For an award I tried out for a couple of months ago, I had to begin my application binder with a short essay about my “focus and philosophy of teaching.” I didn’t get the award, but I still like what I put together for it. Here’s what I wrote for this section:
I. The best teacher is a trusted mentor, and I strive to become such for my students. This means that I establish a comfortable rapport, which I do by the same method used for creating relevance and interest in my curriculum: by utilizing students’ prior knowledge and interests of their cultural milieu and introducing material (and myself) accordingly. This is consistently brought to my attention as one of the most effective things I do for students; their understanding of, respect for, and recollection of class learning and skills are greatly augmented by it.
II. By no means, however, does this mean that I water down content or lower expectations for student work. (Indeed, if my personable class atmosphere is the first thing that most students seem to remember about my classes, the strenuous work load comes in a close second.) Rather, I use our amiable relationship as a way to elicit greater effort from students—more diligence and attentiveness to their work, greater care for its quality, and a commitment to read, write, study, and think more. As a mentor teacher, I begin by modeling these things myself, discussing with students what I’ve been reading, conferencing with them in person and via email regarding their writing for class and giving genuine feedback, and leading my classes with the tenor of one who is comfortable acting casually, but only because he is holding himself to exacting intellectual standards, and who is requiring the same from those whose minds are in his care. As Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” I inspire desire.
III. I find this balance of comfort and difficulty—this “friendly discipline”—especially useful when classes focus on the nature and value of literacy itself, as they invariably do. I believe that college classes—particularly the freshman classes that I usually teach—must serve to initiate students into a community that thinks critically about our world and discusses those thoughts civilly; to introduce them to “the great conversation,” if you will. These aspects of my classes do not flinch from asserting to students that our society has largely grown mentally slothful, and that this is neither good nor acceptable. I can do this without alienating them because, I find, few if any adults have ever tried to guide them in analyzing things this way. I can joke with them about text messaging, and they know that such familiarity is honest, but I will also emphasize that such simply cannot be the nature of our formal, written communication. Our horizons must be far broader than our lives have prepared us for, and it has always been my experience that nearly all students appreciate having their eyes opened to further realities, and likewise appreciate being treated with the maturity that such a philosophy implies.
IV. If these axiomatic claims have appeared too vague, then precisely of what do my classes consist? To put it bluntly: reading, writing, thinking, and discussing. Lots of it. There is no substitute for beginning with a demand of large quantities of student produced products and participation, especially since this has been so alien to most of them thus far in their educational careers. My class work and homework outlines are heavily biased towards a variety of intensive writings projects, based on their notes on serious reading, and gently but assertively stimulated participation in Socratic discussions in class. My students learn that what is done must be done correctly, with effort and style. Audio/visual aids, word processing, and online resources are prominently featured in all of my classes, but my students learn by experience that the core of all good education will always be this: reading a text critically, organizing your thoughts in notes, drafting and revising a professional response, and engaging your community with that work.
V. This, then, is the full picture of my educational philosophy; an apparent contradiction at times, perhaps (“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.” –Whitman), but if so, an effective one that produces strong, rich minds that will benefit themselves and those around them. I’ve adapted and revised my own methods painstakingly over my decade of experience teaching at nearly all post-elementary levels, adding some things and tossing others entirely, but this primary kernel has remained, and grown all the better for the refinement. I look forward to further discovery of making our venture here practical and productive, passionate and pragmatic, together with my students, over many more years.