Jeff Stehr's Homepage

My Philosophy of Teaching

I believe the best teachers are those who set high standards and work hard to help students, in particular by establishing a supportive atmosphere in which students can learn. I believe that establishing an atmosphere for learning is the single most important thing a teacher can do to help students learn. Everything else is secondary. Students must feel comfortable in learning new material and asking questions. If they do not, the teacher might as well hand them a textbook and tell them when to show up for exams. Establishing such an atmosphere is not simply a matter of telling a few good jokes or having cookies at office hours--to do so, a teacher must be aware that every interaction with a student is a chance to intimidate or encourage that student, and act accordingly.

I believe the first step in establishing a good atmosphere for learning is to uncover student concerns by actively seeking and encouraging student feedback. Teachers who proceed as though they know what is best for students flatly ignore the fact that students are individuals who are each having their own problems learning the material. To this end, I believe in using evaluations and seeking out student opinions as a course is taught. This, however, need not all be in the traditional form of student evaluations, as some of this information can also come from looking at tests and homework problems.

An open, encouraging atmosphere must be maintained to encourage communication between students and teachers. If, in seeking out student feedback, a teacher is hostile or shaming, the teacher should not even bother to ask for it, as students' responses will not reflect their true concerns. I encourage students in class to show up for my office hours, which are relatively open, so students may stop by at their convenience to ask questions which they do not feel comfortable asking in class. I think office hours represent a unique opportunity, as this is the only time when teacher and student can communicate on an individual basis. Furthermore, I am friendly to students who stop by, and treat them with respect, since going to office hours can be an intimidating experience, and I do not want to discourage students from seeking help.

Teachers who do establish an open atmosphere will likely receive some negative comments about their teaching. When I do, I respond to those comments by adjusting my approach. As the teacher, I cannot plow forward assuming that I know the technique best suited to presenting an idea to a particular class. Similarly, I cannot presume that an explanation I give will be as clear to the students as it is to me. Instead, I try to remain observant, responsive, and willing to adapt to the needs of the students. When providing an explanation, I keep in mind that students are not just soaking up facts, but instead are continually rearranging their way of thinking about a subject, shifting paradigms continuously throughout the class. Students should be given time to do this and must not be intimidated out of doing so by responses which shame them for not knowing the material before they take the course; being responsive also means being aware of how one's responses affect one's students. I have never been impressed by teachers who set lofty goals but are indifferent to their students, and I have been similarly unimpressed by teachers who are friendly, but seem to win the favor of their students by demanding little of them. The classroom environment must be one where students are encouraged to excel, and where their individual needs are addressed.

I think alternative methods of teaching can also be used to respond to student needs. The change of pace provided by such techniques maintains student interest, and provides other cognitive benefits as well. I do not think that a single perfect teaching method has been invented, so in the meantime, I try to be flexible and adapt my methods to the material I present. I ask my students daily to open themselves up to change, so I, too, should be open to it.

Realistically, I can only provide an environment for learning, giving prompt feedback and encouraging students when they need it--the students must integrate new material and relate it to their personal experience. In fact, I think students must do the hardest part of learning themselves. Regardless of whether or not a teacher establishes a good atmosphere for doing so, students must take a great deal of responsibility for learning the material. In the long run, this will serve them well, as they will eventually have to motivate themselves and learn on their own.

I think it is important to keep this in mind when considering teaching goals. What people regard as basic information in a field will change quickly. Theories, because they give structure to this information, are more valuable, but will eventually need to be replaced. However, the abilitiy to develop and communicate one's ideas will always be valuable. If I do not develop this ability in my students, by providing an environment in which it can grow, I have taught them nothing, because, in time, everything else will become obsolete.

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