The Old College Try: YOUR Philosophy of Teaching Statement, or, Do As I Say, Not As I Do

“Conscientious pedagogical reflection is necessary to produce a complete, well-developed teaching philosophy. The absence of pedagogical reflection can result in daily instruction that fails to reflect an instructor’s teaching philosophy or instructional belief system accurately. In particular, an underdeveloped teaching philosophy may translate into a teaching style full of inconsistencies, characterized by poorly coordinated and designed instruction.”  Titus, P. A. and Gremler, D. D. (2010). 

All too often, I think it is easy to lose track of the big picture as we teachers hunker down amidst the explosions of papers, lesson plans, one-on-one crisis management meetings with students and coworkers, as well as trying to manage the never-ending “to do” lists of our personal lives.  And I would argue this “bigger picture” we lose track of takes the form of the person we want to be, the expectations we try to meet through our day to day actions.

At the beginning of every semester, every class I teach is given essentially the same essay assignment:  Write a letter of self-reflection discussing their individual learning strengths, challenges, and goals.  I end each semester with a similar reflection letter tasking the students to write about how they have maintained those strengths, worked through the challenges, and met their academic goals (or at the least, made progress in reaching them).  Boiled down to their most simple form, these essays aim to get to students to engage in the questions of “Who are you? Who do you want to be?  What are you doing to be that person?”

So how often do we, as teachers, engage in this same form of self-questioning?

I think many of us try to do it when we’re able.  It’s easiest to do so when it’s quiet, and there aren’t various obligations tugging at our sleeve and distracting us from this much-needed pursuit.  I think of my time as a cadet in the Army ROTC program, particularly during our land navigation and compass orientation training exercises.  These were sometimes stressful activities (graded, timed events often held during less than comfortable weather conditions) that required a good deal of concentration despite multiple factors that could easily distract the unwary cadet.  Yet, those who failed to deliberately take their time and plot their course were often the same cadets who made a few simple one-or-two degree miscalculations and found themselves hundreds of yards off the mark.

How often do we stop in the midst of the semester and reevaluate the steps we are taking in the classroom or even the directions we are giving our students?  Are we setting ourselves and our students up to end the semester (or even just the week) one or two degrees away from the objectives we initially set out to meet?  I think perhaps in taking the time to sit down and revisit our philosophy of teaching and put it into words is akin to sitting down and plotting our course.  Maybe through putting into words the goals we have for ourselves can we best keep those very aims in mind as we seek to help our students accomplish these same tasks?

I found the above mentioned quote on a teaching blog that I enjoy very much and consider it a piece of daily professional development.  And I do believe by setting down our own philosophy of teaching and continually revisiting it, we can better iron out our own inconsistencies and keep both ourselves and our students on track far more often.  We can do as we say, not just say what we do.

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The Old College Try: Things Taken For Granted

Today was a breakwall day.  You know those days where you feel like you’re like a breakwall surrounding a harbor continually being battered by the waves.  Today was one of those days in each of my sections.  Between an adult student’s lashing out in frustration in an extremely inappropriate manner at the end of class to a younger student’s unabashed refusal to see her role in the lack of progress in my course… it was a breakwall day.

After meeting after meeting, a 4:00pm lunch and a 1.5 hour commute home, and yet another meeting tonight, suffice to say, I found myself in a pretty rotten mood.   Thankfully, my gym is open 24/7 and instead of indulging in a little stress eating, I opted for a little stress-relieving circuit training.  And with a little pain came some gain.  The source of my frustration, in many ways, is what I take for granted.

I spent my teen years growing up in a single-parent household and we had to be… “creative” to make ends meet some times.  Life was not without drama or trauma.  But I was blessed with a mother who, despite the waves, found a relatively successful balance of knowing when to push and when to pull back, though perhaps pushing more than not.  Knowing that I had someone to answer to though informed my decisions and made a difference in forming my work ethic.  I also was blessed to have teachers in high school, and then college who would step in fill that same role.  People cared if I worked hard or not, and they let me know both when I eased up and when I achieved great things.

And while I’m not alone in this experience, I also need to remember my experience is not the same as everyone else’s.

I take for granted that someone would see the importance of working hard.  But not everyone does.  There is a type of learning disability that deals with part of the way the brain works, called executive functioning.  In simple terms, executive functioning is our brain’s ability to “connect the dots” when it comes to cause and effect situations.  Some people are born with this inability somewhat impaired resulting in a struggle to understand why certain effects happen, not realizing how their own actions helped contribute (directly or indirectly) to that specific result.  We go to school to train our brains, but even before grade school, we begin learning as babies from those with whom we live.  But what happens if we grew up in homes where our parents never played a strong role in our cognitive development?  Studies show that with vocabulary alone, children from families of educated, middle class backgrounds were exposed to over 50 million words by the age of four and yet, children of the same age from families below the poverty line were exposed to a mere 4 million words.  If they are bereft of communication, how are they being exposed to the relationships of cause and effect?  Who is there to teach them in the 5 years before grade school (and early interventionists would argue that this is a pivotal period of time to prevent noticeable developmental delays later on in primary and even secondary schooling)?

I’m not making excuses for poor behavior.  People who are 18 years old, and especially students who are nearly 10 years older than that, have been exposed to what is socially acceptable behavior both in and out of the classroom.  But, in some regards, I have to wonder if their social environments haven’t somehow had a negative impact on their abilities to really see the bigger picture, to connect the dots, and to understand how it is they’re actually impacting and getting in the way of their success?  Do I take this for granted?

Maybe I do.  My job, as I see it, is to continually fight to help them gain some glimpse, no matter how small, of that bigger picture.  My responsibility needs to be to hold that ground and help them see what the bigger picture is and to try to help them see how each action can either connect those dots or cause greater frustration.  Wednesday, when I see them again, I’m going to try to reestablish a dialogue.  They can curse me up and down again if they want, and that’s fine too.  Sometimes, waves will keep on being waves.  But I’m a thick-headed breakwall.   And for the few waves that get the idea, they can quiet move forward into the harbor and get the success they worked hard for.

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The Old College Try: What I Make Teaching Developmental English

It’s late and I should be in bed getting ready for some sleep.  Tomorrow I’m teaching non-stop from 10-2pm followed by 30 minutes of office hours, a 90-minute department meeting, and what will amount to a 2-hour commute home.  Instead, I’m at my kitchen table and getting ready for my classes, part of that preparation amounting to a little “self-motivation” seeing as how the grind is beginning to settle in.  Oh sure, two of my three classes are still in possession of that motivation and excitement they brought with them a month back… but my afternoon class is already in full “grind” mode.  And let’s face it: That can wear a teacher down.

This is probably one of my favorite videos on Youtube.  I won’t lie: I’m personally responsible for the view count continuing to creep up.  But… I think it’s exceptionally valid–parents, students, and even fellow teachers need to know what it is we really make.  Let me know what you think:

I often listen to AC/DC to get pumped for a work out… but this is something we should listen to now and then before we work our students out.

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The Old College Try: When Doors Open

I’m in the middle of grading and writing lesson plans as the middle of the 3rd week of classes gets under way.  And while I’m busy, I really, really dig the beginning of a semester!  You can almost “see” the students’ feeling of possibility and excitement–all of which usually gets tarnished a bit by midterms and is certainly drained significantly as finals loom in the distance.  But now?  Now is a time of new beginnings for many of my students who are either hoping to pass the class on their second time around or are brand-new college students looking to their teachers to help guide them along.

If you’re an idealist of any shade or variety, this is your equivalent to heaven!

One of my favorite assignments to give on the first day is the letter of self-reflection.  You can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been–to steal an old cliche.  But it’s true nonetheless: They need to begin thinking about who they are as students and what they want to see changed by the time the semester ends.  And  frankly, I need to know a little bit about them if I’m going to help them get there.  I mention all of this because I want to share a little snippet from one of my student’s letters (who shall remain anonymous).

“One thing you have to know about me to understand and help me is when I say “What?” I am not trying to be rude.  It means I don’t get what is said or written on the board.  Also know that I am shy and I hate to say it when I need help.  So if I look frustrated to you, know why.  Please ask me occasionally how I am doing and how the class is going.”

This made me sit back, take my glasses off, and say aloud: “Whoa.”

How often do we overlook and take for granted those little things we see in the classroom?  How many times have we mistaken a scrunched up face for a student giving us attitude when really, they physically looking up to us for help?  How many times have we misinterpreted a student’s tone of voice as being that of a smart ass, when they were really trying to ask us for help without risking the appearance of stupidity in front of their classmates?  How many students have we forgotten to address by name and failed to simply ask “How are you?”

I read this letter, set it down, and spent some time reflecting on myself and feeling simply blown away by a student exposing themselves to their teacher right away.  And I can’t help but feel that while the assignment has been collected and is now behind them, the lesson is one that will stick with me for a very, very long time.

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The Old College Try: You’re On Candid Camera!

One week from today will mark the end of the first day of classes for the spring semester–hard to believe I’ve been off campus for an entire month!  During my extensive break, I’ve tried to spend a little working on tweaking some of my teaching methods and lessons.  I was able to do so through a 3 day, 25 – workshop–the Instructional Skills Workshop–that focused primarily on how one teaches in the classroom and receiving immediate feedback for areas to maintain and those to improve upon.   Just as I tell my students to have someone else proof their papers, this too served to provide 5 sets of eyes on my teaching to catch any “trouble spots.”

This workshop was geared specifically for instructors in the state community college system, so it was good to know that the people evaluating me were colleagues who understood the standards to which I work–even if they taught at a different school than my own.  Each of us had to give one 10 minute lesson of our choosing (being video recorded all the while), and then leave immediately after completion so everyone could complete their lesson evaluations.  Then, we were brought back in, seated in front of the class, and the facilitators then proceeded to lead the workshop in a discussion of the pros and cons of the lesson–the whole time of which the one up front could not speak.  It was until after about 15 minutes of this affirmation and constructive criticism that the presenter was then able to respond, clarify, and question the instructors who evaluated him or her.  Once finished, our facilitators handed us our DVD and the evaluation forms and recommended we watch the video that night while reading through the comments for further reflection.

I have to admit I felt like I should have been more nervous about this–especially since 1. the next youngest professor was in his early 50s and 2. I was going first each day.  But, to be frank, I was pretty excited to be putting myself in a position to get some disinterested feedback from more experienced teachers about my job.

After three days and three lessons, I’ll forgo the specific feedback that I received as it seems less important (though it will be personally helpful) as the overall lesson that was reinforced:  Always look for new ways to improve.  I don’t think I ever saw myself on camera teaching in front of a class–it was… an odd experience to say the least.  But I do believe that it helped illuminate some of the evaluations I received–both in the workshop and in the past.  And it really made me pay attention to something I haven’t before:  body language–something I’m not sure many of us have the opportunity to really observe unless we’re literally observing ourselves.

So, I guess I’d challenge those of you who teach to give this a try some time–surprise yourself with some literal self-reflection and see what you can learn.

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Teacher Spotlight: No Excuses

Ok, it’s been a little longer than I hoped for to get this post published.  I could tell you about the holidays, developing lesson plans for the upcoming semester, blah, blah, blah.  But, the reality is I was just too lazy to sit my but down and commit to keeping up on my blog.  But I guess this “preface” is appropriate to the topic at hand…

Probably one of the best lessons I learned as a student came from one of my non-English teachers (you know, it is possible to learn from those instructors too!-):  No excuses.  Fleshed out a bit more, this was a two-year long lesson in letting one’s efforts speak for itself and not trying to “soften the blow” or somehow deflect taking full responsibility for missing the mark due to poor performance.  And this isn’t to say that I haven’t given an excuse on occasion for why something did or did not happen (feel free to ask my wife!), but I can say it has certainly shaped my general work ethic from that point onward.

It’s never an easy thing to admit: I used to give excuses for nearly everything.  Sure, I generally worked hard, behaved more often than not, and presented myself as a pleasant enough student in class.  If a homework assignment was late, I usually felt I either had a good reason or deserved a “pass” since I was doing what I needed to most of the time.  My overall good behavior should cancel out any inconsistencies.  Plus, I did put in a good effort and that was supposed to makeup for the occasional bad assignment through the miraculous appearance of extra credit or extensions.  And as a teacher now, I understand the desire to (at times) let the “good” kids slide a little as a means of keeping them on the “good” side through out the semester.  But who is really being helped in that situation?  The student learns deadlines don’t really count… and the teacher doesn’t have to be the bad guy (or gal).

And I’m not saying this particular teacher didn’t give me a freebie when the situation warranted it… but more often than not, I was challenged to either do it or show up with it done–whatever the “it” was at the given time.  No excuses.  No matter how many valid reasons or legitimate concerns I brought up, it was always the same:  No excuses.

“The dry cleaners didn’t have my uniform ready”

“Another excuse?”

“It’s not my fault the drill turned out the way it did.  Those people weren’t following the orders like I gave them.”

“Really?  Another excuse?”

And I’m embarrassed to say that I could go on.  Smart students would have figured it out sooner.  It took me the better part of two years to figure out they weren’t going to fly.  What I didn’t realize until well after graduation that what I perceived as someone “gunning” for me was actually someone preparing me.  New lieutenants make mistakes: it’s in their blood and I was no exception to this fact.  What I found was my commanders knew this rule as well and wanted junior officers who were looking to improve–not point out who or what caused their failure to deliver.  I’d like to think most who I worked with while in the service found me someone who actively looked to improve on past performances.  I hope that my fellow teachers found me to be someone who spent less time blaming others for my own shortfalls and worked on ways to bridge the gap that faced us.

I’ll still toss out an excuse now and then.  Old habits are hard to break.  But instead of saying: “These students are beyond hope.  They’re just not getting the material,” maybe it’s time to ask myself:

“Really?  Another excuse?”

Sure, some students don’t always “get it”… and sometimes, it’s me, the teacher, who needs to think a little harder about what I’m doing.  Is there something I did that confused them?  So sure–one in a great while, I’ll toss my students a freebie because I make mistakes and need to own it.  Cutting them a little slack when the situation dictates can be the right move.  But too often, I think, accepting excuses on a regular basis and allowing good behavior to regularly stand in for performance does our students more harm in the long run.


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Teacher Spotlight: My Sharpening Stone

I’m going to deviate from a chronological order and jump ahead about 15 years to the next teacher… particularly because I will be seeing this professor tonight at her annual holiday party, so why not?

I don’t think there is a single English teacher or professor I’ve had who instilled fear in me like my thesis director did.  I don’t mean the sort of fear one has an uncaring, dictatorial academic brute–not by any means.  Instead, I found myself paying more-than-due diligence to my preparation for class discussion, ensuring any and all email correspondence was thoroughly combed over for grammatical errors, and that my general communications were done with a careful attention to detail.  This person made me sweat the small stuff.

I took one class with this professor because I love medieval literature and this is her field of expertise.  No joke–she’s studied under some of the more well-known and established scholars in the field at one of the leading institutions for graduate programs in literature. When I introduced myself to her at the beginning of the semester and expressed my interest in having her work on my thesis, she said we would consider my Chaucer class as a sort of audition–if it looked good, she’d work with me.  A 3-month long audition.

Suffice to say, I busted my butt off for her more than anyone else I have and I’d place my efforts in her class and on my thesis right alongside how hard I worked at the Field Artillery Officer Basic Course (NOT a happy time in my professional life).  Hundreds of hours were spent reading primary, secondary, and tertiary sources as I winnowed my argument from a grand, overgeneralized inaccurate mess to a much more finely tuned, coherent observation spanning nearly 90 pages.  Every submission of every chapter came back with numerous corrections–and not always couched in the softest of terms.

One time, in particular, I remember sitting down in her office while we were reviewing a particular set of passages.  She clearly expressed her dissatisfaction with my writing style–cumbersome, wordy, and chock full of passive sentences (always a long-term struggle for me).  Although she told me my ideas were very strong and compelling, she also made it clear to me in no uncertain terms that this was acceptable for a student aspiring to get his Ph.D. or publish.  I remember feeling the blood drain from my face as I mumbled: “I’m going to have to start from scratch.”  And I did.  But I also thanked her for being so blunt and upfront.   Too many times I recall teachers overlooking some of the technical weaknesses of my writing because of compelling ideas and illustrative language.  Sure, no one likes getting taken to task or have their faults pointed out, but if I hadn’t had that wake up call, I might be walking around with a much more inflated notion of my abilities than I now know I should have.  And frankly, it’s continued to be an invaluable lesson as I go back and proof, edit, and revise current works.

I would be remiss if I ended this post with an impression that I somehow labored under a taskmaster.  I didn’t.  As we prepared to finish my thesis paper, she had me over to her house from a little before 9:00am until well after 6:00pm where she sat at one end of her kitchen table making final suggestions and corrections while I sat on the other end making those revisions.  She cooked me breakfast, made me lunch, and when we were done, she and her husband invited me to stay for dinner where talked a little about the project as well as the value of John Stewart and the Daily Show.  It was never about ego–it was about serving as the “sharpening stone” to my oft-time dull blade.  And sharpening a blade means grinding away slowly and surely to finally hone the blade.  Many students chafed under her in the classroom–I grew significantly.

SO… if students wonder why I can be an exacting instructor at times, it’s the fingerprints of my professor who had a long-term vision in mind for her students.

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