Teaching Philosophy

Teaching is core to my professional identity. I consider it an immense privilege and a sacred responsibility to teach teachers, as I believe they hold the future of our democratic society in their hands. As a result, I spend a significant amount of time reading the latest research from the learning sciences; developing syllabi and lesson plans that reflect this research; reading and responding to student work; meeting with and mentoring students; and reflecting on the efficacy of my own instructional practice. It is incumbent on me as a teacher-educator to model effective, engaging pedagogy for my students—the vast majority of whom are practicing teachers—so that they can use all they learn in my classes to benefit their own students.

My teaching philosophy is indebted to the works of John Dewey, Nel Noddings, and Paulo Freire. Like Dewey, I am a constructivist. I believe students learn by doing, that education is a cornerstone of democracy, and that educators must engage students’ pre-existing schemas and elicit and build on their prior knowledge in order to enhance their understanding of the world around them. Like Noddings, I put considerable stock in the concept of teacher care, and I take pains to ensure that my students know that I value them as people. At the same time, because I am inspired by the work of critical scholars and sociocultural learning theorists, I understand that what I might assume to be caring behavior may not be interpreted as such by students whose sociocultural backgrounds differ from my own. Therefore, I try to tailor my approach to each student’s expressed preferences, following St. Augustine’s exhortation: “Let us adapt ourselves and our methods to the differing needs of our students.”  Finally, like Freire, I believe that education should be liberatory, that it should help bend the arc of the universe toward social justice. To this end, my central objective in each of my courses is to cultivate students’ critical curiosity as well as their capacity as change agents.

Developing the habit of questioning is at the heart of all my courses. I want students to know how to ask good questions and how to pursue a line of inquiry: how to access the research base, critically examine sources, and explore social phenomena using the tools of social science. But above all else, I want them to develop the inclination to ask questions in the first place—questions that intrigue them, excite them, and compel them to follow up. I work to make sure that students leave my courses not just able, but also disposed to ask questions of the world around them, prepared to take action to find answers, and perhaps even inspired to work to change the answers they uncover.

My approach to teaching teachers is aligned with my philosophy and informed by my research, but it is most clearly guided by a particular theory of human development and learning: self-determination theory. This theory argues that people have three basic needs (autonomy, relatedness, and competence), and when these three needs are met or satisfied by the environment, people will be more intrinsically motivated to perform a task or engage in an undertaking. Their intrinsic motivation, in turn, will lead to “enhanced performance, persistence, and creativity” (Ryan & Deci, 2000, p. 70). Taking my cue from this theory and the robust body of research that supports it, I make efforts to ensure that I create syllabi and classroom learning environments that support student autonomy, foster a sense of relatedness or belonging for all students, and help students to feel increasingly competent.

Autonomy-support. Relevance, voice, and choice are the guideposts I use to create assignments and learning activities that support my students’ sense of autonomy. Rather than relying on quiz, exam, and term paper assessments, I create authentic assessments that hold relevance for my students’ professional contexts and aspirations. Modeling a wide range of pedagogical strategies is another way I make my instruction relevant. In each class, I have students experience a different active learning strategy, and then I take ten minutes at the end of the activity for what my colleague, Christa Bialka, terms “Behind the Curtain,” in which we discuss the strategy, the learning objectives with which it aligns, and the ways in which it might be adapted to their own classrooms. Nothing is more gratifying to me than hearing my students say that they successfully used an instructional technique they learned in our last class in their own classroom.

Belonging. Establishing an environment in which students feel connected and safe is of paramount importance to me because I want them to feel comfortable taking intellectual risks. Although my students tend to be respectful and supportive of one another, I work to deepen their relationships and their sense of belonging by developing classroom norms and aligned learning experiences that promote interdependence. Activities such as jigsaws and critical friends groups have been instrumental in building this sense of community. I carefully attend to power dynamics in the classroom and work hard to create an inclusive learning environment, in which students’ unique intersectional identities, experiences, and perspectives are honored.

Competence. To promote students’ sense of competence, I pair structure with support. I provide rubrics and (when possible) exemplars that students can consult. In addition, I offer opportunities to revise and resubmit. I give ample, specific feedback on student work, and I stipulate that students meet with me to discuss their work and my feedback if they intend to take advantage of the revise and resubmit option. Ron Berger’s (2003) Ethic of Excellence has helped shape my approach here. Berger argues that feedback is the foundation of beautiful work and that students should either receive an A or a “not yet.” On written work, I use track changes to make comments throughout the document, and I always provide a summative paragraph or two at the end of their piece to highlight what I saw as the strengths of the work as well as areas for improvement. In addition to detailed feedback on their work products, I scaffold assignments in a way that sets students up for success. Finally, I encourage metacognition through in-class free-writes, exit tickets, and activities designed to promote reflective practice and frank self-assessments. By asking students to account for their own growth and improvement, I help them derive a sense of competence from their progress as learners and a stronger belief in their ability to produce work of the highest caliber.

By carefully attending to students’ feelings of autonomy, belonging, and competence in my courses, I seek to strengthen their engagement, their academic achievement, and most importantly, their self-determination as learners. Because I believe that the best teachers are themselves lifelong learners—invested in constantly learning more about their discipline, their craft, and their students—I try to instill this passion for inquiry through my teaching with the hope that it inspires successive waves of students in their own learning journeys.