Below is my current statement of teaching philosophy. I haven’t updated this for a couple of years now, but need to do so before going on the job market. I will probably edit it down a bit and tighten up the language as well as go through and work on those areas where the language is imprecise or hackneyed. However, the core values that I express here remain central to my philosophy of teaching and how I try to conduct my classroom.
Statement of Teaching Philosophy
My work as a teacher is much like my work as a director or even as a writer: an attempt to facilitate thoughtful reflection and create the environment for new stories to emerge. Learning is a matter of building connections, both in a literal physiological manner (as the brain builds new and different neural pathways), and in connections between a student’s life, his/her imagination, and the material presented. In other words, a learning experience is one in which a person builds an information pattern that includes themselves, the material and the interactions between the two. My responsibility as a teacher is to create a classroom that facilitates these connections. Dialogue and reflexivity are two excellent ways to create just such a setting. My classroom is a space for myself and my students to share information as well as to examine what this information communicates about ourselves and our world. There are any number of classroom attitudes that promote such sharing and examining, but for me the key requirements for a successful classroom include the following: respect, curiosity, and reflection upon both the self and the subject matter.
As a teacher I believe that it is important to earn the respect of my students. Practically speaking, this means learning their names as soon as possible, learning a little about who they are, and learning why they are in my class. It means taking the time to ask questions when they are late or absent instead of simply taking off points. It means I need to recognize that each and every student is an individual with unique talents, knowledge and perspectives. Ultimately, it is only by showing respect to my student that I deserve to receive it from them.
Another way I can demonstrate respect for students is to maintain a curious nature as a teacher. This is very difficult if I see myself as a repository of knowledge rather than as a conduit for information and a facilitator of critical reflection. To be curious means that I am open, eager to explore both the subject material as well as the relationship between the material and the student’s own lives. To be curious means to accept the risk of being wrong, of finding new ways to understand old data, of engaging in an exchange with the students and being willing to learn from them.
If I am genuinely curious about my students and about my own relation to the work of theatre arts, it becomes impossible not to engage in critical reflection on my own work as a teacher. Just as respect begets respect, reflexivity on my part sets the conditions for reflexivity on the part of the students. It would be laughable to have a guitar teacher who does not play the guitar. Is it any different with critical reflection? I need to model reflexivity not simply ask for it from my students. This reflexivity should not end at the material or the material’s relationship to the teacher and students. It is also vital to be aware of the various systems surrounding the classroom, including the university as an institution, class, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientations, etc. Very little of what we do and present as teachers is ideologically innocent, and to foster reflexivity in my students, I must allow the context of the classroom to be present and accounted for.
Of course, one cannot peer into a student’s heart and mind and precisely gauge their level of curiosity and reflexivity. However, there are a number of tactics one can use in the theatre and performance arts that can reveal just how well the students are able to see and manipulate patterns of information for themselves. To begin with, in a performance class, it is important to create detailed rubrics for what the students are responsible for. For example, if the students are presenting a scene from a play, I can evaluate measurable elements. Are all their lines memorized? Did they use the basics of blocking to keep themselves open to the audience? Are their movements motivated by the text or character’s needs? Do they use space to help establish relationships between characters and objects? While acting ability can be hard to pin down and even, in certain classes, not the main focus, these kinds of objective and viewable elements are important in evaluating a student’s progress and understanding.
Additionally, other classes that are more historical or research based have their own guideposts to the student’s ability to synthesize information and patterns. Class discussions, which I facilitate but do not lead, provide excellent insight into how students are able to deploy information as a pattern that encompasses the material, the world, and themselves. Additionally, the peer instruction in small group work can be of tremendous value for students attempting to form new images and stories about the world based on new information.
Informal writing assignments with guiding questions are an valuable technique to prompt students about how new material relates to their own lives. Having these papers form a portfolio that is graded provides for some weight to the assignments, but allows each one to be less goal oriented and more reflective. Longer paper assignments need to be held to a high standard of technical execution (spelling, formatting, etc.), as well as argumentative and/or research standards. However, there should be ample opportunities for revision by the students so that they are able to address comments and criticisms in an active manner by engaging in rewrites.
Ultimately, these methods of measurement are all meant to support the creation of an environment that allows dialogue and critical reflection, buoyed by respect, curiosity, and reflexivity.
Finally, I would like to stress another element of a productive classroom that I often feel is lacking. In his essay “Theatre for Pleasure, Theatre for Instruction,” Bertolt Brecht points out that the “contrast between learning and amusing oneself is not laid down by divine rule; it is not one that has always been and must continue to be.” Indeed, as a species, one of our greatest strengths lies in our capacity for lifelong learning and play. I strongly believe that learning, no matter how difficult or challenging, can retain elements of joy, amusement, and fun. In fact, emptying the learning experience of just those elements will guarantee a far more difficult, if not the utter failure of, learning experience. As we learn, we change the stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves. This is also exactly what theatre artists hope to do. Every play, every performance is an attempt to understand what it means to be human, and to explore the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.