“You need me to what?” I asked. “A Promotion and Tenure Dossier.” He said.
***Internal dialogue, “A doss-e-a??? What in the world is that? Do I have to perform a dance routine in front of the dean? Surely not…professors are not typically performers…but this is a liberal arts institution, so is that what it means? I’m pretty sure I might die if I have to perform something in front of people…”
“Oh, ok. I will get right on that.” I said and walked out of his office to mine.
Have you ever had that kind of conversation with your boss or a mentor? The kind where they ask you to do something and because you have proven your capable of many things, they speak to you as if you are already in the know? The above exchange was an excerpt from a conversation I had with our Department Chair this past fall. I had recently been moved from a non-tenure track contract to a tenure track contract and was now required to complete my 4th year Promotion and Tenure Dossier. I had NO idea what that was. I hate to admit this, but I honestly didn’t even know what the word dossier meant. As you can tell from my initial reaction, I was concerned it was some kind of shimmy and shake dance routine…in some circles that may not be too far off from the definition. In my circle, it literally is just a portfolio of all the work you have done for the past 4 years. It is a really large portfolio that includes reflections on your teaching, scholarship, and service, recommendation letters from your department chair, other tenured faculty members, your dean, student evaluations, and a teaching philosophy. Luckily it wasn’t all that different than the annual evaluation I complete each year, so I was able to build from that document.
The problem began, however, when I met the teaching philosophy section. My word document was blank and there set my cursor just blinking on and off taunting me to write. I had never written a teaching philosophy before. I hate going back to it, but here I was again…I went to PT school to become a clinician, not a professor. I didn’t have a clue how to even start writing a philosophy…let alone one about teaching. I could possibly spout off the philosophy of regional interdependence or the philosophy of using the neuroscience of pain, but teaching…I had no clue. Here I was again feeling like an imposter…only the 478th time that had happened since becoming a full-time professor. This was also going to be the point that my mentors and my boss were finally going to see that I had no clue what I was doing.
But then…yes, there is a but…I asked for help. But not before I spent 3-4 hours down a black hole on google. There is a lot of help out there on writing teaching philosophies, some helpful, some not so helpful. After the lost time, I went back to my blank word document and that blinking cursor. I still couldn’t do it. I couldn’t start, I couldn’t find the first word. I then proceeded to waltz down to my mentor’s office, plopped myself in a chair and let out a huge sigh of disgust. He just laughed and asked, “How can I help?” (For those of us that are mentors…I can’t say enough how those words can be such a sweet sound of support.). I told him all my woes…I have to write a teaching philosophy and I’m a trained clinician who is pretending to be a teacher…I don’t know where to start…is this a formal paper that I need to have references and citations for…will I get fired if it isn’t good enough? Thinking back, I really feel sorry for my mentor having to listen to my wayward thoughts, but in his typical thought-provoking way, he said, “You already started it.” “What do you mean I already started it…did you not hear me say I have been staring at a blanking empty word document for 5 hours now?” I said. “Go back to the first thing you said when you came into my office,” he said. “I said I have to write a teaching philosophy and I am a clinician not a teacher,” I responded. “That’s how you start…begin from that,” he said.
If you haven’t written a teaching philosophy and are considering or are currently teaching, I highly recommend you go through the exercise too. Once I got the first words on the page, the others started to flow behind them. I can now look at it and realize it was in me all along, but I was so scared to be wrong. Here are some tips I learned while writing my teaching philosophy that I hope you can benefit from:
1. Write from your heart.
The teaching philosophy is a place for you to share your inner thoughts and beliefs about teaching. This isn’t a research laden, citation filled, emotionless piece of paper. This is your why. This is your motivation, your passion for why you teach. I think another reason why it was so hard to start this project in the beginning is because you have to be vulnerable with what you think and believe to the people reading it. There aren’t too many places in academics for you to write your heart out, most other writings are for scholarly activities that require a very professional and non-personal voice. This philosophy does not…it requires heart.
2. Include your thoughts on learning.
How do people learn? What are the best ways to get your audience to learn something? How do teaching and learning differ and how are they the same. These are questions you can answer in your philosophy. None of what you write about here really needs to be original thought. What have you seen work in your experience? Think back to a professor or teacher you admired and where you learned a lot about the topic. What did they do differently than other classes in which you didn’t learn as much?
3. Provide concrete examples.
A philosophy feels so philosophical and abstract. It doesn’t have to be. In fact, I would challenge you to be as specific and concrete as you can. Give concrete examples of how you teach to learn. Do you use a flipped classroom? Do you incorporate problem-based learning? Do you use specific technology? All of those items should be incorporated into your philosophy, so that when others read it, they can picture you in a classroom teaching.
4. Use plain language and first person.
This is a document that should be read by anyone and everyone who would want to read it. This isn’t a document where you use large words to make yourself sound smarter than you are. Keeping it simple and in the first person also aids with tip number one - writing from your heart. Avoiding technical terms also allows the document to be versatile through various audiences.
Now you have some tips, go and give your own philosophy a shot. Next week I will share my teaching philosophy, so be sure to return next week and see my heart on the page.
Do you ever find yourself with a blank word document and a blinking cursor? What about writing from your heart is so hard sometimes?