A personal statement on teaching philosophy

A recent job advertisement asked for a personal statement on teaching philosophy.

This caught my attention, even during my depressive phase when it’s all I can do to get out of bed. In all truth, I try NOT to think about teaching. It’s something I’ve never felt particularly drawn to: I initially taught music because it was quite a time-efficient way to earn money, when I was both a sole parent of 2 kids and a part-time student. But I also dread teaching. I’m a bit of an introvert. Teaching forces me to become extroverted, loud, encouraging, big. I don’t like these things. But in order to carry heft in classroom/choral music teaching (because loud and noise management), one has to be loud, big, encouraging, strong. Also, you have to interact with people. It could be argued that teaching does not require extroversion or volume. But you show me a quiet music teacher and I’ll show you someone who only teaches classical guitar. Or harp. In a private studio.

Anyway. So. I’m required to think about my personal teaching philosophy.

thinking chimp

I’ve never been asked to reflect critically on the history or strategies of teaching, except in a recent job interview (which I buggered up). I’m a bona fide qualified teacher for Grade 5 to tertiary and beyond. I’m pretty sure I was never asked to think about how or why I teach the way I do. I was never asked to think about my personal ontology and subsequent epistemological position. Which, arguably, is needed if you’re going to be teaching other thinks to thunk.

I was also never asked how I learn. Or how others learn. Yet, back in the recesses of my tiny thunking thinker, I’m sure my Graduate Diploma of Education made me do some kind of philosophy of teaching module. Just cannot remember it. Which means it was a useless course because no memory of it. The ONLY thing I remember are De Bono’s hats. Which is really about managing management meetings, not teaching. Even my PhD allowed me to sidestep some of the great theories of edumacation (Dewey et al) to focus on the private singing studio master/apprentice approach.

I’ve been thinking recently about school mottos, vision statements and the like and how my own philosophy of teaching/learning has been shaped by these. There are a few I like. The first motto I like is the school I attended from age 10 – 15. The motto was: Age Quod Agis. We were taught this meant “do what you do, do well”. In other words, if you’re going to do something, you may as well do it really really well. Excellence presumed. Ok. I like this, although it makes making dinner a bit of a challenge. No reheated meat pies for me. Actually, this is hard for girls anyway, because we’re always taught to do everything perfectly, which means job hunting becomes a bit of a challenge – we’re often not prepared to attempt something until we have ALL the skills. And we play down our capacities all the time. So while I love this concept, in reality always striving for excellence can get in the way of actual achievement.

The other motto comes from a school I taught at a while back. I love the simplicity of this vision statement, even as the individual teachers there  (me included) had very little intrinsic respect for such fancy schmancy pedagogical concepts:

developing the whole person through timeless principles of learning –

  • To Know
  • To Do 
  • To Live With
  • To Be

with innovation and wisdom.

What a great statement. To know, to do, to live with, to be, with innovation and wisdom. In those words written by an anonymous someone (possibly a committee but a seriously good one), I see the history of education, of thought, of philosophy. I see metacognition. I see application of knowledge through concrete skill building. I see humanist principles and the development of the whole person within the world’s community. I see looking back at history (wisdom) and looking forward at what is yet to come (innovation). A lovely sentiment, not necessarily well enacted at the school but at least the idea is there.

So, a personal philosophy of teaching, as stated by the job application, surprisingly misses the most important thing here: the learner. There is no philosophy of teaching without the learner. Therefore, my personal philosophy of teaching is this: the learner comes first. Here’s the rest:

If I were to label myself as a teacher it would be this: I’m a caring facilitator. I believe the best learning comes from a learner’s intrinsic desire to understand how or why a thing works or happens. I help learners become independent thinkers and I don’t always give them the answers. I promote a safe space for learning – learners will learn best from their mistakes, so I do not ridicule error. I use encouragement and praise where due, and I aim to be respectful and caring at all times.

For me learning happens best when I am engaged and interested in the material and when the teacher is caring and respectful of my space and my need to be independent, but who understands when I need to ask a question or two. Goal pursuits theorists Deci and Ryan’s Self-Determination Theory had it down pretty well when they wrote about the three main needs of humans for successful goal pursuits: Relationship, competence, autonomy. Good relationships foster good learning, a sense of competence helps to promote more learning, and autonomy – a personal empowerment and sense of self – helps with feelings of self-esteem etc and fosters yet more competence. And the cycle continues. I like to add something about the sense of belonging to a community (my cultural psychology studies inform me of this stuff but so do Lave and Wenger with their Community of Practice), because we are social creatures and need to belong to and identify with a social group. So a good teacher fosters good relationships, helps her students develop competence, and creates a safe, encouraging learning community where autonomy is paramount.

On the down side, I’m not good with stupidity or willful ignorance, insolence, laziness or contempt. From adults and children alike. So don’t put me with someone who either doesn’t care about what they are doing or doesn’t want to be doing the subject at all. Which is why I have so much respect for teachers who have to teach subjects with students who don’t want to be there. And I also respect teachers who work with little children. Ugh.






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