Some Statements about Teaching Statements

The philosophy of teaching statement belongs to that family of genres – along with the admissions essay, the cover letter, the grant or fellowship application, and others – that makes many of us uncomfortable.  It’s a humblebrag, that has to show-rather-than-tell and be accessibly sophisticated (but not seem like you’re trying too hard!), all while standing out of what we always fear will be an enormous stack of similar statements.

And how much more complicated for denizens of Swift Hall: what will they assume about me, a “Divinity School” student?  What do they think of my discipline?  Will they assume I’m too confessional – or not nearly confessional enough?

As it is with any new genre, though, the way to learn how to write a good teaching statement is practice, repeated drafting, reading good models, and continuing to think about how you approach the subject.  I am a fellow traveler on this road – my teaching statement is far from perfect – but what follows are some of the techniques and advice that I’ve used now that I’m on, I believe, my seventh draft.

438354The teaching statement is an expression of a coherent, praxis-oriented answer to questions implicit in the craft of teaching.  I began by writing short answers to some of the more general questions that I imagined anyone interested in my teaching might ask:  Why bother teaching religion (theology and ethics, in my case) in a world of aching and immediate need?  How does my teaching relate to its various social, cultural, and political contexts?  What is happening when I teach – not just in my classroom, but in the experience of my students?  What are my goals and objectives for student learning, and how does this differ in various settings?  What are the canons, methods, and concepts that I teach, and why are they important?  How would I defend their use vis-à-vis alternatives?  What are the tactics I use in teaching, and how do they cohere with my objectives for student learning?

You won’t have space to include explicit answers to all of these questions in your statement – only a handful of answers have made it onto the page, in my case – but you might find this to be a helpful brainstorming exercise, particularly in naming and clarifying your assumptions about the practice of teaching.  I’ve found that one of the challenges of the task is giving the statement a feeling of coherence, and having this background understanding has aided me in making connections between some of my larger, normative claims and the practical examples I use to illustrate them.

As you begin to shape your statement itself, there are common formulae and pitfalls that you may well be aware of (see, e.g., Karen Kelsky’s warnings here).  It’s always worth keeping in mind that members of a search committee will likely be at least as overwhelmingly busy as we all are, and so your statement will probably work best as communication to this audience if it follows a familiar structure and includes concise but compelling examples and explanation.  I found it helpful to rely on a couple of organizing metaphors – learning as becoming familiar with new conceptual “territory” and as developing one’s own personal voice (which I’ve learned and adapted for my own use from Prof. Kevin Hector) – that succinctly draw together my tactics, assessments, and convictions.  A well-chosen metaphor can save a lot of space – maybe not the full thousand words, but a few, anyway – by communicating a mental picture of practice and theory at once.

In addition to brainstorming in response to questions and hitting on one or two central metaphors, there are three things I would certainly do again, if I had to write a teaching statement from scratch:

  • Keep a Teaching Journal. During my first semester of stand-alone teaching, I kept a journal that summarized and evaluated each class session, preserving specific details.  This has turned out to be profoundly helpful to me.  Not only is it helpful to look back at how several of my teaching habits emerged and have progressed, this journal has provided me with detailed examples in context to use in my teaching statement.  I stopped keeping this journal after my first semester, but I have since then recorded (again, in detail) unusual, telling, or particularly effective moments in the classroom to make sure that I can integrate them into representations of my teaching.
  • Don’t be afraid to confess your sins. When I have asked others to read my teaching portfolio, they typically say that some of its most vivid (and effective) moments come from recounting how my instincts were misguided, or my tactics clumsy, or some other failure.  I think this lends some well-earned credibility to the lesson or the principle that you draw from it: my statement benefits from asking why I took that wrong path in one or two instances and what was illuminated for me when it didn’t work well.
  • Get as many eyes on as many drafts as you can. The Chicago Center for Teaching runs a great workshop on teaching statements that includes student small groups who read and comment on several drafts of each others’ statements.  Or make your own: get a few friends to write drafts, circulate them, and give feedback to each other.  This was incredibly valuable to me: in a short statement, working up just the right turn of phrase or giving the appropriate context for an example is a challenge, and a peer can really help you make progress.  Outside feedback can also be helpful if it comes from other areas of study or (even better) other departments in the university: search committees, particularly from some smaller institutions, are often composed of people from outside your discipline, and you’ll want to know how your statement reads to such people.

The teaching statement is, for most of us, a rite of passage, a necessary part of job applications, and a source of headaches.  But the final lesson I will share is this: it can also be an occasion for real insight into your own teaching.  Not only will you be making a repository of your best practices and most refined thoughts about teaching, but you’ll also be prodded to self-examination and reflection.  On more than one occasion, I’ve found confidence in a difficult moment in the classroom because I had clarified for myself the purposes and praxis of my teaching, and writing the teaching statement was the most significant moment in finding that clarity.  I hope that you find it equally fruitful!

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