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ASK DR. EDITOR

How to write a statement of teaching philosophy that shines

Your discipline and its conventions shape how you do research. How might they also shape your approach in the classroom?

By LETITIA HENVILLE | DEC 07 2018

Question:

Dr. Editor’s response:

It matters! Your teaching statement will shine when you can connect your teaching and research – or, for those of you with instructor-stream appointments, when you connect your teaching and your disciplinary background. After all, you don’t just teach: you teach specific content, methods and theoretical lenses.

Your teaching statement should convey what you believe it means to teach and learn in the context of your courses, your department, your institution, and your disciplinary norms. Consider the methods that are conventional in your field, and then seek out an echo of those methods in how you approach teaching. Draw on your expertise as a researcher, and articulate how this translates into a classroom context.

With that research-embedded, discipline-specific framework in mind, what follows is my basic structure for a compelling statement of teaching philosophy.

Begin your teaching statement by articulating why you teach the way you do. You might answer questions like, “how do students come to really understand a topic?” or “what’s my theory of the learning process?” Marshall evidence to support your claims about how students learn: refer to relevant literature, such as the scholarship of teaching and learning; draw on your own experience; or reveal an analog from your research or your disciplinary background.

Then, describe the overarching goal or goals that drive your teaching. Some instructors’ goals are to prepare their students to change the world. However, your goal doesn’t have to be on that large of a scale. During my own university teaching days, I wrote in my teaching philosophy: “my goal in every [literature or writing] course is to increase [my students’] awareness of the subtleties of written expression.” Not an earth-shattering goal, but it was mine, and everything I did in the classroom was motivated by my desire to achieve it. When students leave your class at the end of the term, how do you want them to have changed? Figure that out, and you’ll know what your goals are as an instructor.

The structure of the next two or three paragraphs of your teaching philosophy – the ones that describe your teaching practice – will be shaped by the content that you’d like to put in them. This section should include some compelling examples from your teaching that illustrate your practice. These examples will help to render the abstract concrete. It’s useful to quantify when you can in this section: how many students you regularly teach and at what year level, how many years and how many different courses you’ve taught, how many institutions or departments you’ve taught in, and so on.

You might structure this content in any number of different ways. For instance, you might organize these paragraphs around:

  • your approach in large classes versus small ones,
  • your style in introductory survey lectures as opposed to senior-year seminars,
  • your in-the-classroom and out-of-the-classroom practices,
  • your pattern across the beginning, middle, and end of a semester,
  • your goals, and the ways you achieve them, or
  • your top three favourite teaching tools or strategies.

To figure out the structure that makes sense for this part of your teaching statement, start by reflecting on the examples you’d like to use to illustrate your teaching practice. Is there a thread that unites them? If not, why and how do they differ? These paragraphs are a plastic bag: their content – your examples – determines their ultimate shape.

You then need to show some evidence that your approach has been successful. This evidence may come in the shape of awards or recognitions that you’ve received; it may be quotations from student evaluation forms; it may be the successes of former students; or it may be the alignment of your approach with the theory and scholarship of effective higher education teaching. If you’ve received above-average scores on your student evaluations of teaching (SETs), go ahead and mention those, as SETs are a commonly used metric of teaching effectiveness. If you question the merits of SETs, I suggest including some mention of your quantitative scores regardless – it can be a red flag to leave these out – but by all means include a note calling SETs into question, as Tufts anthropologist @npseaver did back in September 2017:

Some instructors will need to include a penultimate paragraph that details something special about their teaching: their innovations, their approach to accommodations, their research into their own teaching practices. If graduate supervision forms a major part of your teaching, use this paragraph to show how your beliefs and goals apply to this subset of your trainees.

Conclude by summing it all up. For you, dear letter-writer, this short concluding paragraph might look something like:

“Sociologists do X. My teaching practices, informed by my beliefs about how students learn, prepare my students to achieve [big picture goal(s) of your teaching]. As sociology researchers and educators, we know Y. My philosophy is grounded in Y because Z. In the dossier that follows, I provide the evidence – examples from my N-year teaching career – to show my achievements in [progress on aforementioned goal(s)].”

If this feels a little formulaic for you, then by all means deviate from the formula. Let the content of your text shape its form. The above structure is a pop song: if your teaching is free jazz, then write a free jazz teaching statement.

If you’re struggling to write a teaching statement that demonstrates a conventional in-class approach but still feels uniquely true to you, then go back to your disciplinary roots. Reflect on the lens your own learning has given you, the way it makes you see the world, including your students. If you can articulate how your scholarship and your teaching are connected, you’ll be on track to write a statement of teaching philosophy that is far from bland. And, yes, I do offer an editing service to help you with this process.

ABOUT LETITIA HENVILLE
Letitia Henville
Ask Dr. Editor is a monthly column by Letitia Henville, a freelance academic editor at shortishard.ca. She earned her PhD in English literature from the University of Toronto. Have a question about academic writing or editing? Send it to Ask Dr. Editor at shortishard@gmail.com or on Twitter @lertitia.
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  1. Roger Graves / December 12, 2018 at 18:07

    Good advice here! My colleague in the Centre for Teaching and Learning at the University of Alberta, Dr. Cosette Lemelin, and I recorded a podcast on writing teaching philosophy statements that some readers of this column might find interesting. The podcast, Teaching Writing, is available at
    https://rogergraves.podomatic.com/
    and the handouts for our workshop are here: https://www.ualberta.ca/centre-for-teaching-and-learning/teaching-support/wac/faculty/podcasts

    One thing that Letitia does not mention is getting feedback on drafts of your statement. If there is a teaching and learning centre on your campus, that might be a good place to look for feedback about how to improve your statement.

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