Applying for faculty positions: the teaching philosophy


Job application season is not ramping up until the end of summer, but I’m bringing this topic up now because it might require some thought and introspection before applications get sent out.

Some ads ask you to make a teaching statement. Others ask you to also provide a teaching philosophy.

Those are the same thing, right? I don’t think so.

A teaching statement explains what you have taught, what you’re capable of teaching, how you have taught these courses and how you go about teaching on a day to day basis. It’s important for a teaching school to know these things when evaluating a candidate. But some departments want more information. They also want to know your philosophy.

Keep in mind that many members of search committees don’t give a damn about teaching philosophies at all. They’d be glad if you wrote a teaching statement, or if you needed to provide both, that you just got a little wordy in the philosophy. They won’t care. But for those that do care, an excellent teaching philosophy can really make you stand out, with at least some of the teaching faculty who are doing the hiring.

You might be asking yourself, “What the hell is a teaching philosophy? Do I have to have an actual philosophy about teaching?”

My answer would be, “Yes, you really should have one. Your teaching philosophy is your overall approach to teaching and a guiding principle behind all of the decisions that you make when teaching.”

Ideally, your teaching philosophy can be expressed in a sentence or two. And then it takes a few paragraphs to explain it. That’s how you write a 1-page teaching philosophy.

What is the secret to writing a kickass teaching philosophy statement to get you that job interview?

The secret is to actually, genuinely, have a kickass teaching philosophy. If you don’t have a few firm guiding principles that guide your teaching, this summer is a good time to develop them.

Instead of just telling you what a teaching philosophy is, let me give you some specific examples. I’m most familiar with teaching philosophies not from the university, but from K-12 science and math teachers. I’ve been involved in scores of interview panels for beginning and experienced teachers. One question that we always ask is: “What is your teaching philosophy?”

All but the most nervous and least prepared teachers have their answer down pat. Most of them say a slight variant of:

Every child deserves an opportunity to learn.

I love that one. I think it is broadly applicable to many circumstances – dealing with economic inequalities, differentiating instruction for students with higher-level work, working with those learning English, and those with behavioral challenges. Everybody, despite the challenges that they face and those that they even create themselves, deserves the opportunity to learn. And it’s the job of the teacher to create that opportunity. That’s a powerful philosophy.

That philosophy, however, doesn’t work for me in the university environment. Here’s my philosophy, that I’ve had for at least the last eight years:

You don’t truly learn something unless you discover it for yourself.

Someone can explain something to you, and you can understand it. But you haven’t learned it. It hasn’t been banked in memory or as something of substance unless you figure it out for yourself. Consequently, labs are important. Fieldwork is important. Discovery-based lessons in class are important. Interactivity during lectures helps. Making sure that students genuinely and deeply read helps. Creating an environment in which students feel an interest and need to discover matters. And so on. In my more recent job applications I spent a few paragraphs spelling out the corollaries and applications of this philosophy.

What are some other teaching philosophies that could work? Maybe:

University students learn best when they have both extrinsic and intrinsic motivators.

or maybe:

Learning is a social activity and interactions with others are a critical part of the college experience.

or how about:

Being able to communicate a clear understanding of a topic verbally and in writing is required for mastery.

or perhaps:

Learning is fun.

and lastly:

To be an effective teacher you must be a lifelong learner and create that spirit in your students.

or other stuff that you can just make up like I just did.

The best teaching statement is not one that you just made up, it’s one that you genuinely believe.

Realistically, most people emerging from grad school and postdocs looking for teaching jobs have something less lofty on their minds, such as “My philosophy is to do anything that results in good evaluations,” or “My philosophy is to not entirely destroy the entire semester by not knowing what I’m doing,” or “I just want to spend as little time on class as possible so that I can get everything else I need to get done finished so that I can actually keep my job.”

Those might be acceptable ideas. But it’s not a philosophy.

So, how do you find your philosophy? Experience with teaching helps, but I think even more important is to spend time interacting with others who care about teaching, and care about understanding what works and what doesn’t work.

You don’t have to be an expert in the education literature, but you should be able to hold a respectable conversation with someone who is. (You don’t need to know the acronyms but you should be able to understand the concepts.) You should be familiar with Bloom’s taxonomy, if nobody’s hit you over the head with it yet. Knowing about constructivism is a good idea. If you’re going to spend even a small part of your career teaching, then understanding the way professional educators approach teaching is a good idea.

Beware, though, when you write your teaching philosophy, you actually have to be careful to not bust out the technical education terms, because that would piss off the majority of the faculty who harbor a genuine suspicion of educational theory.

Any search committee is likely to have some people involved who think, “It’s just my job to teach and their job to learn.” I actually think that’s true, but the definition of good teaching and good learning is where I part way with those folks. The education folk like to make a distinction between the “sage on the stage” versus the “guide on the side.” I don’t follow the Johnnie Cochran school of espousing teaching philosophies, though I think effective teachers guide rather than preach.

You’d hope that these people are fossilized enough that they’re not reading blogs. Nonetheless, a dislike for anything other than bullet-point lecturing is common among many junior faculty who don’t want to be bothered with student learning and instead think their job is to spew information. As in all things related to job applications, you don’t want to express any view strongly enough that it would piss anybody off, even if that person is unreasonable.

The take-home message is that you are best off using your Statement of Teaching Philosophy to actually espouse a genuine philosophy of teaching. If you don’t have one, it’s not too early to develop your own!

If you have one you like, or would like feedback from folks on one, please share in the comments. You’ll probably get some good comments. And we won’t charge $100/hour.

15 thoughts on “Applying for faculty positions: the teaching philosophy

  1. I’ve been trying trying to formulate a version of “students need opportunities to fail” that doesn’t sound like I hate students! I mean creating an environment where students can stretch to things they don’t think they can do, where asking the possibly-dumb question or proposing the dumb hypothesis is worthwhile, where its okay to not “get it” yet.

    I also think learning to cope producively with being challeneged or being wrong is an essential skill many of my students don’t have – they’re either resigned to never succeeding, or so terrified of failure they never try.

    • I like this a lot. I don’t know the best way to express it, either. Students need to feel comfortable enough that it’s okay to be wrong. You only build new muscle by damaging the existing muscle. Students need to have an environment of respect that allows free communication because if you’re afraid to express a concept that isn’t 100% correct then it’s hard to learn. Lots of ways of putting it. But as the findings from the guide that Derek (below) linked to, communicating this idea is more about showing the concrete example, about how this actually works with a classroom situation.

  2. Great post! I’ll add one resource, a guide to writing statements of teaching philosophy from the University of Michigan. They surveyed hundreds of faculty search committees to find out what committees want to see in teaching (philosophy) statements. Results from that survey–and a rubric for evaluating one’s statement based on those results–are available in that guide. Short version: Ground your philosophy in concrete examples and experiences.

  3. I have a teaching philosophy that I’m getting fairly happy with, since I’ve developed it over a number of years. But I recently applied for a position that required a “Statement of Teaching Effectiveness”. This one really threw me for a loop. I wasn’t able to find any good advice about this–any ideas?

    • This has always boggled me, too. I don’t know what this really means. Do they want to see mean and SD of evaluation scores, and quotes from student evaluations? Do they want a binder full of student evaluations or a copy of a supervisor’s report? Test scores from students, or copies of materials? (In some countries, it’s expected to have a “teaching portfolio” that is chock-full of documentation but we don’t have that tradition in the US.) If anybody’s been on a search committee that requires a Teaching Effectiveness statement, I’d love to learn what people do and what is expected.

      • Thanks, Terry–that is helpful. I didn’t include any example syllabus, so that’s useful to know. And one of the commenters said they try and include negative comments from evaluations–not sure exactly how I’d go about doing that well. Unfortunately, didn’t make the short list for the job I prepared the last one for, but hopefully I’ll be able to use this in the next round of applications!

    • Hey Chelsea,
      On this front, they are probably looking for the results of evaluations, flawed though many of those systems are (see for a rundown of what is wrong at my school). If you have evaluations of your teaching that get at student learning, either empirically through testing or performance on written assignments or indirectly with self-evaluations of student learning, that is what they are looking for. And my guess is that, at most schools, they are looking for red flags rather than signs of excellence. We are typically looking for signs, in the teaching philosophy, etc. that you will be willing to buy into our brand of teaching. We are looking for hints that you will drink our brand of teaching cool-aid when you arrive because, chances are, you have never taught that way before. Hope this helps.

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