Reflections on the Job Hunt: Writing a Teaching Philosophy

As an LIS student graduating in May 2015, the job search is on my mind a lot these days. One of my more recent applications required a one-page teaching philosophy, in addition to a letter of interest and resume. Like many people that write a teaching philosophy for the first time, I have years of varied instructional experience but I often don’t take the time or space to do intentional, deliberate reflection of my teaching.

I think that ACRL’s recent decision to move forward with the proposed Framework, while simultaneously making a conscious stand not to rescind the Standards is more than relevant to this post. With that being said, I think there has been a multitude of brilliant blog posts on this topic, some of which have taken place on ACRLog. (For some of my personal favorites, see Meredith Farkas’ post, a reflection from Donna Witek, and a resource that Nicole Pagowsky shared).

Instead, I’d like to think more critically about why reflection is important, how it is often integrated into our daily lives (even if we don’t realize it), and what the construction of my teaching philosophy entailed. My hope is that this post might help other LIS students or recent grads in their journey to construct a coherent statement.

One of the reasons I like Twitter is that I am reminded daily about what other people in our field are doing, especially in relation to instruction. Many #critlib discussions have explored critical pedagogy and reflection. Now #moocmooc is exploring some of these topics in more depth while challenging participants to blog and reflect on their professional praxis. I’m personally hoping that these discussions will develop into a longer chapter on critical pedagogy and reflection or teaching assessment in an exciting work that’s still in progress.

One of the more recent #critlib conversations was about critical reference. Somewhat unsurprisingly, a lot of the conversation about how to do good critical reference also applies to instruction. Here’s one of my favorite tweets from that conversation:

critlib conversation

I understand that potential employers want applicants to write a teaching philosophy so that they can make sure the person is well suited for their institution’s teaching culture and set of values. But what I learned is that it does so much more than that. It makes your teaching more intentional and nuanced. When you have to sit down and really ask yourself questions like “Why do I care about or place value on this instructional method?” or “What are the big questions I ask in my classroom?” you become a more thoughtful teacher.

This might seem really obvious but I’m not sure I realized the true value of reflection until I actually did it. As librarians face more and more time constraints, I think that this is something good to keep in mind. Yes, it might take a few hours to hash out how you teach and why, but if it improves your practice and your interactions with students isn’t it worth it?

I’d like to give a tangible—albeit cheesy—example to illustrate what I mean. I try to attend a yoga class at least once a week. It gives me a space to decenter and relax while stretching and improving my posture and strength. One of my favorite yoga classes is a hot yoga session at a swanky yoga center in town. There are a few reasons I like the class. The heat intensifies my stress relief, they let you borrow equipment, and it’s a fairly small, close-knit space. But to be honest, the biggest reason I go out of my way to attend the particular session is because of the instructor. He starts every class by telling students that the session isn’t about replicating the exact pose he is doing. It’s more about how your individual body feels in the pose. In other words, he empowers students to do what they can without feeling shame about not being as flexible as their neighbor. He also solidifies the expectations of the class by saying upfront what the goals are and then he reiterates those expectations by giving modifications for each pose and talking about how your body should feel instead of how it should look.

I am, of course, living on a graduate student budget and I can’t afford to go to this expensive class every week. I decided to compromise by going to a much cheaper yoga session sponsored by the student recreation center every now and then instead. I went to my first session last week and quickly learned that the instructional techniques used there are very different. This instructor scolded students for looking at their neighbors’ pose for guidance instead of looking directly at him. He made students stop the flow they were moving in so that they could move to one side of the room and watch him demonstrate exactly how poses should be done. He never talked about modifications for those with limited flexibility or injuries. In short, he made the practice tedious and maybe even discouraged newcomers from practicing yoga again.

There are many things I learned from these two very different experiences (besides the fact that you get what you pay for):

  • Teachers are not the keepers of knowledge. They are there to facilitate, mentor, and encourage. Being a guide can often be more productive than being an “expert”. And why can’t teachers be both?
  • If both of these instructors would have reflected on not only their respective sessions but also their teaching philosophy and their goals when teaching yoga, there would undoubtedly be some improvement. (Maybe this is me being optimistic or naive, but I don’t think anyone intentionally tries to be discouraging).
  • Teachers reflect on teaching even when we don’t mean to. If that one experience informed my teaching, I know that reflecting more consciously would be even more beneficial.

This brings me to constructing my actual teaching philosophy. I tried to keep all of this in mind while doing so: what is important to me as a student, what good (and poor) experiences I have had with past teachers and why, and how a reflection might inform and represent my teaching. I searched for examples in many different places and asked my mentors to share their teaching philosophies with me. A quick Google search brings up an overwhelming amount of resources. There are many sample philosophies, checklists, and rubrics. If I had to simplify and just give a few pieces of advice, they would be the following:

  • Use examples from fields like rhetoric and composition. Sometimes it’s hard to find good library examples because our field is so diverse. Graduate students writing statements in these areas often have similar goals to our own (facilitating critical thinking, putting information in context, etc.) and I think we can learn a lot from them.
  • Be yourself! More than anything else, your energy should shine through. Think about how your lived experiences have guided your teaching practices and philosophy. Reflect on your role and why you believe in the importance of that role.
  • Give examples. Most of us can write all day about what we want to do in the classroom. But what do we actually do? How do the activities we create embody the concepts we want students to understand? This might seem harsh, but if you can’t give a practical, tangible example of how you teach a particular concept or philosophy, it might not be as important to you as you claim.

My philosophy is in no way perfect. I actually think of it as a living, developing document that I hope will continue to grow and change as I grow and change. Still, I think that sharing parts of it might help others are they are thinking about their own philosophy. Here are a few excerpts:

As an educator, my goal is to foster personal exploration, challenge critical thinking, and frame students’ experiences within larger societal issues. Multiple teaching experiences have taught me that this process only happens if students develop a sense of autonomy and accomplishment. My role, then, is less about being an expert who dictates content and authority and more about being a leader who guides students through learning in the context of their lived experiences.

 I am also an information expert with a tangible agenda for my classroom. The students of today are swimming in information, all of which differs in format, reliability, and means of production. Thus, today’s librarian teachers are facing a very different obstacle than the librarians of even twenty years ago. The challenge is not in teaching students how to find information, but instead in teaching them how to be critical, contextual consumers of the information they already have access to. Therefore, my role as an information expert shapes the way I teach the skills needed to understand the complicated relationship between knowledge, information production, and power.

My greatest calling as an instructor is to help students realize their responsibilities as citizens, consumers, friends, mentors, and ethical human beings. Teaching them not only how to be more information literate but also why it matters is the constant objective behind my instruction.

Have you written a teaching philosophy? How often do you revise it? What advice would you give to new librarians going through this process?

 

 

2 thoughts on “Reflections on the Job Hunt: Writing a Teaching Philosophy

  1. Sarah wrote: “Thus, today’s librarian teachers are facing a very different obstacle than the librarians of even twenty years ago.”

    The Library School curriculum in the early 1980s was cognizant of the impact automation would have on many processes in the library field. The “information age” was measured in by increased profusion of print materials. Information networks at that time were the realm of librarians whose services included computerized searches of databases available through a commercial service such as DIALOG or university-sponsored such as BRS.
    Jumping forward 30 years, the Web 2.0 and information technology supplement telecommunications through landline telephones and radio and television broadcasting. As described in NETWORKED (Rainie and Wellman, 2012), these new revolutions include online social networks, the internet and mobile devices.
    Fifteen years ago, the need for librarian teachers was identified in Denise Fourie’s career exploration guide to library and information studies, LIBRARIES IN THE INFORMATION AGE (2002).
    I wrote a philosophy which is based on the necessity to become lifelong learners. When I wrote it, I tried to also incorporate methods that promoted student-centered learning. As a result of this blog, version 1.0 is now version 1.1.

    “No matter what educational level or stage of life a person has reached, the process of learning never ends. Types of learning can be mapped on a continuum which includes structured learning that occurs during formal education to self-directed learning as events are approached as teaching moments. Teaching librarians should proactively reach out to academic or public constituencies relative to the physical and virtual library resources in the library’s collections. Librarian decisions are important factors in the quality, usability and accessibility of these resources. As teacher librarians, we are not only curators of educational resources and but are vehicles through which our constituencies may engage in dialog about the sources which inform their lives.”

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