teaching philosophy

Revised: May 2006

"Change is never easy. You fight to hold on, you fight to let go."

- The Wonder Years -


      The college years can be an important time of expansion, growth and exploration for students.  During that time the learning process itself can become a journey in personal development.  But personal growth has the potential to be difficult as one fights both to hold on and to let go.  As humans, we each naturally strive to maintain stability in the face of change.  But tension is a signal that change is necessary and attempts to maintain stability may even be counterproductive.  As a form of change, learning is often met with much resistance, specifically because it is hard.  But it is the challenge and the final reward of that endeavor which makes it ultimately worthwhile.  Any journey is easier in the presence of a seasoned guide.  In the classroom, students may rely on their teacher. 

       As a teacher, I believe that part of my challenge is to create conditions for change so that the need for stability does not dominate and by doing so to foster growth in student thought processes.  Much of this relies on one’s ability to create a classroom atmosphere based in comfort and mutual respect.  Students are more likely to engage in courageous discussion and to explore their basic belief systems and personal identities within an emotional climate focused on positive feelings, especially competence.

          Most courses require basic instruction in the form of lecture.  This is necessary, especially in introductory courses. Likewise, first year students especially, are often less developed in basic academic success skills.  Thus, I intend to integrate this area into course designs.  However, while a great amount of teaching entails the dissemination of knowledge within one’s field, the job of the teacher is not so much to impart these ‘truths’ to her fledgling students, as it is to act as a guide in their development.  The goal of teaching ought to be, not only to teach ‘facts’, but also to teach how to think, how to learn and to encourage students to come to that knowledge on their own terms.  As a psychologist I am uniquely advantaged; I may pique student interest with material that fully lends itself to (and even necessitates) personal engagement.  Psychology is a discipline that offers few, if any, certainties.  Its students are encouraged to question theories, not facts, and so the subject matter is largely open to interpretation.

In this way students should learn to become active and evolving “learners,” rather than simply “learned.”  It is unlikely that in years to come my students will remember much of the information presented in lecture, but is my hope that they will have acquired a new way of thinking about the world and the courage to question and challenge their surroundings.  I hope to foster this growth by challenging them to think critically and creatively about the material presented.  In this way, growth is much like stretching a muscle - there is a need to feel some tension to know that it is working. 

Overall, college should be filled with moments when the student thinks at least silently to him or herself, “hmmph, I’ve never thought about it like that…I wonder if…and what about…” I hope that my students will walk away with an expanded appreciation of psychology as a discipline, and that many of them will have developed an interest in learning in general.  Above all I hope that they will learn to value their college years as a time in their life when their sole purpose is to think about and to explore the world in a new way, that they will feel encouraged to take the time to have important and even controversial conversations, to make use of their amazing professors, to truly interact with each of their individually unique peers and to fully capitalize on the potential of their college experience.  For in the end, students probably learn the most from each other.

Because I believe that competence and climate are important to the learning process, dialogue, both verbal and written takes a very strong role in my teaching style. As an instructor, in the classroom and in class assignments, I intend to be receptive to and actively engaged in seeking out student questions, reactions, alternate explanations and real world applications of psychological principles. I also believe in providing students with positive feedback, not just constructive criticism. Mainly, I intend to supply ample information about what students are doing right to increase feelings of competence, to foster the courage necessary to risk asking important questions, and to chance unveiling new ideas on their audience.  As a result I hope that each will truly feel comfortable expressing their ideas and impressions with both their course mates and their instructor. The classroom should serve as a safe haven, where students should feel free to say anything.  But this also requires striking a proper balance between formal and informal interaction that allows for courageous discussion with due respect from and for all parties.  Class is more productive and creative when each individual feels his or her contributions acknowledged and becomes willing to ‘hear’ (not just listen to) the contributions of others.

Learning should be engaging. Most people have felt and can imagine the joy of connecting with a new idea or with others undergoing similar mental transitions.  But, for that to be the case, the instructor must construct an energized and enthusiastic educational arena where change becomes comfortable and even positively anticipated.  For, emotional climates of enthusiasm and a passion for learning can certainly be contagious.  Creating a positive atmosphere for change requires courage on the part of the instructor and an openness to alter one’s own teaching methods and material in response to the receptiveness of the present class – Yet another difficult, but ultimately worthwhile change.  Of course, teaching sometimes requires presenting material that is dry, but this may be counteracted by being honest with one’s students.  If the teacher explains why learning such material is necessary in the bigger picture and even makes the connection of relevance to students’ lives then, perhaps, students may be more willing to accept the material and may even approach it in an engaging manner. 

      It is likely that grappling with potentially life altering questions, because held so close to a student’s basic belief system or personal identity, will be met with much resistance.  Again, the instructor should shoulder the responsibility for making students comfortable and excited about venturing into new and unexplored mental terrain.  Such an atmosphere may be encouraged by modeling dignifying behavior for the class to follow.  Moreover, class topics especially geared toward controversial issues (like prejudice, sexual orientation, peace and conflict, etc.) may rely upon forms of ‘self-assessment’ that encourage students to privately, but not directly confront personal attitudes, paradigms, and biases. In this way students may acknowledge who they are (and who they’d like to be) without feeling awkward or embarrassed, and without offering the opportunity to directly ‘judge’ their peers.  These exercises, “make the familiar unfamiliar” by probing the nature of individual realities – not necessarily for students to change, but to better understand themselves and each other.  And hopefully they will encourage students to take responsibility for their own personal development. In this way, it is my hope that all students will be able to succeed in my courses. 

I make myself available, as often as possible to interact with my students.  This often means showing up for class early and leaving late, to allow interaction before and after class.  I encourage students to communicate with me, whether they feel most comfortable doing this in person, by phone, or by email.  I make every effort to keep abreast of their performance so that no one falls through the cracks.  I also acknowledge that individuals possess different proclivities toward learning and I try to accommodate for this.  Which means that I strive to incorporate different modes of presenting material (audio, visual, etc.) with varying forms of assessment.  This is evident in the way that I present lecture material during class, in homework assignments, in class assignments that I’ve designed and ultimately in my methods of assessment.

Despite my best efforts, every teacher is, ultimately, still proceeding along his or her own journey in personal development.   In some sense, every teacher is a student and every student has the potential to be a teacher.  I intend to learn, every day from my students and from my colleagues.  And I hope to remain humble in this respect.  I intend to continue to take courses on teaching development and to attempt to creatively master my chosen art.  Above all, I intend to foster my own passion for the journey, as no one likes a bored tour guide.