I was recently asked to articulate my "teaching philosophy," something I have thought about often and had formally crafted years ago. Now, nearly thirty years into my career, I have continuously revised and updated my views, and as summer winds down, and we all prepare to return to the classroom, I thought it was worth writing about.
In my column I’ve shared this story before, but it’s worth repeating because it is the foundation of my beliefs about teaching. When my high school age daughter was very young, one of the first full sentences I recall her saying is “My dad teaches students how to read and how to write.” What I loved most, other than the sing-songy rhythm with which she recited it, was her use of the transitive verb, or more specifically the direct object: My dad teaches children. She didn’t say he teaches English or grammar or any curriculum-related words. She focused on the children. I teach children. I’ve always loved the directness of her description. In being a responsive educator, I don’t teach English or math or science or social studies – I teach students.
The essence of my instruction is an emphasis on cultivating the arts of reading, writing, and thinking. That singular focus on teaching the craft and the beauty of the English language has been my calling from my earliest days teaching language classes in Taiwan to my time in a middle school in Chicago where nearly half of my students spoke Spanish in their homes to my current position teaching AP English at one of the top high schools in the country.
If I aligned my teaching philosophy with two literary works, they would be Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poem “I Am Waiting” and Kenneth Burke’s passage “The Parlor Metaphor.” Each of these works are featured as introductory lessons in my various classes to set the tone for the year. The key reference in Ferlinghetti’s piece which informs my instruction is his hope for “a renaissance of wonder.” A sense of wonder and inquiry and curiosity is what I hope to evoke and engage in my students with each lesson in every class. From Burke I draw upon his reference to the unending conversation which exists in the relationship between writer, subject, and reader. The work on the page preceded us and will outlive us, but as students, we have a conversation with the text, hoping to glean understanding. Because the works we study can be so vast in scope, I guide my students to become what Henry James called “a person on whom nothing is lost.” Regardless of the subject, context, time period, or purpose, my students will hopefully learn to engage with the works as part of their education.
From the Sage on the Stage to the Guide on the Side, from the classical instructor to the learner facilitator, from direct instruction and rote memorization to child-centered learning and Socratic seminars, the education world has seen numerous models and philosophies in teaching, and over the past thirty years I have learned, practiced, and incorporated most of them in my teaching. Regardless of the lesson and my chosen approach, however, the goal of student engagement and growth remains the key and the non-negotiable factor. In my focus on teaching kids rather than content, my intent is always to be a responsive educator. In that regard, I aim to focus on the specific abilities, needs, and goals of the unique students in the classroom at the time and to be fully present for them. Obviously the content and curriculum also guide my approach to the lessons and the students, but the philosophy of responsiveness and engagement remains the same.
The point of education is to gain knowledge and understanding of content which is not already natural and familiar to the students. Thus, I must understand and respond to my students’ backgrounds, interests, and needs. The one thing I truly love to do is to teach students how to read and how to write. Additionally, one of my greatest gifts is that of editor, a talent I inherited from my mom, a newspaper editor and feature writer. So, whether I am introducing young writers to rhetorical analysis and argumentation or helping upperclassmen craft and develop college application essays, I am happiest and most successful in helping students develop their facility with the craft of language.