Were You Taught to Teach?

Photo of Boggle letters spelling the word "Teach"

Earlier this year on a search committee, I had an embarrassing realization: I couldn’t answer one of my own interview questions. “What is your teaching philosophy?”

Until now, I haven’t had to face this question head-on. I’ve always felt like I learned how to teach by sneaking in the back door: on-the-job trial and error. Thinking of the teachers I know, who went through a curriculum of education theory and supervised student teaching, I felt inadequately prepared. Realizing I couldn’t articulate my teaching philosophy only reinforced my sense that I wasn’t a “real” teacher.

That question sparked a summer of contemplation, reading, and informal interviews with the teachers in my life. What is my teaching philosophy? Can I put it into words, and how does it actually relate to my day-to-day practice?

If, like me, you don’t feel like library school prepared you for the reality of the classroom, you’re not alone. Merinda Kaye Hensley, who evaluated 10 syllabi of LIS courses that cover library instruction in this study, concluded: “…there is a severe mismatch between the ways our library schools prepare graduate students for the classroom and that librarians don’t receive much, if any, on-the-ground training for learning how to teach.”

Maybe you’re thinking that the librarian’s professional identity is quite distinct from that of the professor, and that feeling like a “real teacher” should not be the priority of our LIS programs. But so much of our work involves teaching, even if you don’t stand up in front of a class on a regular basis – consultations at the reference desk, for example. This piece from College and Research Libraries introduced me to the term “teacher identity,” which has transformed the way I see my work. In the article, Scott Walter says: “Teaching skills are clearly recognized as important to the professional work of academic librarians, but to what degree do academic librarians think of themselves as teachers when they consider their place on campus, and to what degree is “teacher identity” a recognized aspect of the broader professional identity of academic literature?”

At schools where librarians do not have faculty status, the conversation is further complicated. But for me, embracing a “teacher identity” has changed how I see my presence in the classroom. I stop thinking of myself as a guest speaker, here for the one-shot and never to be heard from again. If I am a teacher, I am building relationships with students. This changes my expectations, and affects the very language I use. For example I find myself closing an instruction session with “It’s nice to meet you,” instead of “Thank you for having me” or similar.

If you develop a strong teacher identity, new avenues of inspiration online and support on campus become available to you. In search of language to form my teaching philosophy, I began looking beyond library literature and traditional information literacy learning activities, reading more about pedagogy than had ever been assigned in my LIS program. I found a multitude of practical, approachable resources for teachers developing their teaching philosophy. This resource from the University of Minnesota had particularly helpful prompts to get me started.

If you’re not a teaching librarian, or you want to take baby steps toward writing your teaching philosophy, I recommend exploring the elevator speech. I’d first learned of elevator speeches from ALA’s advocacy resources, during a time when I was advocating for my department to be fully staffed. An elevator speech is a more all-purpose message to the public or to your larger institution, and can be on any topic. Writing brief statements to sum up my vision for the Reference department helped me learn to put my daily practice into more abstract, inspiring terms. This has been a helpful exercise as I develop a teaching philosophy. Even if you only break it out to answer an acquaintance’s smug “Aren’t libraries obsolete?” with something thoughtful and pithy, an elevator speech is a nice thing to have in your pocket.

Taking the time to identify the values I want to support – curiosity, persistence, failure as a part of learning – has influenced the way I design class activities and how I interact with students. Having my teaching philosophy fresh in my mind as I walk into the classroom has helped me be more a more thoughtful teacher.

If you’re not like me, and pedagogical training was built into your library degree, how have you experienced the transition from theory to practice on the job? In your opinion, what are the essential readings in pedagogy or teaching philosophy? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Featured image by Wokandapix via Pixabay.

3 thoughts on “Were You Taught to Teach?”

  1. Thank you for sharing this story… it could have been me telling it! This is exactly how I feel. I have written a tentative teaching philosophy to help guide me with these feelings as I am interviewing for academic jobs which all involve teaching. The research library I worked at before, I did instruction but not really the same full teaching type of work. And I was NEVER taught to teach. How do you explain this in an interview… but still convey that you really want to teach? And still get hired?

  2. I am strongly considering the gap in teacher training and instructional expectations for academic librarians as a dissertation topic. I identified with everything you mentioned in your post. I felt inadequate for a long time and sought out resources on my own with the hope of sharpening my skills. Although my LIS degree program offered a concentration in Academic Libraries, none of the electives covered pedagogy or andragogy. Most of the courses covered library administration, acquisitions, etc. My personal experiences with forming a teacher identity still haunt me after 10 years in academic librarianship.

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