Creating your teaching philosophy

What is the value of writing a teaching philosophy? And why is a teaching philosophy required in most faculty job applications and teaching award nominations?

Even experienced teachers say that writing a teaching philosophy can be difficult. Writing a teaching philosophy would be more challenging for graduate students, most of whom have been teaching for only a year or two. So why are teaching philosophies a required part of one’s teaching career?

During my faculty career at the University of Florida, I was fortunate to teach a pedagogy course for graduate students in the College of Journalism and Communications. I really enjoyed working with the graduate students to help them develop and expand their teaching competencies and their outlook on teaching and learning.

As a major assignment for the course, the students developed a teaching portfolio to be used in applying for faculty positions. The portfolio included their created instructional materials, a syllabus, and a teaching philosophy.

As a current member of UF’s Graduate Student Teaching Awards Committee, I’m reading some very effective teaching philosophies that are part of their nomination portfolios.

Writing a teaching philosophy can help you look at the big picture

Developing a teaching philosophy can help determine how you view your students, structure your course, and present as a teacher.

Let me share a few examples from some of the candidates (and some winners) for the Graduate Student Teaching Award.

A graduate student teacher from Political Science said in her teaching philosophy that her teaching goal is to help prepare her “students for an educated life as a citizen of an increasingly globalized world.”

She goes on to explain how she does this in the courses she teaches. Students study American government in conjunction with other forms of government around the world. She incorporates current events into the course to help students see how concepts they are learning in the course connect with real-world events. Her courses include class and small group discussions that are based on facts and civility.

Her big goal has helped her in selecting readings, developing assignments, and building in regular discussion time.

Another graduate student teacher in Spanish focuses on enabling students to be involved in their own learning process and making cultural awareness a key part of the course.

Students learn and practice language in the context of topics of interest to them – writing to a friend to set up a study session or plan a party. Music, art and literature are used to explore similarities and differences of cultures.

Her approach to teaching means that she must be ready to support learning in a wide array of interest areas and that she will be facilitating many small group and partner conversations during class. 

Your teaching philosophy can help others better understand your approach to teaching

By reading the graduate students’ teaching philosophies, I can see how decisions they make about their course and their teaching are connected to their big goals.

A graduate student teacher in computer coding writes that his teaching philosophy is anchored on preparing his students to be successful in getting internships in the field. That means the students must be able, during an interview, to move to a white board and walk through a coding decision. The focus of class time is that kind of rehearsal. The emphasis is not on coming up with “the correct answer,” because most often several possible solutions exist. What is emphasized is explaining why a particular approach will or won’t work. The class can be intense with one student working through a problem and being critiqued by the instructor and classmates. But the students complete the course meeting his big teaching goal – being ready for the internship interview.

In her teaching philosophy, a graduate student teaching Chemistry for Engineers, writes her major goals for students are to be able to solve complex real-world problems by working collaboratively. Based on her philosophy, she designed the course so students work in the same teams throughout the semester. Over time, this approach keeps some students from trying to make all the decisions and other students from trying to avoid an active role. Lab projects dealt with the kind of projects engineers would deal with that involved chemistry-related issues. She built in checkpoints for each lab that encouraged students to work independently and then meet with her to make sure they were on the right track.

How to develop a teaching philosophy

Begin by thinking of what you hope your teaching and your course can help students learn, develop and become. Think big picture and guiding principles.

Next, operationalize those big goals.

  • If you teach introductory courses and want students to develop enthusiasm for the field, how do you do that?
  • If you want your students to develop collaboration skills, how do you design class activities and provide collaboration training?
  • If you want your students to explore the concepts of the course in the context of the local community, what projects can you assign and how do you prepare students to be successful in their interactions?

Having specific examples to illustrate your teaching philosophy is crucial. Otherwise, you are listing ambitions but not showing the reader how you actually accomplish those aspirations.

Focus on the students. You are a key part in your teaching philosophy’s success…but that doesn’t mean that the focus of the course should be of you in front of the class.

You have many resources to help you in developing your teaching philosophy.

Read books on best practices of teaching. “McKeachie’s Teaching Tips” (Marilla Svinicki and Wilbert J. McKeachie), “What the Best College Teachers Do” (Ken Bain) and “Teaching for Change” (José Antonio Bowen) are some of my favorites. Those books include specific examples of classroom application in a broad range of disciplines.

Read others’ teaching philosophies. Faculty who have their own websites or blogs often include their teaching philosophies. If you are a faculty member, you can read the teaching philosophies included in the application packages of job applicants.

A number of universities provide webpages on writing a teaching philosophy – just Google and see what I mean.

And very importantly – talk with colleagues and friends/family about your teaching philosophy. Sometimes the people who know you can see those big-picture qualities of your teaching that you may not have seen for yourself.

The written teaching philosophy

A teaching philosophy doesn’t have a set format of style. In general, your philosophy should be written in first person and be conversational, as if you are talking to the reader.

A bullet-point list of lofty goals is too limited and vague. A lengthy narrative of your teaching career and practices is too long. One to two pages is a good length. Provide specifics to back up your philosophy. Avoid sounding like you can change the course of higher education in the 21st Century.

For UF’s Graduate Student Teaching Award, the teaching philosophy is to be no longer than one double-spaced page. I’ve found the candidates, within that limit of one page, are able to convey quite a bit about their philosophy and how they implement it.

Value of a teaching philosophy

Once you’ve developed your teaching philosophy, use it to help you design assignments, create lessons and determine evaluation criteria.

Reviewing your teaching philosophy before each term can help you align your syllabus, your teaching and your outlook with those big goals.

Having a teaching philosophy can help you be more mindful and intentional in your teaching and how you allocate your time and energy.


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