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The diversity, equity and inclusion statement that higher education institutions require in academic job applications has become highly divisive and polarizing in a number of states. But colleges and universities regularly request two other kinds of statements that raise few, if any, concerns. The research statement and the teaching philosophy statement provide applicants opportunities to situate themselves in the ongoing scholarly and pedagogical conversations related to their disciplinary fields. They are thus perceived as being less politicized and more related to the faculty’s core mission.

That doesn’t mean, however, that either statement is easy to write. In fact, both rhetorical documents lack a defined format and pose challenges for graduate students who are about to launch their academic and professional careers.

In this essay, I will focus on the teaching philosophy statement, also known as the teaching statement. The majority of departments in both teaching and research institutions, from community colleges to Ivy League universities, require such a statement in their faculty job applications. Often viewed as an important indicator in assessing a candidate’s potential for teaching success, it can weigh heavily in the hiring process—especially, of course, at more teaching-focused institutions.

I should note that not all educators agree on the importance or relevance of the statement. Some critics argue that writing a compelling statement does not necessarily equate to being an effective teacher who can excite students in the classroom. After all, as one commentator put it, “You’d never hire a major league pitcher to write a nice essay on throwing the hanging curveball.” Yet although the point about the possible gap between theory and practice is a valid one, the analogy is ultimately misleading. Whereas baseball players are hired solely on their ability to throw, catch, bat and score runs, academics are expected to be effective communicators who can articulate their thoughts and reflect on their knowledge and praxis.

So how can you best compose such an important document? Based on my experience serving on numerous search committees as well as my research on self-presentation in academic discourse, I offer below a distillation of some of the points that can mar your statement’s effectiveness and risk alienating the search committee members. Some key pitfalls you should avoid are:

  • Taking an overly theoretical approach. The statement is not an academic abstract nor a research paper that requires a full literature review. You needn’t pile up in it all the brand-name theorists— Foucault, Bourdieu, Bloom, Vygotsky and Freire seem to loom large in most statements, and not always to good effect. Rather, the statement is an invitation for you to share who you are as a teacher, the ideals that motivate you and the beliefs that guide your teaching practice. It is not about laying out your theoretical expertise in the psychology of learning or scholarship of teaching, unless those happen to be among your primary fields. But even in that case, it’s still better to save the theorizing threads for a research statement.
  • Packaging your experiences into broad, common expressions and trendy jargon. Think “grit,” “mindset,” “best practices,” “decolonizing the curriculum,” “evidence-based,” “student-centered” and so on. Unless you contextualize such generic terms and exemplify them through concrete particulars, they are nothing more than overused buzzwords—lethargic phrases that can strip away the individual nuances and layered meanings of your teaching experiences.
  • Overstating the importance of different learning styles. A common belief is that students, because of their brain wiring or personality traits, are neurologically predestined to acquire knowledge in a certain way. Such learning styles are usually categorized as visual, auditory and kinesthetic, for instance. Subscribing to this belief often leads to the erroneous assumption that learning preferences are fixed and must always be accommodated. As it turns out, little to no evidence exists to confirm that catering to perceived preferences in learning styles will lead to better learning outcomes. Indeed, many researchers agree that the stubbornly persistent belief in learning styles has been largely discredited. Such belief is now widely regarded as a neuromyth.
  • Focusing on a deficit perspective. By that I mean the view that assumes that some student groups have social, cognitive, cultural and motivational defects that obstruct their learning. Often unconsciously embraced, this view is especially common in reference to minoritized students and those who are learning English, as well as low-income, nontraditional and so-called at-risk students. By focusing on what students lack or don’t have access to without paying sufficient attention to the existing structural barriers in higher education institutions, the deficit view can perpetuate harmful learning stereotypes.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of what to avoid in crafting your teaching statement. Nor will merely avoiding jargony style and debunked beliefs and stereotypes about learning produce a gripping statement. Nonetheless, it’s important to steer clear of these traps. When it comes to committees and hiring managers ruling out candidates, what goes wrong in the job application statements is frequently more important than what goes right.

That said, it’s certainly important to do things right, too. And when it comes to that, you need to offer a story that captures a pivotal moment in your teaching as a stepping-stone for discussing your underlying educational philosophy in order for your statement to stand out. Astute job seekers strategically add narrative elements and small anecdotes that represent the truth of, rather than the dry facts about, their teaching experience. Mindful of the view of narrative as situated meaning making, they use their personal stories to help a potential employer better understand how their experiences shape their teaching beliefs and principles.

They also connect their teaching philosophy to the specific instructional practices they employ in order to help readers see them in action in the classroom. Moreover, they are aware that teaching and learning are two sides of the same coin and thus strive to strike a balance between highlighting the labor of the teacher and the engagement of the students.

So, for instance, instead of stating that your philosophy is informed by experiential learning, give specific examples of the types of experiences your students get involved in—internships, apprenticeships, practicums, fieldwork, work programs, community partnerships and the like. And show how such projects have helped them develop essential life skills and grow in their learning. In other words, rather than simply focusing on what you do in your teaching, you should also focus on what your students do as active learners in your classroom.

Along with the cover letter and recommendation letters, I’ve always found the teaching statement to be one of the most helpful sources of information about a job applicant. It is also often the most enjoyable statement in the application packet to read because of its more personal and reflective nature. Sure, it is sometimes stale and full of bromides and banal generalities. At its best, however, it can be an engaging document that reminds us of the value of what we do and the wondrous calling the teaching profession can be.

Mohammed Albakry is a professor of English linguistics at Middle Tennessee State University. He is the co-author, with Clint Bryan, of Writing Recommendation Letters (Michigan University Press). He is currently working on a book project on self-presentation in the academic support genre.

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