Teaching Today

A Student-Centered Teaching Statement

Taking a student-focused approach can help search committees distinguish your statement from those of other candidates, writes Zachary Nowak.

September 17, 2019
 
 
Istockphoto.com/Andrew_Rybalko

Last summer, like many of my colleagues, I was busy revising my job market documents and preparing my fall courses. One of the job market documents was my teaching statement.

I’m proud of the time I’ve put into learning about pedagogy and how that knowledge has helped me be a better instructor, but the first draft of my teaching statement didn’t do a great job of reflecting that. Like so many other sample teaching statements I had seen, it was essentially a series of lists in prose form: the techniques I used in my teaching and a set of claims about creating welcoming and effective classrooms, embroidered with a series of bland statements about positive outcomes.

It was maddening to realize that a search committee would have trouble distinguishing my lists from those of other candidates. Many of the examples I had seen while searching for a good example were full of bold assertions and possible exaggerations, as well as rote professions of faith in student-centered pedagogy. If teaching statements are a minor genre of academic writing, they can also meander into the realm of creative writing. As I wrote and rewrote, my teaching statement tacked back and forth from Scylla to Charybdis: from overly poetic, emotional language about the romance of teaching to dry pedagogical jargon that bored even me.

At a certain point I shelved the job documents and switched over to semester prep. One of my tasks was to work on documents I planned to hand out the first day of class. They included the syllabus, a student information sheet and a short explanation of my pedagogical approach. I use a lot of active learning techniques in my classroom, from real-time polling to regular small-group work and course journals. I had experienced some resistance to active learning before, and I knew that one way to get students on board was to explain my teaching techniques up front.

In this document, I chose six short phrases that encapsulated my pedagogy, among them “Learning together,” “A classroom for everyone” and “A mix of high and low tech.” I put these in bold at the beginning of a short paragraph. For each phrase, I explained the reason I had chosen this approach -- with an occasional brief reference to pedagogical research -- and how students would see it in the classroom, in their discussion sections and on the course website.

For example, under “Learning together,” I took a moment to explain the think-pair-share technique, which I use frequently. I then explained why I use it: “This makes it easy for you to speak up in class because you’re sharing your group’s answer, not necessarily your own. You are an active producer of knowledge together with your peers, rather than a passive recipient.”

In another section, “A mix of high and low tech,” I noted that I use cellphone polling and post a lot of course material on the LMS site. I then described why I have a partial laptop ban (exceptions being students who have accommodations or who come and make a special request during office hours), explaining the research on distraction rather than making a draconian-sounding fiat.

At the end of the document, I reiterated my commitments to effective pedagogy and facilitating their learning and invited questions, comments or suggestions.

The next day, as I made light revisions, I realized that the document I had written for my students was far better than my inert, formulaic teaching statement. It lacked that document’s claims and jargon, substituting instead straightforward explanations of what students would actually experience.

Then it occurred to me: Why not revise that vanilla statement for the tenure-track position so that it was written for the students we teach, rather than about them? The resulting text makes for a great first-day handout as well as a potentially compelling job market document. It was a bit unorthodox to substitute an actual teaching statement for a contrived one, but I figured that it could work in my favor.

Search committee members who cared about teaching would find something that surprised them but that still included all the important pedagogical content. Committee members who didn’t really care about teaching would either skip it or not care what format I had used. Best of all, it was a multifunctional document, one that I could (and do) hand out to my students. Some read it; many, I suspect, did not. But the fact that I tried to make my pedagogy explicit probably also helped reduce my students’ resistance to active learning.

It’s hard to tell what effect, if any, this had in my applications last year. During my only screening interview, the committee members said they were impressed with my teaching portfolio but didn’t mention the student-centered teaching statement explicitly. I have, however, noted the increase in the past few years in the number of job postings that ask for teaching statements. With a job market like the one we’re in now -- hypercompetitive and quite crowded -- this sort of teaching statement, one that is genuinely focused on the students, could be an advantage, even if only a small one. I’d recommend at least trying the exercise, to focus on how you actually could explain to your students how you teach and why.

Bio

Zachary Nowak is a college fellow in the history department at Harvard University. He is also the associate director of the Center for Food & Sustainability Studies at the Umbra Institute in Perugia, Italy.

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