without tenure.

6. 22086364 - August 30, 2010 at 09:32 am

Any exercise can be meaningless if we make it so. The reflection that's required to write a teaching philosophy can actually be a form of sharpening the saw, as it were, if it's undertaken earnestly. Lang's article is interesting and useful, and may well keep at least one or two faculty members from generating "worthless" statements of teaching philosophy.

7. edwardneal - August 30, 2010 at 09:35 am

I help guide graduate students to prepare for their job searches, and I've found that the main problem with writing a "teaching philosophy" is the utter absurdity of the idea that one can articulate a "philosophy" of anything (unless you happen to be a philosopher). I tell my students that they are to write a reflective statement about their teaching: what they do, why they do it, and why they think it's successful. Trying to write a "philosophy" simply ties them in knots. I also tell them that the statement must be a minimum of three pages. You simply cannot distinguish your teaching from everyone else's in a single page.

8. alvitap - August 30, 2010 at 11:17 am

Any exercise can be made meaningful if you say it is, over and over and over. For example: "We are an equal opportunity employer." It is simply a cultural agreement. Applicants should, instead, receive a cultural description of the various college departments applied to so that applicants can write a "philosophy" that fits in with the biases of the various star chamber hiring committees.

9. gfrasz - August 30, 2010 at 01:48 pm

Whether one is applying for a postion or for tenure, doing one's homework about the school in crucial. Does the school itself have certain overall goals? For example, is the school a Jesuit school? If so, how does your teaching connect with the overall goals of a Jesuit education? this can be done really with most any school that indicates a particular educational outlook. This applies even to tenure if further up the ladder someone is reading the tenure application who not an immediate department colleague but, for instance a member of a board of trustees.

10. phdeviate - August 30, 2010 at 05:35 pm

Thank you for this excellent article. I've been struggling with even the "where to begin" level of writing a teaching philosophy, and I think I'm going to take your four steps and work them into writing exercises for myself. That should give me material to start with.

11. mystery345 - August 30, 2010 at 06:30 pm

I just spent the last week crafting a teaching philosophy. I started out very confused - I had no idea what I was supposed to do. Articles like this are only semi helpful because they offer vague ideas and really leave the writer without definite instructions. In desperation I turned to the literature and found a very good rubric for creating a teaching philosophy. It helped tremendously. The rubric is contained in an article by Schönwetter (2002) Teaching philosophies reconsidered: A conceptual model for the development and evaluation of teaching philosophy statements. The International Journal for Academic Development V.7 (i) - The article discusses the dilemma in teaching how to write philosophies and offers suggestions as well as the rubric. It was a big help. Hopefully this post will help someone else who is stuck as I was a week ago.

12. craniologist - August 31, 2010 at 04:16 am

These are the same ordinary statements, because they are to be evaluated by ordinary people, mostly not liking any sort of weirdness, especially in the USA. Suppose, my teaching philosophy is "Kick them hard, so they fly higher", and I put this one sentence statement in the application... Will I have a single chance to pass? No way.

So the message here is really for the search committees to stop asking for this nonsence piece of paper.

13. jffoster - August 31, 2010 at 07:18 am

Finally figured out I have that the purpose of statements of "teaching philosophies" includes that of making the applicant-candidate go through an exercise in ideological conformity.

One has to use such phrases as "students first" and "putting students at the center" in order to demonstrate that one isn't really as intellectually interested in one's discipline as one is in "pedagogy", educationism, and making the university / college feel safe and cosseting for large numbers of students who aren't really very interested but whom we need to attract and retain.

It is done to appease the kind of intellectual lightweights who either have no discipline with real content or have lost interest in their disciplines and have become such functionaries as associate deans and associate vice provosts for diddly shit, "first year experience" directresses, directors of "Centers for Teaching and Learning", and Chancellors of SUNY.

14. reedjohnd - August 31, 2010 at 09:49 am

Although the tips are useful in communicating a philosphy to others, the value maybe more directed at articualting the philosphy to onesself. In the writing of a philosphical direction, I believe the intent should be for purpsoe of self evaluation as much sharing that evaluation for the purposes of advertising the benifits of a teching style to the student.

15. _perplexed_ - August 31, 2010 at 12:49 pm

On what basis does anyone believe that writing a good statment of teaching philosophy is related to successful teaching?

16. arrive2__net - August 31, 2010 at 03:06 pm

You may be able to start the process of writing a teaching philosophy (or reflective statement) just by writing down your immediate thoughts to the question. Perhaps, what have you learned about teaching from your own experience, how you learned it, what surprised or frustrated you, the big experiences you have had that crystallized or defined your own inner guidelines in teaching, etc. I think by writing that down first ... before you consult a journal or Chronicle article (like the excellent one above) can give you some fresh, unique, and original ideas that may be worth adding to your statement. At the same time you want to write a winning statement, so I seems to me you do want to stay within the parameters of what will work, and articles can certainly advise you on that.

Bernard Schuster

17. bolmanl - August 31, 2010 at 05:20 pm

Perplexed's query about the relationship between teaching philosophy and teaching success is a good one. In many areas of skilled performance, there are people who are better at doing it than explaining how they do it, and vice-versa. Teaching philosophies are also inevitably limited by any gaps in self-awareness, so mine may reflect my intent or my idealized self better than what I actually do with students.
Despite these problems, I still think it's a good thing to spend some time on occasion thinking through what I'm trying to do as a teacher and how I can best do it. I doubt that many academics would want to defend the proposition that not thinking about something is a good way to get better at it. Knowing what I think increases my chances of having productive conversations with colleagues and makes it easier to explain it to students, particularly when they're puzzled (as they sometimes are -- at times my pedagogy is intentionally provocative or counter-intuitive for them, so they naturally wonder if I know what I'm doing.)

18. hoytleno - September 02, 2010 at 05:11 pm

A lot of posters, and possibly the author of this essay as well, seem to be missing one of the main points of requiring applicants to write a statement of teaching philosophy. It's like speed dating: it may not help you decide who you want to hire, but it can sure weed a few people out. A bad statement--whether poorly written, overly naive, reflecting arrogance, apathy, or contempt of students or colleagues, whatever--makes it easy to relegate an application to the "no" pile. Given the huge numbers of applicants for each open position, this can make the search committee's work a lot easier. When I served on such committees (at a PUI) the Statement was always the first thing I read, and I used it to decide how much effort to put into the rest of the package.

19. posull - September 03, 2010 at 04:44 pm

Hoo boy, a bit of cynicism out there. I don't doubt that some of it is well-earned based on the disappointing ways that hiring and tenure committess sometimes function. However, I hope that those of you who have completely dismissed the exercise of composing a teaching philosophy as wasted time actually try writing one that is authentic and original (rather than formulaic). It CAN be a worthwhile experience.

To address one comment, while it is true that a strong teaching philosophy does not guarantee that the author is a strong teacher, it is also true that the experience and intellectual work needed to be able to write a strong (authentic, well-informed, illuminating) teaching statement is an important component of most (if not all) excellent teachers. When teaching philosophies are then supported by evidence that the author implements the stated beliefs and intentions, then those who read them can begin to have a bit more confidence in the talent and character of the author. Without linking a statement to evidence from the author's teaching career (e.g., syllabi, assignments, student/peer feedback, etc.) then it would indeed be possible to BS your way through. If you're well informed and reflective, and have the courage to compose an authentic statement, and you link it to evidence, that can be a powerful argument in favor of your hiring/promotion.

Thanks for the good advice, Dr. Lang.


20. teachingresources - October 05, 2010 at 01:33 pm

Thank you, James, for this and all of your other articles in the Chronicle. It seems that every time I am deeply impressed with an article, I get to the bottom and find that it was written by James Lang.

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