Twelve years ago, when I had been in this profession for sixteen years, I was asked to write a statement of my philosophy of teaching for a local teaching award program. I don’t think that I had looked at that document more than once in the time since then. Because this is the start of a new year, and because I have been doing a series on those who influenced me in this profession, I thought that I would share the statement I wrote back then, and then a few comments to bring it all up-to-date.
Ed Huston is my “teacher hero.” Ed taught Social Sciences for many years at Mt.Whitney High School. When I began teaching at Mt.Whitney, Ed was the most computer literate teacher around. When the Internet became a desired classroom resource, Ed brought a computer from home and hooked it up to a phone line to provide Internet access to his students (two years before Digital High School brought us school-wide high speed connections). When Ed was within a couple of years of retirement, he took the opportunity to go to Russia to teach for a year. In his last year of teaching, he taught the first AP Civics course at Mt.Whitney High School. Right through the last year that he taught, Ed Huston was always eager to experience something new and to learn something new. He never burned out. He was always upbeat and exuded a love of teaching that was contagious. His peers and students alike became better people in his presence.
When I first began teaching sixteen years ago, I was certain that I was already the best teacher on the planet. I was cocky, brash, and possessed a decided disrespect for my elders in the profession. In the years since, I have been the benefactor of superior role models such as Ed Huston, Art Shahzade, and Mike Neal. I have come to know “what I don’t know.” I now see a career in teaching as a journey of continual self-growth. To be an effective teacher, I must understand what it means to struggle, and to revel in the learning process. When a teacher ceases to be a student himself, it becomes possible to lose touch with both the joys and frustrations of the learning process. I have come to understand that in many things, I am ignorant and my students are the masters. One student produces masterful watercolor paintings, while I struggle with stick figures. Another plays concert piano while I struggle with simple chords on the guitar. At the heart of any great teacher there must be a sense of humility.
A teacher must also have the heart of a servant. I make myself available to my students for an hour before school and at lunch every day. Most days I can be found in my classroom well after the school day ends. My job is to serve my students – to give them every opportunity to shine. Ironically, it is also my job to help them to become the sort of learners who no longer need their teacher. My chemistry program is rich with laboratory activity, and I commit a tremendous amount of time to the maintenance of a safe environment for my students. I have extended my classroom outside of the walls of the school by providing my students with a comprehensive website where they can print notes, check on their grades, review the course calendar, do interactive practice exercises, and download chemistry programs for the computer and graphing calculator, some of which I have written myself. For the past fourteen years, I have made evening review sessions available to students who have fallen behind or who simply feel that they could benefit from extra help. I work hard to keep parents involved through phone calls, email, and the grade database and calendar resources at my website.
A teacher must be a master of the subject matter that is being taught and intimately familiar with the content standards and state frameworks. I have been deeply involved with Visalia Unified School District’s work at aligning the curriculum with the state content standards. I have found that the challenge exists not so much in developing a curriculum aligned with the standards. Rather, the challenge exists in developing a consensus across all schools in the district so that students’ mastery of the standards can be assessed in the same manner district-wide. This effort has required a degree of cooperation and a spirit of compromise that has strengthened our professional relationships. In addition, it has produced a healthy exchange of ideas that has whittled away at the cloistered atmosphere of our profession.
Looking back sixteen years to my first year as a science teacher, I find it incomprehensible that I could have considered what I was engaged in as competent teaching, let alone masterful teaching. If any one thing can be considered my greatest strength as a teacher, it is that I now know that sixteen years from now I will look back on many of the things that I do in the classroom today and say, “I cannot believe that I used to do that!” I know that I will continue to grow, try new things, and refine my skills. I shall never be a finished product. Should I ever presume to have become the finest teacher that I can possibly be, I would hope to be dragged from the classroom and asked never to return. The joy is in the journey, in the ceaseless intellectual growth, and in the priceless relationships forged with peers and students along the way.
In the years since writing this statement, a LOT has changed about my classroom and the way that I teach. When I wrote this, I taught from a chair at an overhead projector. Today, there is no overhead projector, and I can teach from anywhere in my classroom, thanks to current technology. Today I am more certain than ever that I have a LOT to learn about this job, and that even when I am teaching my last year I will be making changes. Lastly, I am more hopeful than I have been in many years for the future of education in this country as I see energetic young people entering the profession and embracing both the modern technology and the age-old truths.