Thursday, March 27, 2003
How to Write a Statement of Teaching PhilosophyBy GABRIELA
You've polished your CV and cover letter and lined up your letters
of recommendation. Your application for a faculty position is ready,
with one big exception: You're still struggling to write a statement
of your teaching philosophy.
The task is daunting -- even for the most experienced Ph.D.'s --
but it's increasingly difficult to avoid, as a growing number of
departments are requiring applicants to submit such statements in
their job applications. We talked to dozens of professors and
administrators to learn what they look for when they read a
statement of teaching philosophy, and we assembled their advice on
getting started and avoiding some costly mistakes. Here are their
tips and a list of dos and don'ts:
"Do I even have a teaching philosophy?" you may ask yourself.
Of course you do, says Matt Kaplan, associate director of the
Center for Research on Learning and Teaching at the University of
Michigan. Every doctoral graduate has a teaching philosophy, whether
or not they realize it. Let's face it, you may not be the most
experienced instructor, but "you've been a student for a long time,
and you've been in all types of classes, so you have opinions about
teaching and learning and what works and doesn't work," he says.
If you don't have a lot of teaching experience, "think about the
great teachers you've had and what made them so effective, what they
did that inspired you to spend six years in graduate school at a
cost of $1,000 a month," says Andrew Green, a Ph.D. counselor in the
Career Center at the University of California at Berkeley.
If you're still feeling overwhelmed by the task at hand, try to
focus on concrete questions, as opposed to the abstract question of
"What's my philosophy?" says Mr. Kaplan.
"Breaking down that broad question into component parts -- for
example, What do you believe about teaching? What do you believe
about learning? Why? How is that played out in your classroom? How
does student identity and background make a difference in how you
teach? What do you still struggle with in terms of teaching and
student learning? -- is often easier," he says. "Those more concrete
questions get you thinking, and then you can decide what you want to
Another useful tip is to think about what you don't like
in a teacher, says Cynthia Petrites, assistant director for graduate
services for the humanities in the Career and Placement Services
office at the University of Chicago. "Reflecting on what you don't
like can give you insights about what you do like," and that can
help you to define your own teaching philosophy and goals, she says.
Do Some Research
"Different institutions have different expectations, depending on
their mission and how they view the role of teaching within the
broader responsibilities of being a faculty member," says Mr. Green.
Does the college have a religious mission? Does it have an
environmental mission? If so, you'd better address the mission in
your statement, he says. While your teaching philosophy may stay the
same, your teaching style may vary depending on your audience. So if
you're applying to various types of institutions -- evangelical
colleges, community colleges, liberal-arts colleges, and state
universities -- you may need to write several different statements,
Mr. Green says.
Before you start writing, look closely at the job ad and the
institution's Web site. Look to see if the teaching philosophies of
the faculty members are on the site. Find out how large the
institution is and what the institution values.
You need to know about class size and what kinds of students
you'll be teaching, so you'll know what to stress in your statement,
because above all, the search committee will be looking to see if
you understand what's expected of you at their institution, says
Brian Wilson, chairman of the department of comparative religion at
Western Michigan University. "You don't want to pitch large
auditorium classes to a liberal-arts college, because they don't do
that. That's not their style. Their mission is to give personal
service to students. Whereas here at Western, we've got 35,000
students. We're a school that offers education to a wide variety of
people, and we have large classes, so if you have experience
teaching large classes, that's important and would be essential to
put into a teaching statement."
Don't Rehash Your Vita
A teaching philosophy isn't a laundry list of what you've done,
says Mr. Green. "I've read a lot of first drafts that were simply
recitations of students' past teaching history -- 'I've had six
semesters as a teaching assistant at Berkeley and I've taught
Introduction to Comparative Politics twice.' Well, you know, maybe
you taught them all poorly. How do I know, unless you tell me what
you learned as a teaching assistant about effective teaching and how
you're going to implement it?"
The first rule of thumb is "to focus not so much on what courses
you've taught, but on how it is you go about teaching," he says.
"Don't make the mistake of recapitulating what's already in your
Don't Make Empty Statements
Good statements and bad statements frequently start the same
(with a broad philosophical declaration), but good ones anchor the
general in something concrete (in an example that one can
visualize), Ms. Petrites says. Anyone can talk about teaching in an
idyllic sense; you need to give examples.
"If you say you work to encourage collaboration in the classroom,
then explain how you do that, or if you're a new teacher, how you
would do that," she says. "It's easy to say, 'I want to encourage
collaboration in the classroom,' or 'I want to get students to think
more critically' and leave it at that. But who doesn't want to do
Empty statements are a dime a dozen, says David Haney, chairman
of the English department at Appalachian State University. "Ninety
percent of the statements I see include the sentence, 'I run a
student-centered classroom.' My response to that is, 'Duh. If you
don't, there's something wrong with you.' Do not ever use that
phrase, unless you plan to follow it up with what kinds of
things you have students do, what specific teaching techniques
you've found successful. Otherwise it sounds like you're just saying
what you think I want to hear."
Keep It Short
If there's a page limit, stick to it. "If they say they want one
to two pages, don't give them five pages," says Mr. Haney. You may
have a lot to say, but you don't want to overwhelm the search
Ground Your Teaching Philosophy in Your Discipline
One way to avoid becoming mired in generalities is to share some
insights about teaching in your particular field, Mr. Haney says.
For example, if you're applying for a job in an English department
teaching literature courses, you might talk about why you think it's
important for students to read literature and how you plan to teach
them to interpret it, he says. Describing your theoretical approach
and/or what kinds of exercises you assign students will make your
statement more engaging.
Make Sure It's Well-Written
"Like everything else in your application, it's a writing
sample," so make sure your statement is well-written, Mr. Haney
says. "It's a chance for you to demonstrate how articulate you are.
Hiring committees, especially in English and the humanities, are
going to look very closely at your writing."
Adopt a Tone of Humility
Be careful not to sound as if you know all there is to know about
teaching, warns Bill Pannapacker, an assistant professor of English
at Hope College. Most applicants believe they won't be hired unless
they already know everything, so "they tend to glorify their
successes and present a picture of seamless perfection, which is
unbelievable. I feel alienated from them because I can't imagine
myself being as perfect, even after years of experience, as they
present themselves as being with only a few years of experience.
It's pretty presumptuous, if you ask me."
Good teaching comes from years of trial and error, so a little
humility is in order. "I'd rather read statements from candidates
who talk about their mistakes and go on from there to describe how
they learned from them to become better teachers," says Mr.
Applicants also would be wise to avoid using superlatives, unless
they want to sound arrogant. "It's much better to say, 'My student
evaluations are consistently high' than to say 'My students say I'm
the best teacher they've ever had,'" says Gene C. Fant Jr., chairman
of the English department at Union University. And don't use Latin
quotations, he adds. "A lot of the statements I've seen start off
with Latin, and to me, that's just pompous. We already have enough
pompous people in higher education. We don't need them in our own
Remember That Teaching Is About the Students
New teachers often devote their statements to showing that they
can be innovative or that they can incorporate sophisticated
concepts in a classroom, but they seldom mention how students
reacted to those innovations and concepts, says Ms. Petrites of
Chicago. "It's important to present a picture of yourself in a
classroom with students. Otherwise readers may ask, 'Was this
all about you or the students?'"
When you mention your students, be sure to convey enthusiasm
toward them rather than condescension, says Mary Cullinan, dean of
arts and sciences at California State University-Stanislaus.
"Writers of teaching statements may come across as exasperated with
students if they talk about how flawed the students are, how their
writing skills aren't as good as they should be, or how they don't
attend class the way they should," she says. That's not the message
you want to send to readers of your teaching statement. Your role as
a teacher is to ensure that students learn, no matter how flawed you
think they might be.
Don't Ignore Your Research
By all means focus the statement on your teaching, but don't
downgrade your research, especially if you're applying to a small
liberal-arts college or a state university. "Some people think that
any institution below a Research I won't value research," says ASU's
Mr. Haney, but many colleges want to see whether you can integrate
your research and teaching.
One of the biggest trends at small colleges right now is
"enhanced engagement of undergraduates and faculty research," adds
Berkeley's Mr. Green. "They tell parents, 'If you send Johnny here,
he's going to be involved in cutting-edge research with our
faculty,' so they're looking for evidence that you're going to be
able to take undergraduates and utilize them in your research
Get a Second Opinion
It's a good idea to ask other people to read your statement, says
Union's Mr. Fant. Show it to your mentors, other faculty members,
and peers, and if there's a center for teaching and learning on your
campus, show it to someone there as well. Let them read it, and then
go back to it a week later and revise it. Then have somebody else
proofread it before you send it out.
Just Be Yourself
Good readers will know when you're exaggerating, boastful, or
insincere. "I want to hear your authentic voice," says Mr.
Pannapacker of Hope College, "rather than the written equivalent of
the beauty-pageant smile."
In the end, that's what will make you credible and maybe even
help persuade a search committee to bring you in for an interview.