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Teaching Philosophy, pt. 1

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No, no. Not teaching about philosophy. Philosophy about teaching. As an undergrad at the University of Missouri, most of my friends were music education majors. I saw them go through a lot of assignments about developing a teaching philosophy. These assignments were universally loathed. On the rare occasions they were mentioned in social settings, I gathered that these were multi-page BS-fests full of buzz words and devoid of anything meaningful.

Imagine my reaction when perusing the application requirements for a number of newly posted professorships included some form of “a statement of the applicant’s philosophy of teaching.” Gah! Five effing years of graduate school, ostensibly in preparation for a university teaching position, and nobody ever thought to teach me this?! I’m still not sure if I’m madder that I have to write this extra document, or that none of my professors have done more than acknowledge the existence of such documents. 1

One of the first things I do these days when I find myself in this kind of dilemma is tweet about it, especially when I’m pretty sure some of my friends have been through the same thing. I did this in my usual snarky way. Responses came in pretty quickly from friends who teach music at just about every level from grade school to college. My very good friend and frequent intellectual sparring partner Tim Rosenberg, who has a music education degree and is currently teaching saxophone at Ithaca College, told me I should take this task more seriously. He told me that “[A] teaching philosophy is important and describes why you act the way you do while teaching. Writing them is a clarifying experience.” Normally I’m all about clarity, but people who talk about “clarifying experiences” are usually trying to sell you something herbal. Though, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that he was (as he is on an alarmingly regular basis) completely right. 2 Part of the reason I blog is to clarify my thoughts for myself. As E. M. Forster famously wrote, “How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?”

Another sure fire helper, after my friends and colleagues, is the all-knowing Google, through which I found this extremely helpful article from the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2003. There are quite a lot of people writing on the web about teaching philosophies, but almost none of them are about higher education. Later that evening, my friend Matt Schoendorff, who also holds a music ed degree and is currently teaching at Wayne State University, was kind enough to send me the document he’s been including in his recent job applications.

So, the more I think about it, the less I’m dreading writing this thing. I’ll continue posting my thoughts as I gather them. Check back in the next few days for a fully(ish)-cooked teaching philosophy. Here’s where I’m starting:

1. This note from Tim:

“Start by outlining, sans buzzwords, about why you teach and why it’s important. Then move to how you teach and why you do it that way.”

2. This excerpt from the Chronicle article I found:

If you’re still feeling overwhelmed by the task at hand, try to focus on concrete questions, as opposed to the abstract question of “What’s my philosophy?” says Mr. Kaplan 3.

“Breaking down that broad question into component parts — for example, What do you believe about teaching? What do you believe about learning? Why? How is that played out in your classroom? How does student identity and background make a difference in how you teach? What do you still struggle with in terms of teaching and student learning? — is often easier,” he says. “Those more concrete questions get you thinking, and then you can decide what you want to expand on.”


  1. To be fair to my professors, my research indicates that requiring teaching philosophy statements of university job applicants is a relatively new development. I doubt most of them had to write anything like them when they were applying for their current jobs in higher education. But I”m still mad about it. They should be teaching me about academia as it is, not as it was, right?
  2. Congratulations, Tim, on finishing your document! I can’t wait to read it.
  3. Matt Kaplan of the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching at the University of Michigan
  • Patrick

    You know, as one of those music ed majors who loathed those philosophy statements, I gotta tell you that your trepidation makes sense after hearing all our experiences from undergrad. When the COE made us write those statements, they were indeed pretty dumb because we hadn’t really had the teaching experience to be able to write a meaningful philosophy statement without resorting to all those buzzwords.

    You actually have that experience, and so the philosophy statement should feel / read like a nice reflection on what you think you do right in the classroom and how you think it helps your students. Tim gave good advice. The simpler, the better. The Chronicle makes it sound too douchey.

    It would’ve been nice to have heard what I just said from my professors when I was in undergrad. It happens, I guess.

    • David MacDonald

      Thanks for the comment Patrick. Hearing you say that, I can completely understand your frustration with those assignments. Do you find them useful now? Did you find the exercise of thinking about that stuff useful?

      Also, I know you’ve been thinking about looking for a new job or going back to school. Have you revised your teaching philosophy statement? How is/would it be different?

      Side note: I just realized “teaching philosophy statement” can be initialized to be TPS. As in TPS report. As in, that’s what I’m calling it from now on.

  • As a music ed person myself, here is how I see it…

    You have a teaching philosophy already, the tricky part is just putting it into words. This philosophy kicks in every time you create a test, assignment, ask a question in class, plan a lesson, etc. The problem I had with teaching philosophies during my undergrad is that I felt most of them were maudlin and insincere. Without getting overly technical, it good to think about your views on assessment, homework, lecture style, class participation, differentiation, etc. You could write a book on all of this stuff, but I think it is a good starting point… it’ll help you form an all-encompassing philosophy.