Tips for writing a teaching philosophy

A friend of mine is applying for a college teaching position. She’s been working in a science research lab for about ten years, and this is her first application for a college job.

Here’s the question she emailed me:

“In working through the application, I have a cover Letter and CV, but they ask for a Teaching Philosophy as a separate document. Do you think they want a page or a few sentences, or is there a particular format?”

I thought you might be interested in my response, and I’d be interested in comments from those of you who have written a teaching philosophy. Here’s my response:

Asking for a written teaching philosophy is becoming a standard part of most college faculty positions, and that request can be a challenge even for people who have taught.

Some people can teach their entire careers without ever putting their philosophy into writing. I’d imagine that many teachers would have difficulty articulating what their teaching philosophy is even if they’ve taught for years. But whether we’ve taught or not, almost everyone has an opinion of what good teaching consists of.  If you haven’t taught before, you can think about excellent teachers you’ve had and what qualities they had that you’d like to incorporate into your teaching.

One requirement for the graduate course I teach on teaching is for each student to develop a job application packet that includes writing a teaching philosophy.

The advice I’m offering is based on serving on several search committees and having talked with colleagues who review candidate packets. I’ve also read teaching philosophies posted online and included in books about teaching and have read advice on The Chronicle of Higher Education website.

Typically what the search committee is looking for in the teaching philosophy is a candidate who understands some of the foundations of good teaching and also could be a reflective teacher.

I’d suggest that your philosophy be about a page to a page and a half. You don’t want just a few sentences or you come across as not very reflective about good teaching or your own teaching. But you also don’t want to go on too long – and include too many qualities of your teaching.

A good starting point is to ask yourself: “What are three or four qualities that I think are important in how I teach (or how I would teach if I got this job)?” “What would I like my students and my colleagues to say about me as a teacher?”

List those qualities.

Possible qualities could be: enthusiasm for the subject; concern for students; public speaking skills; organizational ability; ability to use technology and/or lab equipment; experience in the subject that can translate into helping students understand the field; sense of humor; ability to explain complex concepts; or the ability to stay current in the field. Those are just samples.

For each quality you identify that is part of your teaching, then write at least one example that illustrates how you have (or would) operationalize that quality. How do you convey enthusiasm for the subject? When have you helped others use lab equipment or technology?

You are identifying something that is important to you as a teacher – that’s part of your philosophy about how you teach – and you’re telling a story of how you convey that quality.

Don’t be too sweeping in your statements – “In my teaching, I help every student reach his or her potential.” That sounds great and certainly is a worthy, but that’s not realistic in most teaching settings.  You can “strive” to help each student reach his or her potential.

Also don’t be critical of a teaching approach that you don’t use. “I believe that lecturing is an outdated approach to teaching and that true learning can only happen through classroom activities.” Remember that a committee will be reviewing your application file, and someone on the committee may be a confirmed lecturer. That doesn’t mean that you must change your philosophy but just tone it down.

Be sure to review the information about the college and department where you are applying. What do they say about the learning experience the program and faculty are providing? See if you can pick up on some of their teaching goals in your teaching philosophy.

Once you write a draft of your philosophy, you might want to Google “teaching philosophy” and see what you find. You may be able to fine-tune your search by including the subject area – “teaching philosophy for teaching journalism.

I advise checking other philosophies after you’ve written your own so that you aren’t getting caught up in what others say and, perhaps, adopting their ideas rather than really working through to determine what your ideas are. But I know some of my doctoral students have said that reading others’ teaching philosophies has helped them get started on writing their own.

Those other philosophies may help you revise your teaching philosophy. But beware of taking a great phrase from someone else’s philosophy and including it in your philosophy. The search committee may be double-checking candidate application materials, do a Google of your philosophy, and find that it isn’t original. That can eliminate you as a candidate.

So use the requirement of having to write a teaching philosophy for a job application as an opportunity to really think about what makes good teaching and what you’re doing as a teacher (or could be doing as a teacher) to be an effective and even inspiring teacher.

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