In teaching school, I spent about two years creating a ‘teaching philosophy’ that I could talk about in an interview. It included phrases such as, “praise in public, punish in private”, “build good relationships”, and “backwards design planning”. Of course, being fresh out of college, I had NO idea what any of these terms event meant, but the jargon sounded cool.
Now, being back in teaching grad school, I have been afforded the opportunity to go back and re-visit my teaching philosophy after some on-the-job training. I think that every teacher should go back to school at some point, or at least re-visit his/her teaching philosophy.
As I prepare for the upcoming school year, I am updating my teaching philosophy to help inform how I want to approach my students in two weeks. While I still believe in “praise in public, punish in private”, “build good relationships”, and “backwards design planning” (I am an EXCELLENT backwards design planner, by the way), I feel I need to add some more sophisticated lingo to my teaching philosophy.
In order to come up with a philosophy, however, I first must determine what I believe the purpose of public education to be. Education, in the stone ages, first began to establish social classes; if you were rich, that meant you could afford to go to school and topics included poetry, music, philosophy, etc. Then, the Industrial Revolution came about, and school became a way to prepare people to be factory workers. So, it was set up like an assembly line, you learned how to sew, fix machines, read manuals. Current education reform suggests that ‘school is to prepare students for 21st century skills’ (whatever that really means). I recently read this book called Now You See It, which kind of angered me. While I thought the argument itself was extremely well-crafted, I had to put down the book multiple times because I was so angry. I literally drove to yoga one day because I was getting so worked up. The basic premise of the book is that we need to teach our students skills to be successful in the business world. We need to teach them how to use technology to solve problems, how to research and find valid sources, how to collaborate in groups. I completely agree with this need–but I found myself defending those students who will NOT be in the business world–those who will become mechanics, nurses, even teachers–how will these skills benefit them?
As a teacher, I believe my purpose is to prepare my students for life, not just to be in the business world. I must teach my students how to be problem solvers, but also how to handle in the face of defeat. I must teach my students to use research, but also how to deconstruct an argument so the car salesman is not screwing them over. I must teach my students how to collaborate in groups, but also how to handle conflict. Yes, I must teach them how to write a slam dunk essay and how to answer interview questions, but I must also teach them how to be respectful, how to cope, how to balance school and work and sports and friends, and life.
So much of educational reform is tied up in ‘performance assessments’ and ‘student-centered learning’ and ‘creating authentic tasks’, that I sometimes feel we are missing the human aspect of teaching, which to me, is the most important part.
I spent all day in an assessment training about creating performance based assessments. Basically, instead of asking students to bubble in a sheet to assess their knowledge, the teacher creates real-world scenarios to test their critical thinking and problem solving skills. So, in a science classroom, you might ask your students to figure out why there is a brown cloud coming out of the chemistry drawers. In a business classroom, you might give students a court case and ask them to evaluate the ethics. In a math classroom, you might propose a construction project where students have to figure out the angle measurements, etc.
As I sat in this training, I tried to brainstorm ‘real-world problems’ that I could use to assess within the units I already teach. Surely, we can learn to write resumes and admissions essays and practice interviews to prepare for college. Of course, we can write ‘letters to the editors’ and ‘draft proposals’ and ‘write eulogies to our best friends’. Certainly, we can write a play, give a group presentation, write an annotated bibliography. But, I began thinking about how these are just products and assignments, and the lessons kids learn in an English classroom are worth so much more than some words on a piece of paper.
For example, when I teach Lord of the Flies, I break my students into groups and simulate being trapped on an island. At the end, I ask the students to reflect on themselves and their behaviors; they learn about whether they are competitive or not, motivated by grades or intrinsic value, when they might act selfish and throw group members under the bus.
When we study nonfiction, we discuss topics such as freedom of speech, gun control, global warming. And, through these discussions, students learn how to formulate opinions and provide supporting evidence. They learn about social justice, responsibility, and construct their own viewpoints. And, they learn where their own arguments might be fallible.
So, the ‘real-world problem’ we are solving in an English classroom does not necessarily fit these ‘performance based assessments’. The ‘real-world problem’ is more about learning about ourselves, about human nature, and how to navigate this very complicated world we live in. It’s about identity crisis’s, self-discovery, exploring different worlds and perspectives and being introduced to diversity. It’s about pain and suffering and suicides and losses, and learning how to survive. It’s about dissecting human behavior, feeling your gut wrenched when Elie Wiesel’s father dies, your heart strings pulled when Scout recognizes Boo standing in the corner, and the tears that well up in your eyes when Doodle’s brother memorializes his brother.
And sometimes, the students learn the lessons right in that day. Last year, some boys made fun of a girl for mispronouncing a word and we stopped class right then and there to talk about discrimination. Other times, it may take students years. I still remember my very first C on a paper, how mad I was at my professor at the time, and how it motivated me to work to become a better writer today. We all come to school on with different experiences, different needs, different maturity levels that measuring students on these real-world problems is almost impossible.
When I think about creating a ‘performance-based assessment’ for my class, I am kind of stumped because I am not really sure how I can create a tool that will accurately measure this journey of human growth that my students will take away from my class and beyond.
When I think about my teaching philosophy, I think my new motto is: I teach about life.