In my 28th year of teaching, I find myself rereading a teaching philosophy I wrote upon graduating from college in 1994. It’s a statement I revised in 2002, then again sometime between 2012 and 2015. Now, here I sit in 2023, reminiscing about all that I once believed.
What I read rattles me a bit: At times, it feels like education evolves slowly, yet other times progress abounds so quickly that I don’t know if my 1994 ideals have kept up. What holds true, and what has changed, across my years in education?
At its core, my current teaching philosophy is quite similar to that first draft; it serves as an internal compass, a reminder of purpose, my north point. Rereading it helps me realize that classrooms, communities, and content change, but this original compass has not—it has kept me from getting lost.
I was once inclined to lead with statements like “All kids can learn” and “I want to create lifelong learners.” I still hold these beliefs, but reading them with seasoned eyes, I have greater insight into the “how”—the strategies that can make these and other elements of my philosophy possible in the classroom.
Below, I share tenets of my philosophy and strategies for enacting them—gleaned from decades of practice—with the overarching invitation to pen your own teaching philosophy that might, as it has for me, serve as a guidepost as you grow through every stage of your career.
We learn when we feel motivated, when we feel curious. I know this about myself, and I believe this about my students, which causes me to want all students to feed their natural curiosity. So often, by their teen years, students are trying to make their way through the school day one lecture or worksheet at a time, parsing literature or poring over math problems that don’t feel relevant to their lives. Is this just a rite of passage?
I don’t think so. Providing choice—for example, diversifying the texts we present and promoting student agency through choice reading and writing assignment—leads to deeper and continued inquiry and engagement, putting learners in the driver’s seat.
Lead by Learning
Orienting yourself as the lead learner in the classroom is crucial to helping students move forward in their own learning. I notice that students are more fully engaged when I, too, am engaged and transparent about my own curiosity.
If I ask my students to write, I write with them. If I ask my students to read, I read with them. Though there are many days when I am conferencing with students or leading mini-lessons, taking just a few moments to read and write together produces powerful, connected learning and a sense of community fueled by authentic, adult-modeled inquiry.
Ask Questions—Then More Questions
We ask many questions as teachers (and lifelong learners). There is power in realizing that quality questions are not just yes/no questions, but probing questions—ones that make you tilt your head and think before you speak.
Asking deeper questions not only improves self-reflective teaching (e.g., How can I become a better teacher? How does writing change if we start with conversation first? What are better ways to build community in my classroom?) but also coaching and conferencing with students (e.g., What would happen if you flipped these paragraphs? How does the behavior of this character make you think self-acceptance is the theme of your book? Before you begin, what does the end product look like to you?). Open-ended inquiry moves thinking and discussion deeper.
Learn from Students
What I perhaps value most about teaching are the lessons that I learn from students about life in the classroom and beyond. I seek their guidance and advice in relation to my teaching, asking them to reflect on what happens in our classroom, and these debriefs give me insight into how I can change even the minutest of details to improve their learning.
As for lessons that transcend the learning environment, I think of a time when a student I knew well began delivering his valedictory speech to classmates. “There’s more to me,” he said with tears, “than I let on in this class.”
“How true,” I thought. How true that this student’s statement describes all of us, in everything we do. There is more to us than we let on in any given situation, and his insight serves as a reminder for me still.
In education, everything is always shifting. Lessons need modifying, calendars need adjusting, and assignments sometimes need to be scrapped. Just today, at the end of third-hour, I said to my students, “This wasn’t exactly how I envisioned class going today. I want to change...” and proceeded to make adjustments.
When plans don’t work, it’s important to make peace with flux—to remember that the best instructors are flexible enough to admit when something isn’t working, are open to change, and are models of adaptation, teaching young people, by example, how to respond to the unexpected.
In a politically charged, standardized-test-driven educational climate, how can we hold on to the belief that what we do makes a difference?
Philosophy and pedagogy matter most in the face of conflict and change. Helping students feel confident, powerful, and prepared makes me feel worthy as a teacher, and returning to my “why” reminds me that the classroom holds this potential.
To ground your own practice, no matter if you are in your first or 15th year of teaching, pen your own paragraph, diagram, or bulleted list representative of your teaching philosophy. Does it align with your original approach to education? What has changed, and what stays the same? How might you share your philosophy—and strategies for enacting it—with others?