Teaching Philosophy
“Fellow Travelers Exploring Teaching and Learning”
Dr. Susan Spangler, Assistant Professor, Department of English

            Throughout my years of service in secondary schools, I developed a teaching philosophy that echoes the words of George Bernard Shaw: "I am not a teacher—only a fellow traveler of whom you asked the way. I pointed ahead—ahead of myself as well as of you." This metaphor eloquently describes the relationship that I have with both students and learning, but through my studies in the doctoral program at Illinois State University, my pedagogical practices have become even richer.

            When teachers walk into a classroom, many want it to be "their" class. They want complete control of every aspect of the class, from gum chewing to grading. I have found that when I have tried to be "the teacher," I have miserably failed. When teachers set themselves up as experts and gatekeepers to knowledge, they become the targets for the students to shoot down or get past in order to succeed. Education then becomes a game in which knowledge is the prize students get for playing the game well; feelings of helplessness, resentment, and frustration are the penalty when the experts and gatekeepers win and students lose.  John S. Mayher discusses this concept in Uncommon Sense:  Theoretical Practice in Language Education, writing that teachers need to “create environments for children to talk with each other in teacherless groups,” though they will have to give up the idea of keeping control of their classrooms (130).  Control comes from the meaningfulness of activities, not from the teacher’s position or role in the classroom. 

To me, knowledge is the journey or path on which both the students and teacher are fellow travelers who cooperate with each other instead of compete in order to get where they are going. I try to take as much hierarchical structure out of the classroom as possible, making matters of authority as inconspicuous as possible. As Berenice Malka Fisher discusses in No Angel in the Classroom, authority in the classroom is a multi-layered issue. While I have authority through knowledge and experience with my discipline, I try to convey the idea that each new classroom makes me a novice in some ways and that the students’ experiences and knowledge are just as valid as my own. My passion for teaching and learning often sets me apart from my students, though it is my goal to help each individual find ways to build enthusiasm for what they are learning and experiencing in each class.

I openly admit to my classes that I don't know everything about English, and with that admission, my position as the gatekeeper vanishes. Students and I are free to explore what interests us in the class without fear of losing the game. I have found that by de-emphasizing authority and by cooperating, we are able to learn much more about ourselves and about English than by competing for authority. Only my position as an employee of my educational institution remains as the block for true sharing of authority.

Students need to take risks in order to learn; so do teachers, and when the learning environment is safe enough for them to do so, both can test the boundaries of their knowledge. Fisher discusses two concepts of feminist pedagogy that I feel are related to creating an open environment, care and safety. By showing students that I care for their success and showing them compassion for their struggles, I hope to create a classroom community where all students show concern for others and are willing to help each other achieve all that they can. Finding out what works for us is a huge part of a successful experience. One of my students once wrote in a commentary on her writing, "My voice teacher keeps telling me, 'you'll teach yourself whatever you want to know. You just need to find someone to help you learn about yourself and learn what works for you and what you need to work on.' I totally feel that you've played that role, and that's really cool for me." Reading her commentary was one of my proudest moments because I knew that she felt comfortable enough in the classroom community to achieve her own goals, not necessarily just mine.  Helping students find out what they need to or want to know in order to be lifelong participants in this society is how I envision my role as the teacher. 

Safety is another issue that is crucial for student success. In classrooms, students are often asked to reveal information about themselves or perform activities that may be damaging, socially or psychologically. This was especially evident when I taught public speaking classes in high school. One way I tried to alleviate some of the public-speaking fears and to make the classroom safer was by openly discussing the students’ fears. Throughout the lesson, students were asked to describe situation that made them uncomfortable and what they did to prevent the discomfort. By getting those issues out in the open, the students realized that they were in the same situation with everyone else. As a result, their public speaking fears were mitigated. Similarly, when preparing students to discuss each others’ writing, I try to create a safe environment by both suggesting and inviting ground rules for group discussion during writing workshops. By developing the ground rules together, the class recognizes that they are all vulnerable, which leads them to take care of each other during the workshops. Again, we all feel a commitment to the class community and to keeping it safe for everyone in it.

Safety is also crucial for students who have been “othered” by the school system.  Those who do not fit into the mainstream for one reason or another, such as physical disablement, lack of stable home environments, lack of parents, or sexual orientation have especially hard times adapting to school settings in which being different makes them a target for ridicule.  I strive to make the classroom a safe environment by addressing issues of gender, sexual orientation, race, and culture as they arise in the classroom or in the curriculum, not by ignoring them.  I stress tolerance/acceptance of other cultures as well as awareness of students’ own cultures, the latter of which Gloria Ladson-Billings advocates in Crossing Over to Canaan:  The Journey of New Teachers in Diverse Classrooms.  I encourage students to explore and celebrate their own identities and to go beyond their willful ignorance of others’ differences, as Luhmann advocates in Queer Theory in Education by William Pinar.

I love learning—everything. That’s why I’m back in graduate school. John S. Mayher advocates the idea of teacher-learners as role models for students, saying, “If teachers are people who read and write with power and acumen, who care about the world they live in and its problems, who use language as a means of continual learning, who are in short, learners themselves, then students can see the goals and values of the critically literate community enacted and embodied” (270).  I want my fellow travelers to love learning, too, and I want them to know that if they don't succeed with everything, they can still learn something from the attempt. As Gloria Ladson-Billings points out in Crossing Over to Canaan, “there is but one word for teaching and learning in Hebrew.  Thus, a teacher is always a learner, and a learner is always a teacher” (26). 

As part of my reflection process each semester, students fill out a course evaluation for me, and I read the comments that students have written about the class and about me as a teacher. In my speech class, one wrote, "I really enjoyed the class—when I signed up for the class I dreaded it but it turned out fun." While I delight in the compliments, I learn from the critical or serious comments. One student said, "…it is the only class where students respect the teacher and the teacher respects the students. A more critical one wrote, "I think the teacher is a little hard on us sometimes." These comments show me that though I'm not reaching everyone, I try to show the students my respect for their position as learners because I am one of them, and I try to help them find what works for them.

In order for travelers to successfully complete their journey, they must be flexible with their plans and open to the chance events that will force them to change their routes. Teaching is very much like traveling in this respect. In the classroom, there are many different personalities and agendas at work: the students', the teacher's, and the institution's they are part of. Teachers can become upset very quickly if they think class will proceed according to their plans.  The goal I begin with for my students is that they will “become increasingly independent learners, thinkers, and language users” (Mayher 216).  Students, then, guide me in learning as much as I guide them.

I'm sure that as I continue to teach, learn, and grow on my own educational journey, my teaching philosophy will continue to change.  My role as a reflective practitioner guarantees it, for each time I examine my actions in the classroom, I become responsible for my teaching (Mayher 285) as well as for my learning.  I'd be naïve to expect otherwise, for gaining knowledge is about learning from change.

Works Cited

Fisher, Bernice Malka.  No Angel in the Classroom:  Teaching Through Feminist Discourse.  Lanham, MD:  Rowman and Littlefield, 2001.

Ladson-Billings, Gloria.  Crossing Over to Canaan:  The Journey of New Teachers in Diverse Classrooms.  San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass, 2001.

Mayher, John S.  Uncommon Sense:  Theoretical Practice in Language Education.  Portsmouth, NH:  Heinemann, 1990. 

Pinar, William, ed.  Queer Theory in Education.  Mahwah, NJ:  Lawrence Erlbaum, 1998.