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Virginia Journal of Education



by Rich Grimes


Teaching is a most challenging, complex and very rewarding profession, requiring specific skills and personal traits for success. Most teachers possess the “right stuff,” – including energy, enthusiasm and a conscientious work ethic. But teaching well is a process and success is not hit-or-miss; rather, it comes from an appropriate blend of thoughtfully constructed philosophical and instructional principles, applied daily.

Aspiring teachers are in a hurry, and understandably so. They want to become certified, find a job and get to work. They want to get on with teaching. However, are they fully ready—has their professional preparation included encouraging them to develop a teaching philosophy? It’s my experience that many teachers, apprentices and veterans alike, have not spent the time, or have been required by their training programs, to reflect on what they believe to be the values that light their fire to teach. Doing so is a critical starting point that establishes the fundamental foundation for successful teaching. Put into action, one’s philosophy is the root that cultivates student learning and grows high levels of instructional performance.

A teaching philosophy is essential to support and frame teaching practices, decision- making and relationships with students. Such a philosophy is a personal, self-reflective vision and a sense of purpose for teaching. It works best if you write it out, and then describe how the words will come alive in the form of actual teaching practices, using concrete examples.

A well-grounded philosophy acts as a compass, providing a clear course for the daily journey of teaching and learning. In its absence, the teacher is disconnected from his or her students. Since teachers are tested daily in one way or another, their actions require meaning, consistent structure, common sense and good judgment. A clear, purposeful and powerful teaching philosophy is more than words. It’s the very core of who you are and what you strive to do in teaching students every day.

In order to provide clarity about what a teaching philosophy looks like, I have shared examples written by my university students at the conclusion of each of the three segments in this article. Each student is required to draft, revise and, at the last class session, read to peers the final polished copy of their teaching philosophy. Completed with some degree of both enlightened and painful rumination, writing and sharing what they believe to be their vision and role in teaching and learning is the most important assignment of the term. I am convinced that the ideas utilized in producing their philosophy will lead to quality teaching, which in turn leads to enhanced student learning and elevated academic achievement.


Example 1 
“Teaching with conviction, passion and energy, I commit to enhancing and celebrating student successes and creating a safe, secure environment, fostering and promoting self-worth, exposing students to their hidden talents and academic potential, and guiding a unified class community that thrives on teaching and learning.”

Important Questions
Prior to developing a direct connection between a teaching philosophy and specific classroom practices, please think through the following questions to help clarify your professional values:

1. Are you a “guide on the side” or the “sage on the stage”?

2. Do you worry more about what you’re going to say or what students will do?

3. Do you establish assessment protocols to evaluate student interests, backgrounds, abilities and learning styles prior to instructional planning and delivery?

4. Do you differentiate instruction to meet the unique needs of your students?

5. Do you know at least one personal thing about each of your students?

6. Do you focus on content mastery or basic learning skills? Or both?

7. Do you facilitate “operating principles” that govern student conduct?

8. Do you establish and maintain a viable learning community where students are active, engaged and assume leadership responsibilities?

9. Do you ask students to evaluate your teaching performance?

10. How do you celebrate student success?

This list of questions is far from inclusive. There are many more that could be asked but your answers to these ones will provide insights into what you believe, and don’t believe, about teaching. This will assist in constructing or revising your teaching philosophy.

Guided Practice
The format of a statement of teaching philosophy is defined by its originality. Most are brief – no more than one or two paragraphs. Otherwise, the statement can develop into a lengthy, often biographical story that may be informative but too vague. Precision and brevity of words are essential. A first-person, structured approach is appropriate, reflecting a serious mindset of a professional teacher.

This is my own personal teaching philosophy: “I believe in facilitating successful learning experiences for all my students.” Pretty brief, isn’t it? This statement raises questions: How, exactly, will I facilitate successful learning experiences? How can this philosophy find utility in the classroom? How will my philosophy produce measurable learning on the part of my students? For a few of the answers, here is a list of actions I have decided to take in order to breathe life into my philosophy:

1. Create a safe and nurturing learning environment.

2. In all ways and at all times dignify the learner.

3. Plan and deliver instruction based on student interests, academic abilities, and learning styles.

4. Establish and maintain an active and positive classroom community.

5. Assign stimulating and engaging work.

6. Provide rubric-based tools for evaluating student work.

7. Maximize instructional time.

8. Make subject content relevant and applicable to life outside the classroom.

9. Model and promote good citizenship.

10. Celebrate student success.

These actions give substance, meaning and specificity to the ways my philosophy will be practically applied to classroom instruction, relationships with and management of students, and daily decision-making. Now, I’ll restate my philosophy, connecting the actions I value most. “I believe in facilitating successful learning experiences for all my students by providing a safe and nurturing learning environment, engaging students as active participants in all aspects of instruction, and promoting and modeling good citizenship.”

I encourage you to examine your beliefs about teaching and reflect on what is working and what needs improvement. Developing or revising your personal teaching philosophy is a great way to reflect and examine your own effectiveness as it relates to student achievement.   

Example 2
“I commit to enhancing and monitoring student success in reaching their maximum learning potential by creating a safe, nurturing, dynamic classroom community that accommodates multiple learning styles, encourages parental participation, and embraces each child’s individuality.”

Decision-Making
Teacher decisions, particularly in managing student behavior, are critical in fostering a positive school climate. The degree to which teachers express and model affirming teaching philosophies reinforces how sincerely students are valued and respected.

You recall that one of the beliefs expressed earlier as a critical component of my philosophy was, “In all ways and at all times dignify the learner.” I now offer additional thoughts on teacher decisions regarding student management and a true story, described in my book, Classroom Under Construction, describing how one of my colleagues successfully applied this belief in an actual classroom encounter.

Teachers are often the objects of student anger, frustration or hurt feelings. But they can and should rise above the feelings of their students. Otherwise, teachers can fall into the trap of internalizing perceived student misconduct without looking into underlying reasons and, as a result, treat students on a win-lose basis. This norm, unfortunately, often dominates the way schools do business. All parties inevitably lose.

To show how the process of reaching a student by listening, dignifying and problem-solving, here is the experience of my colleague, who made an instant decision and provided immediate follow-up to support a troubled high school student.

After lunch John was interrupted during a lecture in his American history class by a student (we’ll call her Marsha) who blurted out, “This class sucks.”  John was startled, as were Marsha’s classmates, because her remark seemed out of character. She didn’t normally make offensive comments. John’s mind raced. The students, now silent, looked to him for a response. He had options.  Should he respond verbally, and if so, what should he say? Should he remove Marsha from class? What other options could he utilize? Following a seemingly long period of silence John looked at Marsha and said firmly, but politely, “If this class sucks, how can we work together to un-suck it?” 

Marsha’s desk was at the back of the room. All heads turned her way and she was speechless.  There was a pause, then John stated, “Well, give that some thought. But for now, let’s continue.”

I believe John’s question in response to Marsha’s remark was brilliant. He didn’t embarrass her. In fact, he managed to protect her, and do so respectfully. Instruction continued and Martha was neutralized. It was a win-win situation. John’s response was a decision that reflected his belief that her remark camouflaged hurt feelings – most likely having nothing to do with him. Failing to internalize her remark was a good choice.

John followed up with Marsha and her counselor and learned that she was having serious personal issues at home. After discussing Marsha’s remark, he accepted her apology and asked that no disciplinary action be taken. He framed his decision skillfully and, in the process, held Martha accountable for her behavior. His actions were quick, intelligent, caring and strong. Refusing to rush to judgment, John demonstrated flexibility, concern and a genuine interest in supporting Marsha. His mind and heart served him well and he remained true to his belief that, even under fire, a teacher should in all ways and at all times dignify the learner.

 Example 3
“I will develop and promote a positive, active learning environment for all my students by creating a fun atmosphere, providing relevant subject content, involving students in establishing classroom rules, fostering an active, positive classroom community, acknowledging student success, turning student weaknesses into strengths, establishing a fair and consistent evaluation of student work, and dignifying students always.”

In the end, schools and teaching are about relationships. Each day is a continuous process of instructing, challenging and supporting students in order to promote their success. The degree to which students excel both academically and personally depends on dynamic and engaging instruction, built on sound philosophical principles that are both student- and learning-friendly. Students deserve nothing less.

Grimes (rgrimes@richgrimes.com) is an author and professional staff development presenter who currently works as an Adjunct Professor of Education at Brandman University in California, working with teachers seeking state licensure. In a 40-year career, he has served as a high school teacher; middle, high school and higher education administrator; and alternative education principal.  His book, Classroom Under Construction, has been a valuable resource for beginning and veteran teachers, as well as university students.                    
               


                                          

 


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