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What is my teaching approach (or philosophy)? Prompts to help you identify underlying beliefs and values.

Many instructors putting together a teaching portfolio for tenure or promotion find themselves stumped by this question. Maybe you are still relatively new to teaching. Maybe your approach is part personal experience as a former student, part trial and error. Maybe you have found your groove, but you never actually spent any time pondering about your underlying philosophy. So what are you supposed to write in your teaching portfolio? How do you begin?

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My advice is to start by reflecting about a few different contexts or situations to uncover your underlying beliefs and values. Here are a few prompts to choose from:

  • Think back to the time when you were a student. Who was your favourite teacher? Why was this person your favourite? What did they do that made you want to come to class? What did they do to support your learning? In what way has this person become your role model?
  • Think of an event or situation when you really enjoyed being an instructor. What was happening? What were the students doing? What were you doing? What exactly was it that made you feel good at that moment?
  • Think of a situation when you thought, “Yes, they got it! This is exactly what I wanted them to learn.” What did the student(s) say or write? Alternatively, what behaviour did the student(s) display, what task did they perform?
  • Think about your own learning. What do you have to do to succeed? How do you learn best? How do you sustain your motivation? What can an instructor do to facilitate or support the process?

Thinking about one or more of these prompts can help you better understand your approach to teaching and your identity as a teacher. Do you see yourself as a guide, a coach, an entertainer, or something else? What are your goals for your students? This will depend on the course, but when you start thinking about it, you should be able to discern a few themes. Do you mainly want students to develop a deep understanding of the theory or instill in them a love for your field? Do you want them to develop a few discipline-specific skills or promote a certain mind-set? All of these or something entirely different?

Once you have identified your main goals, you can start thinking about your strategies. What are you currently doing to help your students reach these goals? Provide a few concrete examples that demonstrate how your actions as an instructor line up with your goals and values. If you have positive student comments from course evaluations that are relevant for the points you are making, insert the most thoughtful ones to show that your approach is working.

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Like all good pieces of writing, portfolios should not be written at the last moment. Give yourself enough time to revise your teaching philosophy section a few times. What are the main points you are trying to make? What is the organizing principle? Are you going from underlying values to concrete examples? Do you have different sections for undergraduate versus graduate teaching? Teaching versus supervision? There are many different ways of writing a teaching philosophy and while I recommend you look at examples, I encourage you to remain authentic. Let your personality shine through because this is the most personal part of your teaching portfolio.

There are many good resources out there that go into more detail than this post. Check out this teaching philosophy writing guide by the Center of Educational Innovation, University of Minnesota.

For more guiding questions (for the teaching approach as well as for other parts of the teaching portfolio), see this document, guiding questions for portfolio development.

If you are a McGill University instructor, you can access the University guidelines as well as sample teaching portfolios from tenured faculty on the TLS website.

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Teaching and Learning Consultant at Teaching & Learning Services McGill; former Linguist; uprooted Austrian; interested in educational development, writing across the curriculum, equity & mental health. Follow me on Twitter @EvaDoblerMcGill

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