school / Teaching

Teaching: An unofficial philosophy

Here’s a story about my best moment as a teacher:

When I teach writing, I ask my students to write every day.  It’s pedagogically sound and immensely practical.  Not only does it reinforce that the class is about, you know, writing, but it also generates usable material if things get draggy.

A lot of my discussion pedagogy is based on adapting dinner party games to the classroom.  So, on the day in question, I asked my students to each select a passage from the reading, come up with a question about that passage, and write all this on an index card.

The index cards came in four colors. Everyone was allowed to choose his or her color because that’s what it means to be in college.

My plan — based on centuries of knowledge passed down by good hostesses — was to collect the cards, shuffle them, and pass them off to a random member of the class, who would run discussion until the topic had run its course.  Then, the deck gets passed.

But, of course, I never know who to pick first.  So, as I collected the cards, I said something about having to figure out a way to decide who got the deck using, as I put it, an academic version of “Not it.”  And then I saw it.  Slowly, snaking silently around the room, index fingers met noses.  It was my this:

Today, I sat down to write a teaching philosophy.  In my writing, I’ve shelved the small, tangible moments that make me glad I taught for so long in favor of the broad strokes, the more theoretical explanation of what it is I’m trying to do when I’m at the front of a classroom.  It’s not super hard to come up with all that, but it leaves out talking about the practical, day-to-day things I do when attempting to make teenagers learn.  Or just act like human beings for an hour.  Some days, you have to take what you can get.

So here are the things that shape the theory behind the practice:

  1. I always have a Plan A.  And a Plan B.  And often, a Plan C.
  2. Plans A-C are all fine and good, but sometimes I can walk into a room, look at all the faces and know none of it’s going to fly.  It’s the recovery that matters.
  3. You never know how you’re going to react to a student calling you out or calling you a name until it happens.  The trick is to breathe.
  4. When I need to have a serious conversation about the state of the state, I find it best to write an outline of my feelings.  That way, the “I think we can all do better” speech happens in the right order.
  5. Telling my students that I think they can do better — and meaning it — has never failed.
  6. It took about five years to figure out that I’d done some things right, but a lot of things wrong. Then, I became a better teacher.
  7. Listening is an important skill, but so is quickly discerning the real problem.
  8. I like to make them write to me.  They’re really chatty on paper.  Also, the student I never expect will inevitably draw me pictures that make me smile.
  9. I’ve probably learned the most from the students I find it hard to like.
  10. Drunk or drinking students will always out themselves.  Dealing with it involves a two-pronged approach: 1.) Containment and 2.) Clear communication of never again.
  11. I swear by this one: Move ’em every 20 minutes.  Teenagers will stand, on command, without question.
  12. Never assign group work that doesn’t have a tangible product.  I used to screw around in class during group work and I’d be fooling myself if I thought they didn’t.
  13. While it’s sappy and difficult to watch without groaning, making them watch Freedom Writers makes me win every argument about writing for the rest of the semester. It also allows me to reference this scene all semester and promise that if things go well, I’ll bust out the Montell Jordan we’ll dance together, too.
  14. Being 18/19 (or younger) allows them to be forgiven for a lot.  But not everything.
  15. A large pad of paper, crayons, and some Scotch tape are my best friends.
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6 thoughts on “Teaching: An unofficial philosophy

  1. I guess teaching writing is a little different that teaching engineering.
    1. While I agree that having a Plan A,B & C is a good thing, I generally have only a Plan A. Maybe Plan B but that’s it. I have done this too long not to know where I want them to go and what I want them to see.
    2. A challenge to my authority in the classroom is a challenge and I will exert that authority when I have to. I am older than you and more like their father so I can get away with this. Although I have taught continuing ed seminars, where these are not children, and I still have a need to be in charge. I will not be insulted or challenged.
    3. I agree with you about the state of the state. Often that carries over to your next point, we call all do better. I guess I see myself as the gatekeeper to a profession and I do them and the profession a disservice if they don’t rise to the level where they need to be. Besides, people in the profession know me and know what to expect from my graduates. My reputation is therefore at stake.
    4. I’ve learned the most from students that are most like me (or least what I perceive myself to be). Ones that are not brilliant but are willing to work hard and do what they must to get by.
    5. Drunk, disorderly or students who don’t want to pay attention are easy to deal with. I won’t. (See No. 2, above). I will pack it up and leave, that simple.
    6. Never assign a group project that is not founded in reality. If they don’t buy the premise, the work becomes meaningless. To a certain extent, it allows them to understand what practicing professionals have to go through to make this all happen. I also don’t like to do that in class. I always hated that myself (still do), so I give the assignment and let them adjourn to a less formal setting. More things are solved over a cup of coffee and open, frank discussion without me looking over someone’s shoulder.
    One interesting note having taught both liberal arts students and engineering students – if you break them into groups and assign a project with the proviso that they may discuss this now or later, engineering students will be gone by the time you finish the sentence. Liberal arts students have to be asked to leave the class even after time is up.
    7. I agree that being young allows them to be forgiven for some things, but not much.

    One final note, I would love to be in your class. Being in my class is well, like growing up as my daughter and I realize that sometimes that’s a good thing and sometimes not.

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