Why I’m Skeptical about Teaching Statements, but How to Write a Decent One Anyway

I find the Teaching Statement/Teaching Philosophy one of the hardest pieces of writing ever. I’ve never written one that I found to be really satisfactory, nor have I read many that have impressed me. I think this is a problem inherent in the genre: a teaching statement is to be a short (1 page, single spaced) narrative that connects your philosophy of teaching to the precise practices that you employ in the classroom. It’s not supposed to be general or trite, but, it also can’t scare away a hiring committee by setting goals that are too lofty, couldn’t be supported at the limited resources you’ll receive, or will make other teachers look like they’re underperforming. Also, it is somehow both supposed to be rooted in thoughtful, establish pedagogy (“best practices,” “evidence-based”) and also has to distinguish you from other applicants. You somehow have to be passionate without saying that you’re passionate (trite) and innovative without being demanding (and thus draining limited funds). Oh, and no matter what, you’ll ultimately have to fall in line with the folks over in Assessment, so don’t suggest things that won’t fly with them.

So, where does that leave you? You are aiming for something:

short: Just 1-2 pages if you are applying for a job, maybe 3-4 if you are up for tenure or review

first person in a voice that is consistent with your other materials: This should be as well-written as every other document you submit; unlike some of those, it will be in the first person, but it’s not excessively personal. It is still (despite being sometimes called a “Teaching Philosophy”) more of an argument, where you deliver a claim and back it up with proof.

disciplinary: What happens in a chem lab is different than what happens in a social work practicum or a discussion-based literature class. Think about the courses you will be teaching as described in the job call and focus your writing on those courses.

that delivers an argument and is also concrete: State the “philosophy” part in one sentence. Think of it like a thesis statement. Then, deliver a few specific pieces of evidence that you live out that philosophy. Give an illustrative example of a classroom interaction, describe a challenge that you surmounted in teaching, or talk about a successful assignment; deliver this as evidence that your actual teaching aligns with your stated philosophy. Need help generating ideas? Consider these questions:

  • What do I think is the purpose of higher education?
  • What was my best day of teaching? What happened to make it so good?
  • What is a method that I find helps my students engage deeply?
  • What do you expect students to get out of your classes? Are there skills or themes that aren’t unique to a single class but that appear in many of your classes?
  • What assignment has produced great student work?
  • What motivates me as a teacher?
  • What metaphors describe my teaching?

The challenge of being specific is that there are all kinds of factors that shape our teaching that are out of our control, but we have to pretend, in a teaching statement, that they aren’t there. Ever teach in a classroom where the desks weren’t what you needed them to be? Perhaps they were bolted to the floor, so you couldn’t arrange the room to allow for discussions in which they could see each their classmates’ faces, or students were seated auditorium-style, with desks on different levels, so you weren’t able to have them get into small groups. Maybe you taught in a classroom without a ceiling in it, so any small group discussion quickly become very, very loud, or maybe the tech was so unreliable as to be useless. Maybe you had too many students to get to know them personally or assign work that would require extensive guidance or feedback in all your classes. These are the real conditions of teaching, but no one wants to hear about them. I’m not advocating lying, but teaching statements invite a kind of ignoring of real circumstances.

focused: Remember that this is short, so you don’t have time to address every worthwhile question. Instead, focus on a single theme. Look at the job call, the departmental mission statement, and the university’s mission or vision statement. Take the key words there and think about how your teaching aligns with them. For example, are you applying for a position at a public serving university where a high percent of students are Pell grant eligible? Teaching there is different from teaching at a private school with a large endowment. Show that you understand the scope of the job and value what the university values in teaching by focusing your statement on these concerns.

carefully crafted: The committee asked for this because they want it. If you don’t develop a thoughtful response to their question, you signal to them not only that you don’t care about teaching (which may or may not be true) but that you don’t care to be evaluated on your teaching. If you are applying to a teaching-focused position, that’s a bad move, but it also makes a terrible impression if you are applying for a job a research-intensive university. Your potential future colleagues have probably already had to deal with faculty who think they are above teaching, and that creates problems for them, forcing more mentoring, more teaching, and more cleaning up teaching-related messes on them. Show that you’re ready to carry your teaching weight by taking this seriously.

connected to your research: Do you conduct research on teaching? Teach about the stuff you research? Bring in guest speakers you know through your research? Assign students work that requires them to conduct primary research? Do you help students conduct research or publish it?

warm but not gushy, humble but not clueless: You know a lot about teaching, but you don’t know everything. Signal humility by talking about how your teaching has improved over time, your willingness to/history of participating in teaching forums or book clubs or mentoring programs, and speaking about your students in positive ways. Especially if you are a woman, avoid the words passionate and care about students, but also recognize that if you are a woman, you’ll be judged more harshly for failing to address the emotional needs of students. (This is just one reason why I’d like to see the Teaching Statement disappear as an application requirement.) In fact, get rid of all your verys and reallys and emotional words like delighted. I know that this totally sucks, because sometimes you are very excited about teaching, and sometimes it is a total pleasure to work with students, so taking these out undermines authenticity. But authenticity here is a performance, not, like, actual authenticity. No one wants to hear how the REAL you feels about teaching (I would like to assign more writing in my sciences, but the students at my university need more support than I can give them to make real improvement, so I’ve focused my energies on skills where I’ve found that they can make faster progress, like reading scholarly sources.); they want a you that is peppy but not obnoxious, smart but not so full of “the famous new methods”* that you’re going to want to revamp the whole curriculum.

My teaching philosophy changes according to the job that the teaching philosophy needs to do for me. I don’t consider that to be inconsistent; rather, I think it speaks to my ability to be flexible in my approach to teaching–that is, I am student focused, so my teaching philosophy is informed by the students I have in front of me. That is different in a private religious college compared to a regional school serving mostly first generation students from lower class families.

For my current position, at a mid-sized state school with a diverse and generally poorer student population, my focal statement (the thesis) is that higher education isn’t just merely about personal transformation for students but about changing their whole family tree–and thus about changing their communities. From there, I list ways that I teach to do this. It’s a teaching statement that won’t likely appeal to those who see higher ed as preparation for the “21st century workforce” or an individualist endeavor of self-improvement. But it is true to my vision of what higher education, at its best, does and why public higher education, in particular, is necessary for communities to flourish and democracy to thrive.

While I think my teaching statement is a good reflection of my values and approach to teaching, I don’t think its perfect, and I’m not sure that perfection is possible with these things. You don’t really know your audience, and the generic expectations are a bit undefined. In researching this blog post, I found a lot of conflicting advice from different but all reputable sources, yet I found little actual scholarship on teaching statements. What I see as the vital question–Does a teaching statement accurately reflect the kind of teaching a person does?–seems to be of no interest to researchers. We seem to assume that being good at writing a teaching statements is equivalent to being good at being a teacher, but that relationship isn’t proven at all–and, presumably, lots of the lousy teachers we know got their jobs based, at least in part, on decent teaching statements.

 

Image result for Professor X

Above, Professor X from the X-Men, who probably never needed to write a Teaching Statement. 

If we, as scholars, haven’t given attention to that question, which is the question that asks Is it worthwhile to require these? Do they tell us anything helpful?, then I’m not convinced that we take them seriously in hiring and promotion. And yet here we are, writing them. I suspect that’s because teaching statements can be a way to rule a candidate out rather than rule on one, which makes the work of a committee easier. We rule ourselves out when we decide not to apply for jobs that require them, saving the hiring committee the hassle of reading our application, and we get ruled out of we trip over unknown preferences in our committee, preferences that might not really matter in the classroom but that people hold on to dearly. You mention how important you think it is for students to read Shakespeare and the anti-canonist ax you; you mention that you craft your syllabi so that women are overrepresented among the authors read and the resident meninist vetoes you. Since you can’t know what these folks want, you are only risking alienating them, which pushes writers to be ever more vague or stick with the least offensive suggestions. (I say this knowing that I’d exclude a candidate from the pool of applicants if they talked about learning styles, but given that this theory has been so debunked, I think that’s fair.) Being risk averse makes sense when the risk–not getting the job, not getting tenure–are so high. But it also makes these documents pretty useless, I suspect, as evidence of our actual practices about teaching.

They do, though, signal to the university that the department cares about teaching, even if the department does not actually care about teaching. I mean, they are much easier to trot out as evidence that We Care about Students than things like a robust teaching portfolio with sample syllabi and assignments and graded student work. So, you’re doing a favor to your future department when you write them, which is a good start to getting that job.

Rebecca

*My teaching philosophy is probably closer to Althusser than Freire. Here is the French philosopher in “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatus“:

I ask the pardon of those teachers who, in dreadful conditions, attempt to turn the few weapons they can find in the history and learning they ‘teach’ against the ideology, the system and the practices in which they are trapped. They are a kind of hero. But they are rare and how many (the majority) do not even begin to suspect the ‘work’ the system (which is bigger than they are and crushes them) forces them to do, or worse, put all their heart and ingenuity into performing it with the most advanced awareness (the famous new methods!). So little do they suspect it that their own devotion contributes to the maintenance and nourishment of this ideological representation of the School, which makes the School today as ‘natural’, indispensable-useful and even beneficial for our contemporaries as the Church was ‘natural’, indispensable and generous for our ancestors a few centuries ago.

 

 

 

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