Who’s Hiding in Your Teaching Philosophy?

by: Cara Meixner

Please submit your teaching statement.

The above phrase evokes multiple thoughts and emotions.  To some, the mere thought of drafting, writing, and revising a teaching philosophy arouses a state of near panic.  Others may find this act reflective, insight-laden, or – dare I say – exhilarating.  Regardless of how we feel, most of us have endured the exercise of writing some manifestation of a teaching statement or philosophy, be it prosaic or technical, terse or winded, forced or by choice.  In most cases, those who read our statements are not our students – they are colleagues, PAC members, department heads, and prospective employers.  So, how is it that we convey in class what we believe about teaching and learning?

As a social scientist, I have many wonders about the life of a teaching statement – how it takes shape and shifts form in each of our classrooms, how it is acted and played out in the learning environment.  The adage ‘actions speak louder than words’ has merit, but my fascination goes deeper when the concept of persona comes to mind.

Personas (“social masks”) are those versions of ourselves that represent or reflect the impressions we wish to make.  All well-adjusted humans don persona – and we often change from one mask to another, with or without full awareness of having done so.  These masks – personally, socially, and culturally constructed – empower us, protect us, provide us with confidence, and make us feel competent.  Consider a colleague who says he is a different person at home from who he is at work.  Literally, we know he is not really a different person!  Rather, different personas dominate different contexts, particularly when we are with others.

Sometimes, the social mask falls flat on its own face.  Other times, we do not realize the persona until someone offers feedback, holding a metaphorical mirror up for us.  The aspiration, of course, is to achieve a transparent persona – a state of being within which our projection of self is the truest self others and we may know.

So, what does this have to do with your teaching philosophy?  Consider these questions: Who are you in your classrooms?  Do your affect, language, style, behavior, and interaction convey what you believe about teaching and learning?  Are there instances within which you wear different persona – for instance, are you the same you in a lecture hall, in a graduate classroom, in office hours, at conferences, and during meetings with your unit head?

Ideally, our persona(s) aligns with and reflects our philosophies.  I have found in my own teaching practice, however, that while my philosophy has wavered only so slightly, the persona– or mask – shifts situationally.  I recall, for instance, one of the first classes I taught; I was 22, working on a master’s degree in counseling.  Often mistaken for a first-year student, I was hyper-cognizant of being misperceived by my undergraduates.   To quell that anxiety, I overcompensated – building a persona that projected “expertise” by hiding irreverently behind the lectern.  I skillfully evaded students’ questions by pumping out content; so intent on being seen by my students as competent, I even dressed differently.  I left each class exhausted.  It took years for me to see that my fatigue was an artifact of the appearance I tried to keep – a persona that conflicted with my core beliefs and values, altogether undermining my teaching philosophy.

A friend of mine, who teaches at another university, shared that she recently ‘divorced’ a well-kept persona – the mask she wore that wanted her students to like her.  “I’m not really a funny person,” she said, “but I kept trying to be.”  As a result, she came across as inauthentic.

This brings me to the tale of a professor I had years ago.  On the first day of class, he lectured vehemently about what he called the egalitarian classroom; he shared that he wanted students to assume leadership of class discussions.  We spent 20 minutes developing norms and rules.  But when students asked big questions, presumably those that called his expertise into question, the professor turned hostile.  Within weeks, the learners, myself included, fell silent and the egalitarian classroom turned autocratic.  Interestingly, several students had the professor the semester prior for a different course.  We can only hope that the mask he wore in that particular class was closest to his true self – he was relaxed, engaged the students as peers, and fostered the very environment that he had idealized.

Having taught dozens of courses since the one described above, I have worked vigilantly to be the same “Cara” in the classroom as the “Cara” I am in my office, at home, and with friends.  This takes considerable patience, requires formative feedback from students and trusted colleagues, and necessitates daily reflection.  This also means offering my students permission to call me by my first name.  “Dr. Meixner” – as wonderful and powerful as it sounds – is a persona I no longer need to hide behind.

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