Shelley's Quick Guides for Writing Teachers:
Writing a "Teaching Philosophy Statement"
I put the phrase "Teaching Philosophy Statement" in quotation marks for a few reasons.
First, I think the name is a little misleading, because most of the people who request or require such a document don't really want to know your Grand Overall Philosophy about education. They want to know what you (plan to) do in a classroom, and why you (plan to) do it that way. They're trying to imagine you in a classroom with their students in their institution, and trying to guess whether that's a good match. They want to know, in effect, that you have principles that you try to follow as a teacher; that you can articulate these principles (which means that you can act on or change them deliberately, not just doing trial-and-error teaching); and that you can take educational actions and explain those actions to others (including your students, if they asked). Thus the readers of this kind of writing often need to see as much about your practices as about your "philosophy."
Second, I think that there are many important venues for writing (or talking) about one's teaching principles that don't come in a two-page statement. Learning good strategies for articulating your principles and practices will be useful in writing cover letters for job applications (where your "teaching philosophy statement" might be a paragraph or two), for discussions in interviews, for statements on your syllabus, for opening discussions in faculty development workshops.
Third, I think that writing reflectively about one's teaching principles and practices is a key write-to-learn activity for teachers, and shouldn't be relegated to a single genre or high-stakes situation.
And fourth, I think it's crucial to remember that principles and practices evolve; that teachers adapt to various situations, class groups, and individual students; that we hold principles that we know we can't always live up to; and that sometimes we have principles that we don't know about until a particular situation calls for a particular decision. Writing about teaching is always writing-about-my-teaching-at-this-moment: the writing does not represent a grand one-time-only decision about how all teaching will go, but instead provides a glimpse -- and a learning opportunity -- regarding a very situated, dynamic set of processes.
So how might one begin to write about one's teaching principles and practices?
I think that it's easier to write in the spirit of the four points above if you start with the specifics rather than with the philosophical. Write about your teaching, and nudge the "philosophy" out of that writing.
Starting with the specifics also helps in a more practical way: if you're writing for an evaluative situation (reappointment, jobsearch), writing from the specifics of your experience will help you distinguish your perspectives from those of all the other teachers out there.
Many of us these days believe in teaching in a "student- or learning-centered classroom"; however, each of us may mean something slightly different by that phrase, and the differences are crucial both to our own "write-to-learn" reflections and to standing out from the crowd in a competitive situation.
The steps I articulate below are adapted from workshops I have facilitated for new and continuing faculty members.
If you're reading this because you actually need/want to (re)write a "teaching philosophy statement," and you have 15-20 minutes to spare, why not just do the first step or two NOW, rather than only reading about them?
No, really, I'm serious. I think you may not benefit as much from reading over the rest of this page as from getting out a pen or keyboard and doing the steps in the order given. Indeed, it can be much easier to get at the heart of the work in the early steps when you're not yet thinking ahead to the final steps. Also, the best way to find out whether these approaches will work for you is to try them out.
Are you ready? Or would you rather bookmark this page and come back to it? I promise, it'll still be here later when you want to productively procrastinate some other task that lies ahead of you.
Step One: Narrate experience
Choose one or two of the following prompts, and write for 10-15 minutes on each one. Take time to go into rich detail narrating/describing the event(s) or experience(s). Don't judge or theorize yet; just write what happened. Treat this as a freewriting exercise to be done quickly, without editing or censoring, without worrying whether you get off topic.
Describe ten minutes recently when you really felt like a successful teacher: students were learning or engaging as you wanted them to
(You can also write on the reverse of this, but try not to get pulled into self-doubt or frustration, which are counterproductive to this exercise)
Describe ten minutes recently when you strongly felt as though you were in the presence of another successful teacher
Note three issues/questions/choices you thought a lot about about in the last month or so when writing a syllabus or a multi-week plan
Describe some key changes or shifts you made to your teaching recently
List and, as needed, contextualize some memorable praises or complaints you've gotten about your teaching
Step Two: Do some reflective writing that grows out of the narration.
Review what you wrote for Step 1. Write for a 10-15 minutes in response to one or more of the following questions.
What does the experience say about your perspective on...
...the role(s) of the teacher?
...the role(s) of the student?
...what needs to be learned in a writing/literature class?
...how to teach writing/literature?
...how to teach reading/thinking/reasoning?
...your own or your students' learning styles/needs?
...college learning, or gen-ed class learning?
You might also attend to the why of these beliefs: do your current students bring a particular approach out of you? How did your experiences as a student or at other points in your life affect these beliefs? How do these reflections relate to larger goals you may have for yourself, your students, or your program/institution?
Try to pay attention both to ideas that feel like certainties ("This I believe") and to questions that seem sticky ("It's hard for me to decide"). Note that you can have a principle about resisting having a single principle, at least in one context or another!
Step Three: Try out some principle + practice writing, to get the hang of connecting events & choices in a way that will help you and others see both what and why.
Write a four-sentence teaching statement (as a starting point), concisely blending examples from Part 1 with principles from Part 2. Those of you who find models helpful might try one of the following patterns:
Write two sentences describing an event, and then two explaining different pedagogical beliefs exemplified therein,
Write a philosophy sentence followed by a "For example" sentence. Repeat.
Try writing a few of these four-sentence bits: you're looking to find ones that feel important to you, as well as trying to find a good rhythm of connecting experience to theory.
A Note on "Theory": Unless you're applying for a job in a school of education or writing for a similar audience, your "teaching philosophy statement" is probably not a place to do a lot of name dropping about pedagogical theory or theorists (or composition/rhetoric theory).
If reading texts by Peter Elbow or Nancie Atwell or Lisa Delpit changed your teacherly life, you can certainly explain that to your readers; if it feels natural to you to write using more specific language such as genre-based writing , post-process approach, Bloom's taxonomy, formative assessment, or teaching the conflicts, then by all means do so as needed; if there's a quotation or two hanging on your wall to help keep you upright during the day, go ahead and mention it/them.
Otherwise, remember that this document isn't usually designed as a test of what you've read or studied, but as a finely tuned description of who you are as a teacher in a classroom. In most cases, your own language -- as precise as you can make it but not necessarily involving jargon or "official" terminology -- will meet the expectations of your audience.
WORKSHOP OPTION NOTE: If at all possible, find a partner or two who will do these steps with you. Seeing their responses -- which will represent honest, interesting, respectable, useful approaches that differ in some important ways from what you wrote -- will help you all see your own perspectives more clearly. You may spot an idea that is important to you but that you had forgotten or overlooked. You'll also get a stronger sense of how very many pathways there are toward principled, successful teaching -- which is one of the reasonings given by people for requiring/requesting the writing of "teaching philosophy statements."
Step Four: Expand and/or adapt your writing to your current needs
These sentences can become the core of a longer "teaching philosophy statement," which, if no length is specified, you can usually take to mean a piece of writing about 400-800 words long. Your "statement" should have a beginning, middle, and end; it's helpful if you can choose principles + practices that are linked and/or that build upon one another. Don't forget to give examples or list instances: the richness of these pieces of writing comes in the details.
These sentences can also become touchstones for writing/talking about teaching in other formal documents: a portfolio framing letter, a job application letter, a discussion with an interviewer.
A Note on Application Letters: In applications for tenure-track college or university positions in English Studies, application letters tend to be 1.5 to 2 single-spaced pages long, with at least one and sometimes two full paragraphs about teaching.
In applications for adjunct or temporary university positions, and for some community college permanent positions, application letters tend to be about 1 to 1.5 pages long, and often focus nearly exclusively on teaching.
In any application, remember that your goal is to demonstrate that you can do the job in front of you, not that you could do the job behind you. A "philosophy statement" is understood to be a broad-ranging description of key elements to your current teaching. In an application letter, you have the ability to tune your writing more precisely to show that your current principles and practices will (or can be shifted to) fit the institution, department, and students with whom you hope to work.
Step 5: Review and revise
By this, I don't just mean "review and revise before you put the application in the mail." I mean, make reviewing and revising your writing about teaching part of your regular work as a teacher.
Review it the way you might re-check your map halfway to your destination, as it can help remind you of what you see as important. (This can actually be a comforting, uplifting activity, reminding yourself that you have principles and goals that are considered and workable.) Revise it because the teaching journey actually changes the teaching destination.
The "teaching philosophy statement" I wrote as a fresh PhD many years ago is still true for me in many ways -- that is, I still believe that what I was doing then is important to do now, and for many of the same reasons.
But my priorities have shifted: I do other things first as a teacher, or value other learning experiences more, or have a more specific or focused way of expressing what I do in the classroom. I now see complications, balancing acts, and adaptations that I simply couldn't have seen then. My students now have other needs that I feel compelled to address. So my current writing about my teaching is as different from that first essay as it is different from what my colleagues write.
Take time to go back to your writing -- in six weeks, in six months, in a year or two -- and grant yourself the time to read and write again about your teaching, even if nobody has asked you to do so. There's no better way to find out what really matters to you as a teacher, and to give yourself the opportunity to make new choices or reaffirm key values that you might not have kept vividly in mind. Teaching is a lifetime-learning activity, and writing about teaching can be a key part of that lifetime.