Tips for Writing the Teaching Philosophy

The beginning of the academic job market is in full swing, and I wish all of you who are in the process of putting together applications nothing but the absolute best of luck.  Remember to focus on what you can control:  the strength of your application materials.  I have often told the graduate students with whom I have worked that wondering (and worrying) about how, when, or why search committees make their decisions is akin to stressing about whether or not a piece of space debris will fall out of the sky and damage your car.  That is, you have absolutely no control over much of the process beyond the strength of materials you send out in response to an ad.  There is a bit more agency in the interview stages of the process, but–even then–it is impossible to predict how search committees will respond.

In the spirit of helping with those materials, I have written about the job market before.  In the past I have even offered to review any application materials from graduate students across the country *for free* (an offer that still stands to this day).  Today, though, I thought I might offer a few tips for writing the omnipresent “Statement of Teaching Philosophy,” the very title for which sounds as if you need to compose some sort of ethereal magnum opus about pedagogy, which could not be further from the truth.

I originally wrote the following tips during my time working at George Mason’s CTFE, so they are also linked to the website for that office:

What is a Teaching Philosophy?

A teaching philosophy is less lofty than the name implies.  It is, quite simply, a document that describes what your goals and values are as a college teacher and what you have done in the classroom to implement these and to foster student learning.  Teaching philosophies can be two pages long (but never three).

Why Would You Write a Teaching Philosophy?

  • For the academic job market.
  • For a teaching portfolio (awards, grants, fellowships, etc.).
  • For your own professional development.
  • For the benefit of your students.

Do…

  • Illustrate who you are as a teacher as concretely as possible.
  • Use actual examples of classroom practice.
  • Show an awareness of different pedagogies.

Do Not…

  • Use jargon.
  • Rely too heavily on sentimentality.
  • Begin or end with a quote.
  • Ramble or go on tangents

Keep These Over-Simplified Maxims in Mind When Writing a Teaching Philosophy:

  • Be specific.
  • Be memorable (in a good way).
  • Be concise.

To this list, I would now add:  Include a title that cleverly captures the essence of the document.  Why?  Your number one goal here is to make sure that the search committee reads this finely-crafted piece into which you have poured countless hours of work.  The problem is that search committees are seeing hundreds of applications, all of which include a teaching philosophy that simply says “Statement of Teaching Philosophy” (or something similar) at the top.  After a while, these all start to blend together (if search committees are still reading) which is *not a good thing*.  Having a title can make yours stand out from the crowd, which–in turn–can help to ensure that it gets read.  Once they have read it, make it stick with them by following some of the guidelines above.

I cannot stress enough that the most important element of the teaching philosophy is the specific detail about your actual classroom practice and course design.  For example, what is one of your most effective assignments?  Why has it been so successful? This is the kind of detail that can help the committee get a picture of who you are as a teacher even though they have not physically met you yet.  When the committee gathers around the table, you want at least one person to be able to say, “Oh yes, that’s Jane P. Awesome-Candidate, who did that really cool thing in her Introduction to Literature class.”

Ultimately, as I was recently discussing with my friend Jim Donahue, I wish committees requested teaching philosophies later in the process so that they might be more effective.  In any case, I hope I have shown that writing one needn’t be either scary or frustrating.  Good luck to all!