The Three Rocks: My Teaching Journey

I always find revising my teaching philosophy to be quite difficult.  How do I distill everything I have experienced and all my beliefs about why, what and how I teach as well as how I assess student achievement into not more than three pages?  Teaching is an art, not a science.  There is no step-by-step manual or perfect teaching equation, “do this and then that and the students are guaranteed to learn.”  To me, writing a teaching philosophy is like describing a piece of art to someone who has never seen it; your portrayal pales in comparison to the real thing.  The other reason I find this type of exercise so challenging relates to my core teaching belief: teaching is about the student, not the teacher.  How do I write a cohesive, one-size fits all statement when each student is different?  When each class and each situation is different?  Why should I describe what I have done and what has worked in the past when I know that strategy may not work in the future?  Therefore, instead of a traditional teaching philosophy, what follows is the story of how I came to embrace a student-centered classroom.  It is the story about the Juliane who was a novice teacher and grew with her years of experience.  It is the story of how I almost left the profession, but returned to it renewed and ready to tackle my second decade of syllabi writing, the expansion of my pedagogical content knowledge, as well as discussion facilitating and grading. 

In the spring of 2012, Iowa State University selected me to be a Wakonse Fellow.  I traveled with a group of current and future faculty to Camp Miniwanca on the shores of Lake Michigan for a six-day intensive teaching conference and retreat.  Mentally exhausted and seriously considering leaving the teaching profession after just over 10 consecutive years in various classrooms, I looked forward to taking a step back and re-evaluating my career choice.  Upon arrival, I saw the camp’s motto, “My own self, at my very best, all the time,” plastered on what seemed like every wall.   When I read that statement, I knew I was in the right place to re-find myself, whether it turned out to be a teaching self was yet to be determined. 

One morning midway through the conference, I was up before the sun, walking along the deserted sandy beach; the gulls were looking for their breakfasts, the freezing cold water lapped at my toes, and a stiff wind pulled at my hair.  My eyes burned from a night of too little sleep and my sides ached with the night’s laughter and camaraderie; it was a delightful dichotomy.  I stopped to watch the sunrise over Lake Michigan and suddenly, I felt the water push three solid objects at my toes.  I looked down and saw three small rocks at my feet.  Absent-mindedly, I picked up the stones, rinsed off the sand and muck in the lake surf and placed them in my backpack where I promptly forgot about their existence.  Later, as I sat in a rather uncommonly stilted group seminar, I was looking for my pen in my bag and came across the rocks.  As I wrapped my hand around them, I excused myself from the meeting.  Alone in my room, I lined up the rocks along the edge of the small bedside table and considered them in the midday stillness, these two black-gray rocks and this one white rock with fine gray lines.  I imagined the rocks as they were when they entered Lake Michigan, likely much larger, pointy and sharp-edged.  Buffeted by the waves, now their edges were smooth and round, their faces indented to the point a latticework of vertices were evident.  They had spent an unknown amount of time in the surf, making their way, somehow, through the whole of Lake Michigan, to land at my feet that early morning.  With my finger, I traced the tiny scars evident on the smallest of the three rocks.  Clearly, it was battle worn, but it was still recognizable as a rock.  I took comfort in the weight of the rock in my palm as it offered its own best self to me. 

It occurred to me then that the process my rocks went through to arrive at my feet that pre-dawn, not-quite-summer morning was not unlike my personal teaching journey.  When I first entered the role of quasi-instructor in 2001, what I considered my very best teaching self was full of sharp edges, absolutes and inane rules.  Working with mathematics and business students, I considered calculators cheats and required my students work without one.  Late work and absences were unacceptable under all circumstances.  Cellular telephones, in their infancy in 2001, had to be off in class or else, and all work had to be shown in pencil.  Ever the sage on stage, I considered myself the alpha and omega of knowledge.  My lessons were purely lecture-style and in my arrogance, I often told students, “If I am speaking, you should be taking notes.”  I cared not for different learning styles or student goals, and when students did not do so well on assessments, I simply thought that they should have studied harder.  After all, I clearly “covered” all the material! 

Fortunately, time passed; I taught more classes and met many different types of students, from highly gifted second graders to adults struggling to earn their General Education Diplomas.  I worked with students entering college directly from high school and others who juggled their studies with working part-time and caring for children as single parents.  I educated high school students who, try as they might, could not overcome their personal issues to find success in a traditional classroom and found themselves finishing out their high school diplomas in an alternative educational environment.  My student encounters, from triumphs to miserable failures that still haunt me, buffeted me as the waves of Lake Michigan worked their magic on my three rocks.  Like my rocks, over time, my sharp edges also became rounded.  I realized absolutist ideas had no station in my classroom.  Students could be trusted to use calculators as tools and not crutches.  It did not matter if a student completed the homework in pencil or pen.  Cellular phones sometimes needed to be on, and there were valid reasons a student simply could not be in class.  As my edges softened, my own best teaching self also evolved, shaped by not only my students but also my never-ending quest for pedagogical content knowledge.  I moved from a lecture-based to a collaborative style; in my current classroom, you will often find students working in small groups and then presenting material to the class either at the board or from their seats.  I transformed my favorite activities from single-answer, easy to grade questions into multiple-entry point scenarios that required all group members to come to class ready to contribute and saw an increase in student attendance, timeliness and retention.  I began requiring that students write and share with me their class learning goals so I could better shape my lessons, activities and pre-planned questions.  My assessments expanded from traditional tests and quizzes to mathematical essays and portfolios that actually showed student learning.  The biggest change I made in my classroom; however, was the decrease in the amount of time I spent speaking. 

Although I have amassed a great deal of knowledge about my content and appropriate pedagogy, I have realized it is not always necessary for me to dispense it directly.  Instead of being a fount of facts and procedures that spews forth two or three times a week for 50 to 120 minutes, in my class I now speak only when necessary and let my students have the floor for the rest of the time.  Student’s vocalizations, whether to me or to their small group, give me a valuable window into their current level of conceptual understanding and let me know the direction in which I need to steer the discussion so we may accomplish the learning objectives.  I now understand that my job as class instructor is to observe, listen, and measure what students already understand against our goals, then push that existing knowledge to the next level by directed questioning, well-planned activities and thoughtful assessments.  It is the reverse of what my larger than life egotistical self said many years ago; “If my students are speaking, I should be taking notes.”  

Ten years of classroom experiences have left their marks on me.  Like my rocks, I have evolved and developed rounded edges, yet I maintain some soft vertices that represent the classroom policies and procedures that are necessary to maintain order.  My core belief that became cemented over time: teaching is about the student, remains.  Since students are a heterogeneous and fickle enigma, it is clear why I cannot write a traditional teaching philosophy statement.  I can only say that I plan and write lesson objectives and assessments in conjunction with the course learning objectives and then I observe and listen to my students.  I take note of student goals, their experiences and their process of understanding our content, and then I go back and adjust my objectives, plans and assessments as appropriate.  I capture all the little pieces that constitute learning and mesh them together in the same way an artist mixes paint or clay to weave the art of my teaching.  It is an imperfect, subjective process under constant construction.  As my time at Camp Miniwanca ended, I realized that my own very best self is a listening, observant teacher.  I returned to my university to undertake the academic work of teaching with newfound joy.  As I weave my teaching art, I look at three rocks sitting on my desk that came out of the surf of Lake Michigan.  Three rocks that offered me not only their own best selves but also a surprising reminder of how far I have traveled in this profession.  Three rocks that changed in the tides but remain rocks, just as I changed in the wake of experiences with students and yet remain a teacher.


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