For the Loathe of Teaching Statements

Colleagues and students of mine pushed really hard this past year to put my name in for several teaching awards at my university, of which I was fortunate enough to actually win two. As part of the nomination processes for the general education teaching award, I was asked to write a statement of teaching. I sort of loathe writing these things, because whatever I end up writing just seems to sounds like such bullshit (even if personally meaningful to me). Anyway, this was my best stab at it at the time, and I figured I would share it with all of you, since basically all I did was point to my blog.

“When I started this job, I imagine I wrote a statement of teaching with some measure of confidence that I knew what I was doing. These days about the only thing I am certain is that teaching is mostly uncertain. I write regularly about these uncertainties (at a blog titled teach.brian.teach), and have done so for the better part of a decade. This writing has not often been directed toward the production of polished educational writing or a generalized philosophy of teaching. Rather, its focus is mostly on the nitty gritty details of praxis–whatever aspect of teaching and learning I need to reflect on, document, or improve at the time. Through writing, I continue to learn that

  • Student dialogue matters a lot. I’ve written quite a bit on issues such as making use of talk moves, intervening with unproductive talk, and helping new teachers learn about and practice these moves. For general education, I believe that helping students connect science concepts to their own experiences and ways of talking is important, especially if they are going to take what they’ve learned beyond my classroom.
  • Not only does curriculum matter, but that articulations of curriculum matter. I have had to get better at articulating the underlying logic of a lesson, why some strategy might work and under what conditions, and even how you will know if it’s working or not. I have been striving to build curriculum that builds meaningfully from concrete experiences and ideas to abstract scientific concepts and skills. In general education, I believe the goal is to equip students not only with an understanding of those concepts and skills but also with answers to the question, “How do I know?”, “Why do I believe?”, “Why do I care?”
  • Getting feedback and responding to it is important; so every semester, I solicit student feedback, critically think about it, and engage my students in dialogue about it. This feedback is for me, but it also for students to pause and think about their own learning. In general education, getting students to reflect on what they are learning and how they are learning (I hope) better prepares them to transfer those skills to other contexts.

I suppose, one piece of writing from my blog that comes close to articulating my philosophy of teaching might be the following:

Brian’s Theory of Teaching (October 2017)

1st:  What you say and do doesn’t really matter and has no effect on student learning. 

2nd:  What you say and do strongly affects how students feel… how they feel about you, where they are, who else they are with, themselves, etc.

3rd:  How students feel about all that stuff affects what they do, but also how they go about doing those things.

4th: What there is to do depends on what an environment makes possible for doing. And since not every environment is equally good for all kinds of doing, a thoughtfully and carefully arranged environment is needed if you care about what it is students might do and how they might go about doing those things.

5th: Every once a while students will be doing certain kinds of somethings and feeling certain kinds of ways, and what you say will matter. It will be consequential to what they do next.

Conclusion: Spend most of your time on preparing that environment and on nurturing those feelings, so as to create a few moments here and there where what you say matters. Try not to fuck it up. But you probably will, at least some the time, and that’s ok too. Just get back to working on the things that matter. 

Final WordsI feel like one of the challenges for me as a teacher is simply that there is an overwhelming number of things that matter. Two in particular stand out, because I have the most control over them– the pursuit of meaningful, coherent curriculum and the rehearsal and enactment of effective pedagogy. I try to put hard work into both of those areas behind the scenes. After that, students and I have to figure out how to pull it off together. This is where I think cultivating relationships with students matters.

I certainly don’t expect every day to be magical. You could easily walk into my class one day and find all of us tired, frustrated, unmotivated, bewildered, or worse. If things are going well, however, there will be also many days filled with wonder, laughter, redemption, and a sense of belonging that will carry us through. It’s always a risk, but I’m happy to report that I am slowly getting better at pulling this off more consistently. I hope in another ten years, I’ll be a lot better than am I now.”

Postscript: One of my colleagues was a fair bit concerned about the word “fuck” appearing in my teaching statement in that it may offend certain kinds of committee members. At the time, my contention was that I wasn’t actually or personally saying “fuck” in my statement.  Rather, I was quoting / citing someone who had happened to have written “fuck” in a different publication venue, and it just so happened that this someone was me. I was busy enough at the time, that I didn’t have many fucks left to give, but I am glad for my colleagues sake that it didn’t end up being detrimental to their efforts.

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