• November 23, 2014

A Philosophy of Teaching

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Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

Most teaching statements are written by people who—let's be honest—don't really know that much about teaching. Usually the writers are first-time job seekers with, at best, a year or two as a graduate assistant or an adjunct under their belts.

Battle-scarred classroom veterans, unless they happen to be going on the market, rarely write a statement of teaching philosophy. But maybe they should.

My philosophy of teaching has been forged over more than 32 years, 26 of those as an instructor. As a student, I attended a private liberal-arts college and a midsized regional university. I've taught at a large land-grant university, a small rural community college, a large metropolitan community college, and a suburban technical college.

Like everyone in the profession, I came to the job with a number of preconceived notions, based partly on observations of my own teachers, both good and bad, and partly on my perception of how things should operate in a perfect world. Most of those notions proved false or impractical, and the jury is still out on the rest.

In addition, since I also spent 11 years supervising faculty members, my teaching philosophy has been profoundly influenced by my experiences with colleagues. I've had the great good fortune to observe and learn from some of the best teachers in the world. I've also known a few faculty members whose chief contribution to my development was to strengthen my resolve never—ever—to do certain things.

Please note that in sharing my philosophy, I'm not suggesting that it's the definitive approach or encouraging anyone else to adopt it. I'm simply sharing what I've come to believe.

College students are adults. I wrote about that truism in some depth back in August of 2010 ("Welcome to My Classroom"), but it bears revisiting as one element of a more comprehensive philosophy.

People tend to rise or fall to the level that is expected of them. Make it clear that you think students are stupid and, odds are, they will underperform. Act like you expect them to misbehave, and your classroom will probably resemble a war zone. But if you tell students upfront that you consider them to be adults, and then treat them accordingly, most will attempt to live up to the label. That's certainly been the case in my classroom over the years.

Treating students like adults means you allow them the freedoms that adults enjoy—to be late for class, for instance, to miss it altogether, or to leave early if that's what they need to do. At the same time, you make it clear that, as adults, they are responsible for all the material in the course, whether or not they were in class on a particular day.

That approach has profound implications for every aspect of classroom management, from discipline to attendance to late papers. Students like it because they think of themselves as adults and appreciate being viewed that way. (College students despise few things more than being treated as though they were still in high school.) And it's good for professors because it shifts the responsibility for "keeping up" onto the students, where it belongs.

Teaching is performance art. I wish I had coined that phrase, or at least knew who did. I just know that it has become one of my foundational beliefs.

The concept of the teacher as performer, as "the sage on the stage," has fallen out of favor in recent years. But the fact is, we are sages and we are on a stage. How we perform—that is, how we teach—is every bit as important as what we teach.

Moreover, how our students respond to us—and by extension, to our subject matter—depends largely on the quality of the performance we give in class, day in and day out. Want to engage your students, capture their interest, motivate them to do more and be more? Then pay attention to voice inflection and body language, just as an actor would. Practice your timing. Play to your audience. Inject some humor. Entertain.

That doesn't mean you have to make yourself the focal point of the classroom all the time. Class discussions, group work, and other non-teacher-centric strategies can also be effective. But when the curtain goes up and it's your time to shine, go out there and knock 'em dead.

Great teachers may be born, but good teachers are made. The ability to become a great teacher—one who inspires students and seems to connect with them effortlessly—is a gift, an innate talent like musical ability or athletic prowess.

Just like any other gift, it can either be squandered or put to good use. The very best teachers are those who have the gift and have worked hard over many years to further develop it—although we often overlook the hard work because they make being a great teacher look so easy.

But what about those of us who may not have "the gift," or at least not to the same degree? Can we, too, become great teachers? Maybe not, but we can become good ones.

Just as with any other skill, the key to becoming a good teacher is to want to become one. My teenage son will probably never play in the NBA, because he lacks certain genetic traits, such as extreme height and freakish athletic ability. But he has become a fine high-school basketball player by studying the game, learning all he can from his coaches, attempting to emulate those who play it well, and spending hours honing his skills. The path to becoming a good teacher is no different.

You don't have to be a jerk. If you consistently place your ego and personal interests ahead of others' needs—even when those needs should be paramount—then you are a jerk. The teacher as jerk can take many forms: someone who never returns papers, who avoids office hours, who passes the buck on advising, who generally thinks that his or her time is more important than anyone else's.

There is also the more obvious type of jerk, the one who berates and embarrasses students in front of classmates; who responds to questions with superciliousness, arrogance, or even open contempt; whose default response to any situation is to take the extreme hard line.

When I was an administrator, I occasionally dealt with such faculty members, like the one who delayed a student's graduation an entire semester because he wouldn't accept a paper that was one hour late. I usually tried to reason with those people but often found them impervious to reason. In the end, if they had followed policy to the letter, I had to support them, but I didn't like it. I thought they were being jerks.

I'm well aware of the school of thought that says teachers have to behave like jerks for the sake of their students. The world is full of jerks, this philosophy goes—heck, most of their bosses will be jerks—so we as their professors have an obligation to cultivate jerkiness in order to prepare them for the real world. Hence the hard-line approach, the overly strict interpretation of policy, the refusal to budge an inch.

I've never bought that philosophy. In my experience, most of the people who espouse it don't actually know anything about the "real world." They're just trying to justify being jerks. And I don't believe for a moment that they really have students' best interests at heart. Occasionally a student does need to learn a hard lesson in personal responsibility. But every student needs a break now and then, and most of them won't ever get to those corporate jobs we're so worried about if we don't cut them some slack now and then.

Besides, I spend zero time worrying about whether students are taking advantage of me. My goal is to help students succeed while still holding them to a reasonable standard. If some take advantage and that ends up hurting them down the road—when a boss or perhaps another professor isn't quite as understanding—that's their responsibility, not mine.

All you need is love. Well, maybe that's not all you need to be a good teacher. It helps to have an advanced degree, and maybe some actual knowledge of the subject matter. But in teaching, as in other human relationships, a little love goes a long way.

When I talk about love, I mean, first and foremost, love for students. Of course you're not going to experience strong feelings of affection for each and every student, and that's probably just as well. There will be some students you don't like much at all. That's normal.

But a good teacher has a love for students in general, students as a group. I make that point because I've known so many teachers who seem to dislike students, even to hold them in contempt. You can tell by what they say about students in private.

Whenever I hear a faculty member constantly talking about how stupid or rude students are, I think to myself, "Then why are you doing this?" It's little wonder that their teaching ratings show that students don't care much for them, either.

Also when I talk about love, I'm referring to love of the subject matter. We've all had teachers who appeared bored with their own lectures, disenchanted with their assignments, and indifferent to class discussion. Then we've had teachers whose passion for their subject matter made us feel passionate about it, too. For many of us, it was the latter group who inspired us to become teachers.

Of course, even if you clearly love teaching, grant students adult status, give an Oscar-worthy performance every day, and resist your jerkier impulses, that doesn't mean your students will come to love your class. But at least maybe they won't hate it—or you—quite as much.

Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College. He blogs at www.nccforum.org and writes monthly for our community-college column. His book, "Building a Career in America's Community Colleges," has just been published by the American Association of Community Colleges and the Community College Press.

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