Wednesday, March 21, 2007
Ask the Administrator: Statements of Teaching Philosophy
A returning correspondent writes:
I have to write a statement of teaching philosophy for a job I’m applying
for. What makes these statements useful to the reader? Is there anything I
can look for in the institution to get an understanding of that they are
looking for in such a statement?
I have a certain sympathy for this question, since I'll need to do something similar ('statement of administrative philosophy') for an interview next month.
In my experience on hiring committees, I've usually found statements of teaching philosophy more airy than useful. They're usually pretty disconnected from the ways people actually teach -- “I want my students to reach for the stars” “I don't just believe in lectures” -- and I've never noticed a correlation between well-written or interesting statements and good teaching. It may exist, but I haven't seen it.
It's a variation on the interview-questions-that-won't-die. “What's your biggest weakness?” (I'm always tempted to say something like “well, that would probably be my crippling addiction to heroin,” but some people just have no sense of humor at all.) “Where do you want to be in five years?” (“Finally off probation!”) “How would you describe yourself?” (“Sympathetically.”) “What words do people use to describe you?” (Which people? How about “devilishly handsome, with a rakish glint in his eye”? “A younger, buffer George Clooney.” “Mostly harmless.” “Carbon based, and apparently featherless.”)
The kabuki aspect of job interviews is such that they're revealing only when people screw up. (Presidential debates are much the same way.) I've been on multiple search committees for vice presidents, and in my experience there, every candidate has said something like “I'm not a micromanager.” It's just part of the script. Sometimes it's true, sometimes not, but knowledge of the script is taken as a sign of a sort of fundamental savvy. My contrarian side would like, just once, to see someone say “damn right I'm a micromanager!,” but I'm not holding my breath. And the candidate brave or stupid enough to try it wouldn't get the job, even if I appreciated the chuckle.
So we come to the statement of teaching philosophy. It needs to be earnest enough that it looks like you put thought into it, anodyne enough that it doesn't offend anybody with a pet pedagogical hobbyhorse, and well-crafted enough that it doesn't reveal something negative by mistake. My bias – and I'll admit it's just my own – is in favor of theorizing from the ground up. Ground your theoretical flights in actual anecdotes from classes you've taught. When in doubt, go specific. I also happen to like statements that show some sort of learning. “I discovered that I had to adjust x when y happened.” “The style I had developed at Snooty U had to be modified when I taught at Working Class College.” Statements like those suggest actual thought, and the ability to recognize (and adjust) when something isn't working. I like people who can learn from their failures, which presumes that they can recognize their failures as such. I instinctively distrust people who never admit mistakes.
In terms of customizing, a good place to start would be to get a clear sense of the institution's profile. Is it super-selective, or a dumb-rich-kid's school, or a former teacher's college, or an open-admissions cc? What does the teaching load look like? (If possible, get a sense not only of how many classes you'd teach, but at what level, and at what size.) Who are the students? If you write an eloquent essay about spending lots of time tutoring students one-on-one, and the job calls for teaching intro sections of 300 students a pop, you're writing yourself out of consideration. If you write about dynamic multimedia lectures and the average class size is 12, the same is true. Applying to a cc, it's good to address the issue of 'academically underprepared' students, and how you've helped them succeed. Don't bash technology, but the degree to which you embrace it should vary based on the degree to which the school seems to value it. At a SLAC, you might be able to evade it entirely. At many colleges, though, the clash between the irresistible force of new technology and the immovable object of senior faculty is resolved by valuing technical skills in new hires. Again, the more specific you can be, the better.
Different academic disciplines may also have various buzzwords at given times that you either must or mustn't mention.
Worldly, wise readers – any helpful hints?
Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.
I think it's vitally important for an applicant at any level to get a sense of how the school wants to see itself (from its on-line presentation, at the least). You don't have to buy the fantasy, but at least recognize pushing in the opposite direction is going to ruffle some feathers.
1) As a teacher, what do I believe are my responsibilities? What are the students' responsibilities? What happens if either party is unable to initially meet those responsibilities in a given teaching situation?
2) Describe your teaching style in such a way that someone could recognize your teaching from the description. However, you cannot mention your subject area in the description. (This one stumped me for ages until I tried to describe a few of my previous profs this way.)
In the end, you have to package the statement so it helps you to get a job (see DD's advice etc). But these ideas helped me get started. #2 was especially helpful so my teaching philosophy didn't sound too generic. Good luck!
And yes, there are sometimes "philosophy of journalism" questions that come up, and a tricky minefield that is to cross. Come down on the big-j side, and they'll be worried you'll balk at anything smacking of compromise, don't bang on the ethical drum enough and they'll worry you'll be sending your stories to sources for pre-publication review.
My favorite job interview question was asked of my brother during an interview at the newspaper that published all the news that's fit to print: "If you were a fruit, what fruit would you be, and why?" He said he'd be a kiwi.
That letter of teaching philosophy is also a writing sample. If it is incoherent or shows a poor mastery of communication skills in english, we might not want you in the classroom.
One key topic I did not see in DD's article is "different learning styles". That is a big deal at a CC, particularly as it impacts a diverse student body (which includes older students and veterans, not just minority groups). I will also second the reference to fostering "critical thinking". That is a big deal at our CC, and not just for new hires.
Finally, be sure you can back up your claims. Don't say it if you don't do it. Your sample teaching exercise needs to reflect the philosophy you articulated in your letter.
And since DD mentioned interview questions, the interview question that I hate *hate* HATE the most is "Why do you want to work here at X University?" This question serves no purpose other than to stroke the ego of X University; the person who asks it already knows the answer--because X University is hiring, and the applicant wants a job! Any other reasons that an applicant would have for applying to X University should have been made apparent before the interview.
This post and the responses highlight the importance of "tailoring" the teaching philosophy to fit the school's self-presentation, which makes sense. It's just --- and since you are not the one in charge of academic application packets nationally, this is really just a rant --- that becomes harder and more overwhelming when you're applying to a clutch of schools all at once, tailoring the letter and tracking down god-knows-what-all to include in the packet as well.
Ok, that won't change anything, but it makes me feel better. :)
In general physics teaching, I ALWAYS come back to learning how to take an equation and blow-by-blow describing what each term in that equation represents, and "connecting the mathematical to the physical."  Being able to point to specific exchanges I've had with students and specific ways I've been able to help them understand a concept has (I believe) really helped me out in the interview processes I've been through in the past.
 $1 to my old college roommate.
 That one is all my own. If you use it, I want the royalties from it.
I read this post 2 times. It is very useful.
Pls try to keep posting.
Let me show other source that may be good for community.
Source: Teacher interview questions
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