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Friday, November 15, 2013

My Philosophy of Education

I was named Clinton Alternative School's "Teacher of the Year" this year. As a part of the portfolio I was asked to produce for the next round of that process (the District level) I was required to write a "Philosophy of Education."

I genuinely struggled to write the document for two reasons. First, I felt that the assignment was so broad that I couldn't wrap my arms around the essential nature of my teaching philosophy. Certainly such a paper would be too long and esoteric for the purposes of the Teacher of the Year process. I was afraid I would wind up writing a dissertation.

Secondly, I was unsure about the forthrightness of my answers. Should I actually tell this committee how I feel about education vis-a-vis standardized testing? Should I intimate my feelings about grades and behavior with my specific set of children? I was worried that if I was honest I'd be disqualified and perhaps be labeled persona non grata among my peers.

After almost a month of thinking and fretting, I generated a brief (albeit heavily-footnoted) statement about what I believe about teaching. My readers might not be interested in such a document, but I include it here because it reflects my heartfelt theological conviction that teaching is important to the Church. The text of the document follows.

Philosophy of Education[1]

What gets me up in the morning to go teach math, admittedly not my students’ favorite subject, at the Clinton Alternative School? I find that I thrive in the environment of CAS, and those feelings must have something to do with what I believe about myself, my students, and the broader world of education. This essay, I hope, will lay out some of my core assumptions, understandings, and beliefs about teaching the way I teach.
My philosophy of education begins with faith. Fundamental to everything I am as an educator is my understanding of humanity as framed by my Christian perspective on the world. Specific to this understanding is the notion of the Imago Dei, or the theological idea that human beings are created in the image of God.[2] Although this theology is at no point introduced in my classroom, I believe it has a profound effect on who I am as a teacher and how I interact with my students at the Alternative School.
            If my students are made in the image of God, then they must be understood and seen from the perspective of God, insofar as that is possible.[3]  We must understand our students, then, as more than their biological natures or as the products of their unique upbringings. Our students have inherent dignity and worth that must be the beginning point of our teaching. They are worth teaching and are worth our best efforts to make them as successful as we can. According to my underlying philosophy rooted in the imago Dei, then, “human dignity must be understood as creatively posited by God with the fact of human existence. It is not dependent on the existence of a quality which humans posses. Rather, it is the presupposition for all qualities humans posses…”[4]
            This is essential to my teaching philosophy at the Clinton Alternative School. Our students, with few exceptions, present personalities, habits, and attitudes that make them difficult to manage in a classroom and contribute to their need for academic remediation. Understanding that each student has a value beyond their specific qualities or performance is the first step in the re-humanizing process that I plan to go through with each of them.[5] It is the posture that each student has inherent value in the eyes of God that prepares me for each lesson and each encounter with admittedly difficult students and situations at the school.
            My core educational philosophy, then, is this: relationship precedes moral (and academic) performance.[6] By this I mean that my relationship with my students comes before, both temporally and ontologically, any expectation I might have of their behavior or academic ability. They are not defined by their behavior, and they are not defined by their academic performance. My presence in their lives and in the classrooms of the Alternative School is about something more fundamental than that; it is about forming and developing healthy relationships with the students that lead to their being humanized by the educational process. First and foremost they are human beings who are deserving of the highest values of society: honor, love, belonging, and the donation of dignity that they most likely will not willingly receive or understand.
If a relationship can be established with my students, then I can begin the truly valuable task of educating them. Traditional approaches to teaching mathematics content have, in the majority of cases, failed to bring my students along. Thus an approach that meets them where they are emotionally, spiritually, and academically may prove to be best to engender success among them. This is the goal of the relationships I form with my students. I aim to find them at their core, gently motivate them, and show them that there is a part of them that can be successful academically and socially.[7] If the relationship comes first, then the academics will follow, and, I hope, the target behaviors will as well. My students are not mere “behavior plans” nor are they “behavior problems;” they are people who need my love and mercy. My lesson plans, then, always begin with those two things: love and mercy.
As demonstrated above, my position on relationship-first teaching is neither novel nor unique. This emphasis, though, places me at odds with contemporary education theory and practice. Many educators in America are influenced by Skinner’s pedagogical philosophy based on “behaviorism.”[8] This understanding of teaching assumes that the beliefs, intentions, and settings of a students actions are unknowable that therefore irrelevant to the task of teaching. I understand, along with MacIntyre, that such a position is untenable in experimentation and in practice in the classroom.[9] I do not want to stand intentionally at odds with my peers or with those great lights in education who have gone before me; however, the formation of relationship before correcting or even examining behavior is too important to me to cede my position.
My students are human beings, not human “doings.”[10] Part of my task as an educator is to continually humanize my students, often over and against the de-humanizing forces of their culture. I have found that a part of their culture that tends to see them as creatures meant for production can be their school. I try to limit the load of work that I assign to my students. I look for that balance point between assignments that are necessary for their mastery of the content and those that become onerous and sources of frustration and angst among them. My academic expectations for my unique set of students are not different from teachers at other schools; my expectations are, however, tempered to meet the needs of those students. They will be successful in my classroom, both academically and emotionally. I will not burden them with unnecessary work nor will I allow myself to value them based upon their performance.
I am a teacher. Teaching is not something I do. Teaching is a part of my being: my spirit, my mind, my body. Teaching is not in the content of my lessons or the scores on my tests; it is in the relationships that I form and grow with my students. To teach, in my heart, is to offer humanity, real, God-inspired humanity to my students. It is the greatest, hardest, and most central part of who I am. Even on my worst days at Clinton Alternative School, I am reminded of the words of Martin Luther when he faced his most challenging day in court: “Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God.”[11]

[1] My great thanks to the committee for their consideration and for their time to read this admittedly difficult document.
[2] Grenz et al. define the Imago Dei as “the uniqueness of humans as God’s creatures. In the Genesis creation account Adam and Eve are said to be created in God’s image and likeness (Gen 1:26-27). Theologians differ on what the image of God actually refers to, but most agree that the image is not primarily physical. Instead the imago Dei may include the presence of will, emotions, and reason; the ability to think and act creatively; or the ability to interact with socially with others. Scripture attributes the imago Dei solely to humans…” See Stanley J. Grenz et al, “imago Dei,” Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms, Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1999, 63.
[3] See Niebuhr, Reinhold, The Nature and Destiny of Man, New York: Scribners, 1953.
[4] R. Kendall Soulen and Linda Woodhead (eds.), God and Human Dignity, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006, 51.
[5] This has been informed by education writer Haim G. Ginott. He writes, “I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration, I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis is escalated or de-escalated, and a person is humanized or de-humanized. If we treat people as they are, we make them worse. If we treat people as they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming.” Haim G. Ginott, Teacher and Child, New York: Scribners, 1993.
[6] I have developed this idea thanks in large part to the writing of Miroslav Volf. See especially his Exclusion and Embrace, Nashville: Abingdon, 1996.
[7] My understanding of relationship as a prerequisite to learning comes from my reading and interpretation of Plato’s works on education, specifically Gorgias. McEwan comments on this work that “Plato opposed [the] conception of the teacher as someone who did something to someone in contrast to his own view of the teacher as someone who did something with someone. The asymmetry in the relationship between teacher and pupil that the sophists advanced—the idea that teaching was a one-way affair with the teacher always in control—had little to do with how learning took place. In effect, sophists treated their pupils as little more than customers to be pleased rather than co-inquirers in search of the truth.” McEwan further reinforces my perspective by saying, “In order to teach someone something, a prior relationship must be established based on a special affinity between teacher and pupil—a sort of marriage of true minds or a match that connects people who have souls that are alike. This is what Plato’s elaborate myth about the heavenly journey of the soul in the company of a favored god teaches. Relationship precedes method. In terms of Plato’s elaborate metaphors, Socrates must be a matchmaker before he can be a midwife.” See Hunter McEwan, “Narrative Reflection on the Philosophy of Teaching: Genealogies and Portraits,” Journal of Philosophy of Education 45 no 1, 125-40.
[8] For a helpful introduction to this theory of educational philosophy, see B. F. Skinner, About Behaviorism, New York: Vintage, 1976.
[9] MacIntyre comments about Skinner, “There is no such thing as ‘behavior,’ to be identified prior to and independently of intentions, beliefs, and settings.” Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (3rd ed), Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame, 2010, 208.
[10] I first heard this phrase on “The Herd with Colin Cowherd” on ESPN Radio. He certainly did not come up with the idea, but he is the one who started my thoughts in this way.
[11] Brecht, Martin. (tr. Wolfgang Katenz) "Luther, Martin," in Hillerbrand, Hans J. (ed.) Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996, 2:463.