Revisiting my teaching philosophy, again

Every teacher has probably had to do it as a requirement for at least one teacher preparation class in college.  But I think it’s a valuable thing for teachers to do  pretty regularly, not just as an academic exercise, but as a way to really think through where you are as a teacher, how you got here, where you are going, and why.

The assignment:
Write a brief statement of your teaching philosophy.
Here’s my most recent stab at it. (Not really, I wrote this about 5 years ago.)

I intentionally set about writing this statement of my humanities teaching philosophy immediately after submitting my lesson plans for the week.  I wanted to make sure this was more than just an exercise in abstractedly putting words to some things I believe about teaching;  I wanted to be able to see evidence that what I believe about teaching is at the heart of what I do in the classroom.  In the upcoming days, my classes and I will perform scenes from Hamlet and A Streetcar Named Desire, explore the ancient Greek roots of drama and tragedy, discuss and debate the ethics and influence of social media, revel in examples of the power of written language, and connect the anthropological perspectives Zora Neale Hurston used as she created Janie and Tea Cake Woods in the beautiful novel Their Eyes Were Watching God with those used by Rutgers anthropologist Helen Fisher in her studies of the science of love.  Regardless of the specific endeavors of any particular class, in room 235, I hope that what my students walk away with every day is another addition to their understanding of the extraordinary range of what it is to be human.  As I see it, all education, formal and informal, is about making sense of the world and our place in it.  Each thing we learn adds some depth or breadth or nuance to our understanding of how the world works, and how we can work our way through it. 

What I hope to do every time I enter the classroom is to provide my students with opportunities to see themselves in the world around them.  I want them to know that when we study the humanities, we study ourselves.  I want them to see their stories in the stories we read; I want them to see their world in the literary archetypes we discover; I want them to understand that what they see and think and write can hold as much value as the works we explore.  I want them to know the content of our course is the content of their lives, not something aloof to be studied from a distance, but something we are immersed in and a part of.

From that set of goals, both the starting point and ending point, the next things to consider are the pedagogical practicalities.  In educational parlance, my practices tend to be brain-based, student-centered, learner-active, constructivist.  In real terms, I strive to get students engaged in activities that require them to think critically, read actively, discuss freely, and write fearlessly.  The course overview I present in the beginning of the year informs students that we will read and read and read and read.  We will write and write and write and write.  We will talk and talk and talk and talk.  And underlying all of that, of course, is just as much thinking as the rest combined.  We study texts for example and inspiration as we learn to craft the language that will carry our learning.  We share ideas in conversation, treating each one with due respect and generosity.  We pour ourselves onto paper, demonstrating strength and vulnerability and scholarship, sometimes all at once.

Every day I call upon students to invest themselves in what we are doing, sometimes mind, body, and soul.  This degree of investment can only be achieved where there is a strong sense of community, in which every student feels valued and respected.  I set the tone for the learning community in my classroom, and that responsibility is as important as my responsibility to content knowledge and skill acquisition.  Establishing a personal connection with each student, in some way recognizing him/her individually within the context of the whole class, is an important element of teaching. All learning depends on relationships, and the teacher/student relationship is fundamental to the development of a community of learners.

As much as I ask students to invest of themselves in our learning endeavors, I expect at least as much of myself.  I have three teaching mantras that I repeat often – in my teaching journal, aloud to myself at the start of the day, or in moments where I need to be brought back from some of the mundane interferences that sometimes try to interrupt the flow of the energy of teaching and learning.  The first, “Teach deliberately,” is an adaptation of Thoreau’s notion of living deliberately.  It reminds me that teaching requires attention.  To content, to context, and to students.  It reminds me that the balance of art and science that results in learning is one that needs monitoring.  That there are things are in my power as a teacher that can have a lasting impact on the learning, and therefore the lives, of my students and I need to be aware of that at all times.  The second, “All in,” speaks to the power of being fully present with students during our time together.  If we put all the minutes of every school day in a year end to end in a continuous stretch of time, I would have approximately 2 and a half weeks to give my students everything I hope to give.  There is too much to lose in that equation if I’m not “All in” every day. The third is borrowed from one of my favorite movies, Field of Dreams.  “If you build it, they will come.”  I believe, without question, that students will rise or fall to whatever expectations we offer them.  What we believe of them and for them, that they will give us.  That is not to say that every student will aspire to write a great novel, or become a renown literary critic, or an author of creative non-fiction, or even become the voluminous reader I wish everyone were.   But every student has a story and a voice and a place to claim in the world.  And if I am successful in building the personal and academic foundation on which to present to my students the challenge of finding out what that place is, what that voice has to say, where the story leads, then they will take up the challenge for themselves. 

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