This article is written for my graduate students in ART702 Studio Management at Radford University.
Increasingly, schools that advertise for positions in higher education ask for a teaching philosophy. It seems simple at first blush, but putting together a teaching philosophy can be daunting, especially at first.
If you are minting your first version of your teaching philosophy, there are some things that you will want to consider. First, the document should be broad so that it can encompass a world of issues. In many ways less is more, but perhaps even more importantly, efficient is best. But are there really any rules? If there are any, no one gives them up. Like that helps on your first go-round, right?
You might feel like you have no idea what your teaching philosophy is about, but you in fact do, even if you don’t know it. For example, you do know how bad teachers have impacted your learning over the years, right? So given a negative, you might be able to work from that in order to begin thinking about what it was that you didn’t like in their teaching and correct for that. The corrected version, then, is you.
Now think about the things that all the best teachers you have had embodied. Think about all the things they did and said, or maybe didn’t bother to do (which could be just as important) and think about what those things meant from a teaching perspective. Let’s say you had a teacher that always listened to you and always encouraged you to talk about your work without interrupting you or inserting hard critical advice at a time when it wasn’t needed or wanted. Maybe that. Or it could be that no matter what, you know they had your back. Or how they conveyed technical information. And you know, you might find that some of the characteristics come down to character, to personality. And you know, how about that? How might personality play into it? Truth is, you can’t teach personality, right? So what might that have to do with teaching and a philosophy? Now I hope its obvious that I am not saying that you try and address personality, I am of course using it as an example. A what if. You, you have to deal with what is. and I hope I can help you see a little clearer when we are done.
I will give you some examples that I know were operative in my life. I had a great high school art teacher. I was increasingly showing interest in 3-D work and this meant that I was veering off the beaten path since most kids in high school were 2-D and thus often did projects together as a group. But me, I was suddenly hungry for 3-D. So when I asked about what was possible, my teacher told me how I could throw clay and fire it using the kiln and pottery wheel. We had a few glazes. I could do stained glass, small projects. I could do a kind of jewelry work cutting copper sheet and polishing it. So I took off on all three of these things. She gave me the barest of demo’s with each. She kind of showed me the way and I took off on my own pretty much. I liked that. And for me, it was a perfect approach. In time what I learned was that as a teacher was that we learn by doing, and art is certainly “doing” for sure. It led me to examine the fine line between needing to know when to convey information and when to stand out of the way and let the student do it. So this experience was huge for me. It was all the bigger because this teacher was highly esteemed by nearly every student who darkened her door. Catherine Pauley. She was, and is, the best.
I also had a number of very good teachers in college, and each of them form the basis of the things that I try to do with students.
But just as a teacher can give, another can take away, and I had a teacher in graduate school who did this. He took away by having favorites. I saw what this did to all of us. It made us hyper-competitive. This teacher chose students for opportunities because he liked them. Now, 20 years out, I can look back at the people I went to school with and see who is using their degree and who is not. Its interesting because I am one of the few who is still using his degree, and I was never one of the golden children who would be approached with an opportunity to do a public commission. This experience taught me a lot about what NOT to do with my students, which is NEVER to set up a pecking order of favorites. It’s probably hard enough as it is to not create the appearance of favorites just in regular conversation in class with students.
I believe there is a better way. I know there is because the art world is competitive enough as it is without my adding the kind of thing my teacher did to the mix. Don’t get me wrong; I really admire my old teacher, I just didn’t agree that his way of operating in this regard was helpful in the short or long run for any of us.
So there you have it; two of my most intimate takes on how my educational philosophy was, and continues to be formed. Me, I had to find a way to express this simply and directly. And for me, my educational philosophy is a series of important notions that I bring to teaching in the arts. What I had to do was to put it together into a narrative or work that reads well and also expresses who I am. This is not an easy document to put together! But by starting, you have the document, and as I have told you before, it is a living document and it will naturally change over time. I can tell you that five years after graduating with my M.F.A. my teaching philosophy changed a lot (I had digested a lot of new experiences) and it also changed a lot when I did more teaching as an adjunct at Radford University.
While you may not have done much in the way of teaching, you do know what makes a good teacher. If you are committed to teaching the way you believe makes a good teacher, then by golly, THAT is a teaching philosophy! this is your guiding light, a statement of principles that you find important in your career in education. Oh, and you know, that philosophy can change from one year to the next. I know mine has. What has changed mine has been my own experience in education. Like instances when I saw a teacher being unfair to students, like me and others, and was able to see what the fall-out was from that. I bet you didn’t think your teachers might be teaching you how to teach based on a negative model, right?
I am loathe to mention this next part, but I am going to put it out there not because I feel I would personally do it, but because it is relevant for some people, which has to do with the type of school that you are going to teach at. Yes, context can matter. So I ask you, what is the context? Would there be a difference between teaching at a community college, an all-women’s school, a baptist-based small liberal-arts college? think about that one for a minute. Would your teaching be different for a school with a strong ethnic population? Fact is, these kinds of things are relevant. It might be that yes, you do teach differently in an environment where the first language is not English. How would you deal with this?
What I am saying here is that context could well change how you teach. How I teach beginners is different from how I would teach graduate students. I write about this in my education philosophy because I think it is important. I expect certain things from graduate students that I do not expect from undergraduates. I want the school that is considering hiring me know where I stand. To avoid any misunderstandings, but also to be clear about how I would run a program, for example, were I to be hired.
The bottom line here is that a good teaching philosophy will clue people into who you are as a teacher. So to begin, especially if you are having trouble getting started, I suggest that you make a list of all the characteristics that you can think of that you esteem, and even the ones you don’t, and begin from there. Think broadly and generally and let those general principles be your guiding lights. Oh, and one detail; keep the document within a page to two pages. Say what you need to say, so if it has to run longer, then the reason is a good one, right? There are a lot of suggestions about how to go about this important document, and there are some very good advice out there.
To learn more about this important document I am including some links to a variety of blogs and pages that discuss this in some greater depth that will help you even more in your quest for the perfect education/teaching philosophy.