Teaching Philosophy

All Kids Can Learn: Twenty-one years ago every teaching philosophy I  wrote started with "all kids can learn" and "I want to create life-long learners." While I still hold to these statements, these beliefs are now seasoned with experience. Yes, all kids can learn, and yes, I hope to create lifelong learners, but 21 years ago, I couldn't tell you how this would happen. Today, I can.

Provide Choice: It's as simple as choice. It's taken a paradigm shift for me to realize that I'm not teaching future English teachers, and I've had to create a philosophical balance to support public education's desire to instill an understanding, or perhaps a base knowledge of, the historical literary canon that has been taught in American schools the last two centuries, and what I know to be true about how we learn. We learn because we are motivated to learn. We learn because we are beings of curiosity. I know this about myself, and I believe this about my students, which brings me to the conclusion that I want all students to feed that curiosity. So often, by their teen years, they are bored learners, trying to make their way through the school day one lecture or one worksheet at a time. Is this just the rite of passage for the American teenager? I don't think so. Providing choice leads to deeper and continued inquiry, raising expectations.

Lead the Learning: Being the lead learner in the classroom is crucial to helping students move forward in their own learning. I believe that students are more fully engaged when I am fully engaged with the curriculum. If I ask my students to write, I write with them. If I ask my students to read; I read with them. While many days I am conferencing with students or leading mini-lessons, it's in these few moments of reading and writing together that produce powerful, connected learning with my students.

Take every opportunity to teach: For years I've been working with students on capstone research projects, and each spring is dedicated to guiding them through the presentation of their work at a Community Showcase. This night is full of academic pomp and circumstance, and students are required to dress "business professional" for the showcase. In my early years of teaching, I likely would have avoided details, but when I realized I am a teacher in every moment, it's the details that help build confidence and courage. In rural America, I have students who come to class with what I call "working hands." These hands work best when they are picking up Fall walnuts, fine-tuning engines, cutting wood, making furniture, or farming the land. These hands show up in my classroom covered with grease, gunk, and grime, the general gook that comes from the creation of anything that hard, manual labor produces. I'll never forget the first time I asked a student to clean his fingernails before he came to Senior Showcase. "Do you have a pocketknife?" I asked him. "Yeah, my grandpa's" he said to me somewhat sheepishly, as he wasn't supposed to have a knife at school. "I want you to take out Grandpa's pocketknife and clean up your fingernails before you come to Showcase, can you do that for me?" He smiled big, "Yes. It's from working on my car." I know, I told him, and went on to explain that I admired his hard working hands, knowing full well those hands would provide him and his family a steady income after high school. But in this moment, we talked about times, beyond the funeral and Sunday church, that might require a little more effort in "cleaning up." He agreed, and was proud to show off his clean hands at the Showcase.

Ask questions. And then ask more questions: Not just yes/no questions, but probing questions--ones that make you tilt your head and think before you speak. Not only questions about your teaching, 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 questions: 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? 

Learn from students: This is nothing more valuable to my continued learning than learning from my students. I seek guidance and advice often, asking them to reflect on the process of what happened in classroom. This debriefing gives me insight into changing even the minutest of details. But there are also times students have opened my eyes to insights of life, too. During a final Valedictory speech presented to his classmates, a student I knew quite well teared up as he began. "There's more to me," he said, slowly, and even with a little pain "than I let on in this class." At that moment I thought how true. How true that is with all of us in everything we do. There is more to us than we let on in any given situation. This still serves as a reminder for me. In another case, at the beginning of the year a student was writing her expectations of my role as her teacher: "Don't just teach me to climb the mountain, but teach me how to jump." Using the proverbial mountain cliche, this student helped me realize that we often encourage students to take on the challenge of climbing the mountain, but how do we teach them to take a leap with faith, with courage, with commitment to figuring things as they descend.

Be flexible: Everything is always shifting. Lessons need modifying, calendars need adjusting, and assignments sometimes need to be scrapped. It's okay. Just today at the end of 3rd 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 it doesn't work, change it, and be flexible enough to admit it's not working.

Have Faith: In the craziness of a politically-charged, standardized-test driven world of education, know that philosophy and pedagogy of classroom teaching matters. That what I do, what you do, what we all do does make a difference.

I could continue this list of teaching philosophy. But the bottom line is this: helping students feel confident, powerful, and prepared makes me feel worth as a teacher. Every day I want to build skills, create productivity, and provide time for sharing in my classroom.

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