My attitudes about teaching and the methods I’ve used to teach have changed considerably over the more than 25 years I’ve been employed as an instructor. I’m constitutionally an educator; as a child I had two younger sisters and, for whatever reasons, I felt partly responsible for making sure they knew the kinds of things they’d need to know (or, what I thought they’d need to know). As a youngster, I was eager to explain to others what I’d come to know (and to do so about just about everything). I loved learning new things and was shocked to discover, as I grew, that not everyone was as eager to learn about the kinds of things that I thought were so utterly fascinating.
I stumbled into education as a profession quite by accident when, as a first-semester graduate student, the chair of my department told me that he thought I could handle teaching an introductory-level course in my field at a nearby community college that he’d just learned needed someone to take over some courses that year. I was surprised that he felt I was ready to teach, but, I considered that his own years of experience and his knowledge of my own work (he had been my undergraduate advisor for my honors thesis) meant he was a good judge of my abilities. I accepted the position in 1990 and haven’t looked back. I had already had a few years’ experience as a paid tutor (I had tutored college students, mostly nursing students, in chemistry and algebra at a community college near my home), but, tutoring and teaching seemed to me to be quite different.
Since then, I’ve taught at three of Michigan’s community colleges, two of Michigan’s public universities, and one of Indiana’s private universities. In addition, I’ve taught at both a private, military high school and at a public, alternative education high school. My wife and I home-schooled our two children after grade 3; now grown men, one is a college graduate and published poet, the other is an autodidact in electronic music.
For the first several years I was employed as a teacher, I believed that being a teacher was primarily about focusing on the content. I was teaching introductory level philosophy to students, but my focus was on the philosophy and not on the students. Over time, and I don’t know when or where this revelation occurred for me, I came to recognize that my focus should be on the students more than on my content. I absolutely recognize that the content matters, but, students are so incredibly varied and their variations matter so much in terms of their outcomes: they’re not all equally ready for the same ideas, they’re not all equally skilled, they haven’t all received the same education, and the certainly have come from different life experiences.
Though my graduate degree is in philosophy, I have long been quite skilled in mathematics, I have a minor in mathematics and I studied mathematical logic as a graduate student. At the aforementioned private high school, in addition to other teaching duties, I taught mathematics from pre-algebra to advanced placement calculus. I happened also to have taught a variety of mathematics courses for Glen Oaks Community College. When Trine University asked me to teach math courses for its School of Professional Studies at its Howe satellite campus, I brought with me not only a love of math, and many years of experience teaching math, but also a handful of lessons that I’d learned teaching high-school aged and community college students. Among these lessons I’d learned was that if there are a dozen students in a class, and I teach the students three or four different methods for solving a problem, it’s reasonably likely that a few students will understand them all, a few students will understand one or two, and that one or two students will remain flummoxed. There are ways to work through this situation without either boring the students who have no problems with the material or alienating and frustrating the students who are challenged by the methods. Part of the solution is in the delivery, part of the solution is in the validation of the students who are struggling, part of the solution is in incorporating the contributions of the students who are excelling, and, part of the solution is recognizing, on the fly, what is likely to work, and being willing to switch tactics if it doesn’t.
My students are the focus. I have yet to meet anyone who hasn’t answered affirmatively to this question “Did you ever have a bad math teacher?” In almost every case, the problem wasn’t the material but was the instructor. There are many reasons why people have had negative experiences with teachers. But, I’ve come to discover that most of the people who make these claims have in common that they were made to feel dumb, that they were disrespected as people, that the time they needed to learn wasn’t appreciated, or that they otherwise felt devalued.
It turns out, that’s not a hard problem to solve. It’s not all that hard to be friendly, to be patient, and to keep looking for alternative explanations of a concept until the student understands. It does take work, and it does take practice. I’ve dedicated my teaching, as a craft, to finding ways to reach students. I’ve found no particular best practice for teaching introductory ethics, or introductory philosophy. I’ve found no ideal way to assess student comprehension. But, I’ve found better ways, and I’ve found worse ways, and I’ve sought and taken seriously the feedback of others (especially my students), and have continued to eliminate the things I’ve tried that have backfired and have continued to add the things I’ve tried that have worked.
I take my instructional development seriously. I attend professional development opportunities and have done this for enough years that I’ve begun to be asked to facilitate some. I have helped create and rebuild curricula, and currently serve on Western Michigan University’s Faculty Senate’s Ad Hoc Committee tasked with reforming general education at WMU. Good teaching requires sharing with and learning from others and it requires a commitment to attending to the changes in students, teachers, and places and methods of learning.
Ultimately, my statement of teaching philosophy is that teaching’s focus is the moving target that is the changing student. Skillful teaching requires a willingness to adapt to the inevitable changes in education, in educators, and in students.