Our Best Teaching Moments – Writing our Teaching Philosophy

Courtesy of DiscoverySchool.com. Copyright © 1998 Mark A. Hicks. Originally published by Mark A. Hicks. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Our Best Teaching Moments

by Julie Dalley

Our last Teaching Circles meeting of the semester was April 24, a Tuesday. There were only four of us present physically, one virtually, through email. The discussion began with our “best” teaching moment, when we knew we had kicked ass and taken names when delivering our lesson – that one (or more) class where everything just “clicked. I think we can all remember a day where the students talked, where our lesson was BOSS and our delivery was award-worthy, where students “got it” and time ran over but no one cared (or something along those lines), and I choose to close out our meetings this semester with some positive stories and experiences because, of course we want to end on a good note, and because, good – and bad – experiences are what form us as educators and turn us into teachers.

Surprisingly, it was much harder to think of a “best” moment – that is, a moment that stood out. I can remember feeling great about a class, remember wonderful conversations, but it was harder to fill in the details than when I thought of my worst moments as a teacher. Classes gone amok were much clearer, which makes me part of a 2.6% who find positive memories harder to recall, or I could be mildly depressed? Perhaps I was more emotional, and stressed, by the bad classes, which is most likely. Either way, remembering these classes became important to my development as a teacher, and is a crucial way to build our teaching philosophy. My goal was to share these stories, tap into our memories – good and bad – and use this material as fodder for crafting our teaching philosophies.

As my post, Our Worst Teaching Moments, detailed, we have all failed spectacularly in front of a classroom of judgmental and amused students. Mostly though, after the judging and laughter wore off, students felt sympathetic to our struggles, and this show of humanity – we all fail sometimes – helped to ultimately create stronger bonds with our students. We became better because we fell on our faces.

When it comes to our best moments, often they are connected to true engagement with you, the instructor. Yes, you! Not just the material, the content, but how you deliver it, how you invite them to challenge, explore, experiment, or even be shocked by, the lesson is what made that day, that class, special. Our first story came from a professor in Classics & General Humanities. He talked about how he asked students to compare the United States Constitution with the ancient Greek Athenian constitution. Their surprise on how similar the two documents were resulted in a lively debate about the roots of our country’s ideas about democracy borrowed from the ideals perpetuated in ancient societies.

Our next speaker talked about her experience teaching Music Theory. This topic – rich in dense vocabulary and foundational knowledge – became personally viable to her students when she invited them to bring in their own music which they then connected to the theory or practices they were learning at the time. This made the class more engaged and personally connected to what was otherwise dry instruction.

Our computer science faculty member shared that his best classes came when students could engage in hands-on application of knowledge. Once past the point of introduction or theory, applying what they knew and trying out concepts, building programs, really became the nexus of pedagogy and student engagement.

My best moment teaching came during a discussion about the roots of racial inequality in the United States. I was teaching an American History junior high school class, and we were role playing the Civil War. When the conversation turned from then to now, a student made the statement that race “wasn’t a big deal anymore” because “I have lots of black friends who I don’t view in any different way.” She was shocked when several of my black students spoke up and quickly rebutted her statement with “just because we hang out with you, doesn’t mean we’re friends or equal.” I let the conversation roll, despite my internal fear that it may get out of hand and it was a topic I wasn’t sure I was capable of moderating with poise, but it turned out to be one of the best learning moments I’d ever had in my classroom – for me and my students. We really talked, without anger or recriminations, and we discussed perspective – personal, biographical, historical perspective. Everyone was respectful while connecting the issue at hand – racial inequality in the United States and its historical roots – with their own personal experience.

The four stories above share a common element: engagement with the personal. We surprised our students with knowledge they didn’t expect (finding similarities between the old and the new, always a shocker to the young, who invented everything!), we went off plan in our lessons, and we invited them to engage personally and emotionally (sharing their personal taste in music).

This post is related to my post of Worst Teaching Moments because these are rich stories that make for a wonderfully personal orientation when developing our teaching philosophy. For faculty hoping for tenure or re-appointment, or for new graduates looking for a full-time appointment, teaching philosophies are critically important in articulating our experience, our goals, and our understanding of what it means to teach and learn in our disciplines. By reflecting on our experience with both success and failure in the classroom we are conveying that we paid attention to what worked, what didn’t, and what we learned from it. It needn’t only be limited to our teaching experience either; new graduates may have limited teaching experience, but as this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education points out, we’ve all been students. We know what we liked as students, what we didn’t, and why we chose to become educators.

These two meetings were meant to be exercises to help us frame our teaching philosophies. In the Fall, we will hold a formal workshop with hands-on writing exercises to polish and get feedback on writing our teaching philosophies. I hope these ideas of reflecting on what worked and what didn’t were helpful in at least getting you thinking about your teaching experiences, and to perhaps write a few sentences on what you considered a success, and what you thought failed, and what you learned from each. Every stand-out teaching philosophy has, at minimum, those three elements. For more resources on writing your teaching philosophy, please check out the following resources. Have a wonderful summer!

“How to Write a Statement of Teaching Philosophy” by Gabriela Montell, retrieved from the Chronicle of Higher Education, May 11, 2012: http://chronicle.com/article/How-to-Write-a-Statement-of/45133/

“Writing the Teaching Statement” by Rachel Narehood Austin, retrieved from Science Careers, from the Journal of Science, May 11, 2012: http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/career_magazine/previous_issues/articles/2006_04_14/noDOI.14633728089694563528

University of Minnesota, Background and Contexts for Teaching Philosophies: http://www1.umn.edu/ohr/teachlearn/tutorials/philosophy/background/index.html

The Ohio State University, University Center for the Advancement of Teaching. Writing a Philosophy of Teaching Statement: http://ucat.osu.edu/teaching_portfolio/philosophy/philosophy2.html

 

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