A statement of teaching philosophy is the cornerstone of any teaching portfolio and is required for most academic job applications. But it is often a challenging document to write. Although teaching is a major component of any academic career (even at research-focused institutions), many graduate programs offer few opportunities for students to develop and reflect on their pedagogical skills. Junior scholars may enter the job market with little or no independent teaching experience, and teaching assistant (TA) positions are too easily viewed as secondary activities rather than as opportunities for serious professional development.
In this post, I gather some of the resources that I have found to be most useful when crafting a statement of teaching philosophy. I focus on two central concerns: first, how do you figure out what your teaching philosophy is? And second, how do you communicate that philosophy in a clear and compelling statement?
Do I Even Have A Teaching Philosophy?
Yes, you probably do. Even if you don’t have a lot of teaching experience, if you are preparing for the job market, you have spent years (decades!) as a student. You have encountered a wide range of teaching styles and methods and have worked with excellent (and perhaps not-so- excellent) teachers. If you have worked as a TA or have taught your own independent classes, you have forged relationships with students, made decisions about assignments, class activities, and teaching methods, and you have encountered pedagogical challenges that you may still be working to address.
The following questions (adapted from Kearns and Sullivan 2011, as well as this post by Neil Haave) guide you through the process of reflecting on these learning and teaching experiences in ways that can help elicit your particular approach to teaching. Start at Level 1 and move through as many of the questions as you can, according to your experience.
Level 1: I may be new to teaching, but I have been a student for a long time
- Describe the best learning experience you have had as a student. What made it great?
- How and why did you choose anthropology as a field of study? What do you want students to appreciate about anthropology?
- What specific knowledge, skills, attitudes, etc. are important for students to take from an anthropology class into the rest of their lives?
Level 2: I have some teaching experience as a TA or instructor of record
- Describe the best teaching experience you have had as an instructor. What achievements are you most proud of? What made these experiences/achievements great?
- What specific teaching strategies do you use to help students develop the knowledge/skills/attitudes you identified in question 3? How are these strategies attentive to diverse student experiences and needs? How do you know if these strategies worked? Why don’t you use other approaches instead?
- What are the most significant challenges you have encountered when teaching? (Or, consider persistent challenges like encouraging students to read, evaluating and grading student work, working with underprepared students, etc.). How do you address these challenges? Give specific examples.
Level 3: I am applying for academic jobs right now (eek!)
- Choose one institution to which you are submitting application materials. What do you know about the students at that institution? What do you know about the teaching mission of the institution/department? What will the department gain by hiring you?
How Do I Turn My Philosophy into a Statement?
Reflecting on your approach to teaching is a useful exercise that is critical to your development as an educator. For the purposes of a job search, however, there are several important issues to keep in mind as you compose the first draft of your teaching statement.
Avoid rehashing other application materials
A statement of teaching philosophy is not simply a list of courses you have taught (those should be on your CV) or a summary of student evaluations (you may be asked to submit these separately). The statement provides context for those materials and helps to distinguish you from other candidates who may have similar qualifications.
Show, don’t tell
Every teacher wants to “encourage critical thinking skills” and “stimulate a love of learning” in their students. But how do you, personally, do this? Your teaching statement should be as specific as possible, drawing on many of the examples you identified during the reflection exercise above. What particular materials do you use and what assignments have you developed to achieve your goals? How have students responded to these activities? What is it like to be a student in your courses?
Tailor to the institution
Many aspects of your teaching philosophy will remain consistent, but it is important to consider the specific student populations and teaching conditions at various institutions. Do your assignments unintentionally assume that students are of traditional college age (18–22 years old) and live on campus? How will you adapt your small-group discussion strategies to five-hundred-student lecture courses? Will your methods of student engagement work in an online class in which you never meet students face-to-face?
Ask for feedback
Plan to revise your teaching statement, and all of your application materials, several times. Request feedback from trusted advisors or colleagues, especially those who have participated in recent searches. The Center for Research on Learning and Teaching at the University of Michigan has produced an especially useful rubric for composing and evaluating a statement of teaching philosophy (see page 7).
Kearns, Katherine D., and Carol Subiño Sullivan. 2011. “Resources and Practices to Help Graduate Students and Postdoctoral Fellows Write Statements of Teaching Philosophy.” Advances in Physiology Education 35, no. 3: 136–45.
Lewis, Mary Ann. 2014. “Teaching Statement as Self-Portrait.” Vitae, October 3.
Vick, Julia Miller, and Jennifer S. Furlong. 2008. The Academic Job Search Handbook. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Several universities have especially helpful materials for developing a teaching philosophy and writing a teaching statement, including the University of Minnesota’s Center for Educational Innovation and Duquesne University’s Center for Teaching Excellence. You can also review sample statements from Ohio State University and the University of Michigan.