Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Unofficial Teaching Philosophy


Reading Time: 7 minutes

I need to write my teaching philosophy for an official document for work, and I’m having difficulty getting it written down. For several reasons

  1. My teaching philosophy is a living thing. It evolves with my thinking and my practice. I believe something in theory, I try it, I revise my beliefs. Or… Something happens, it makes me think, I try to reconcile it with previous beliefs and experiences, and a new thing comes of it
  2. As someone with a PhD in education and who works in faculty development I know entirely too many buzz words and deeper theoretical educational terms that I could use. On one hand, I believe very strongly in certain things that I feel someone who isn’t a social scientist or has studied education would understand clearly. Like that I’m against a deficit model of education with respect to how we view students and teachers, while also believing in nurturing agency while recognizing and resisting structural inequalities. It’s a complicated thing. I mean this will be really straightforward for some people but entirely gibberish to others. And my audience for this teaching philosophy is both. I can’t appear too superficial for the educators and social scientists, nor should I use too much jargon that would put off the others. Imagine an audience of academics who teach education, sociology, chemistry, engineering and management. Yep. That.
  3. Lots of my teaching philosophy would appear whacko to some (most?) people. They call me “organic”, I could call myself “emergent”. A colleague of mine observed me teach last semester and saw how emergent. She saw how I responded to students’ interests and needs, how I took on new ideas I got from various places and modified my class… How I just generally don’t center content or learning outcomes but the learning process. This was always how I taught, but I learned it’s called “curriculum as process” and when it has a social justice angle, it’s called “curriculum as praxis”
  4. Lots of my digital and open work will be incomprehensible to some (most?) people. This one I’m sure will resonate with many many people who read my blog. Many of us doing open educational practices are on what could be considered cutting edge or margins, depending how positively viewed it is in our context. Both, I guess. I mean, cutting edge IS margins. Just a privileged margin. Lots of what’s innovative about my teaching (my institution is interested in innovative) will be difficult to explain briefly. Like… Twitter Scavenger Hunt last week… Made complete sense to my PLN on Twitter and many joined in. Was confusing for students at first, but eventually many enjoyed it.
  5. I do share dimensions of my teaching philosophy ALL THE TIME. On this blog. On my syllabus. On first day of class. I draw on work of people I respect, including contemporaries and historical figures.
  6. I’m in a bit of a funk because of lots of stress from personal stuff and work stuff all happening at the same time with all the “surprise” deadlines. It’s a lot. It’s REALLY A LOT.

SO… With that all said, let’s give this unofficial Teaching Philosophy a go? It’s unofficial because I don’t know that I can write this stuff in it. But maybe I can find a way? Cite other people or past writing by me?

I love my students. I don’t think I can write this in those words… But the truth of it is that I start every class loving my students. I love them as a group and individually and unconditionally. This changes over the semester and of course I’ll become fonder of particular people, we’re all human. I’d never pretend not to care about my students because I do. But I do know some people make fun of those of us who speak of love in this context, and I think it’s either that we understand love differently (i.e. They have much stricter views of love than I do – and keep in mind there’s no difference in Arabic between the words love and like), or we understand the context differently (of whether caring is encouraged or accepted, of class sizes and how they affect our capacities to build relationships). Most of my teaching has been of undergraduate students or in-service teachers or faculty. I generally just love being around undergrads. It’s possibly nostalgia to my college years. I don’t know. And I love being among teachers and faculty because we have something in common – we chose (well hopefully iy was a choice) to dedicate our lives to helping others learn.

So loving students. I’m sure I’ll find something official by Nell Noddings or bell hooks on this, and something less official by Amy Collier or Gardner Campbell or Sean Morris or Jesse Stommel on this.

But more importantly, I think, is that loving students to me is an entry point into striving towards equity and inclusion in my teaching. To recognize each student as an individual with their own needs and interests, and to try to cultivate these and allow them space to shine in the course… While also building a safe, supportive learning community where differences among us are respected and appreciated.

Emergent, process-oriented curriculum. Before my semester starts, and really, every minute of my life, I add to a Google doc with ideas for my class. If I read an article or find a tweet or get an idea, I put notes and links for how I might use it in class. I think of my class as a combination of play-doh and Legos. All the ideas in my Google document are Lego bricks, but there’s no ideal sequence of how they go together. But I have 100 Lego blocks to fit into 40 spaces… And which ones go where and when depends on how the course goes. I may start the semester with 100 to choose from, and then new things pile up and I find myself with 150 blocks. In any case, I have like a library of ideas to pick from each week and occasionally in the moment, even. But my classes are also like play-doh in the sense that in-class discussions are central and those might go in whatever direction students take them. What interests me very much is the ways I have in the past brought the ideas of shy students into class by referring to their blogposts – ideas they posted publicly but may never bring out in a spontaneous discussion.

Let me try to freewrite a bit more here…

I believe in content-independent teaching where I can have a list of suggested texts ahead of time but let students find or choose their own at various times in the semester.

I believe in opening up my classroom in different ways so that students can look out and others can look in. Examples are when I taught educational game design, I had students blog their ideas for feedback and when their games were created, display and playtest their prototype games on campus for others outside class to try.

I believe in sustainable assessments that have value beyond the class, sometimes in obvious ways (past student games are used for future students to play and some I use as ice-breakers for workshops etc), sometimes in less obvious ways.

I believe in the importance of constant reflection on one’s own teaching… Whether by reflecting aloud with a mentor or colleague, or writing here on my blog, or doing full-fledged research and calling it Classroom Action Research or Scholarship of Teaching and Learning.

I believe in the need for the teacher to be a lifelong learner. I learn from my students but also from my child and everything around me and it all influences my teaching.

I’m always interested in reading and listening about how others teach, trying new things and iterating. I almost never do the exact same thing twice. I’ll tweak it here and there. Student reflections really influence me and some semesters I don’t use Twitter at all because some issues occurred the semester before and I take time to process them and come up with alternatives. I think I managed a good alternative this time around.

I believe in making as much of my work open as possible, for others to benefit, including narrating my processes not just sharing my products. I also benefit very much from other people doing the same, and use open resources in my own teaching where possible.

I believe in Culturally Relevant Pedagogy. Although my students and I usually share a similar Anglo-Arab culture to an extent, I think they need to often be reminded of the Arab dimension not just the American in their education. This means encouraging them to find and read/watch sources by Arab, African and minority scholars as well as Western ones. I think this matters because they need to be able to see themselves as possible creators of knowledge not merely consumers of it, and role models help. And context matters.

I wish I could do more community-based learning. One of the reasons I don’t is that I have reservations on superficial implementation of it and I’m concerned about messing it up for students or the community. Based on some experience. On the other hand, I believe it’s very important and was an essential dimension of the building of my own self-efficacy as a critical citizen (community service and other extracurricular activities). So I need to figure out the balance between developing students as reflective and thoughtful citizens (which I believe I have been able to do) and as active (also still reflective) citizens. Paulo Freire warns us re activism without reflection and verbalism without action. We need both for praxis. I’ve undergone activism alone and it wasn’t enough. Academics are probably accused of being more towards verbalism. I need to see how to nurture reflective activism in my students. However if I had to choose, I’d continue with reflection because students will take action in the areas they are passionate about – it’s the reflection that’s missing from their lives and harder to get outside the classroom.

I need to stop here but I am not fully done. I need to mention how my own teaching philosophy influences which workshops I give and how I give them, but that I also feel strongly that each person is entitled to their own teaching philosophy and they should do what feels right for them in their classes. I encourage other faculty to try new things, but also to try what makes sense for their overall approach…. And to assess impact and reevaluate and adapt and tweak and try again. One faculty member stopped me in the middle of a workshop and noted how our workshops weren’t really about the tool or strategy we were giving the workshop about, but about mindset. I hope some of my workshops help faculty ask themselves questions about their own teaching, promote reflection on teaching, and that this would eventually positively influence their practice.

I believe in the importance of hybrid teaching. Hybrid in any way that makes sense. Digital and in-person as the two main ones. I believe both have something to offer and learners need to develop literacies in both (digital literacies but also interpersonal and communication skills in a room) and my courses develop both.

Ok… Really need to stop.

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