Positive tone, concrete examples must-haves in teaching philosophy statement

While on the hunt for a professorship, Dr. Maura Giles-Watson quickly realized how much punch a good teaching statement packed.

“I learned the hard way you have to write things a bit differently,” she says, admitting she received a few rejection letters before the job offers came.

In fall 2012, Giles-Watson joined the University of San Diego (a teaching-centered, Roman Catholic institution) as an assistant professor of Digital Humanities and English. She believes she landed the job in part because of her teaching statement, which appealed to members of the hiring committee. She highlighted her pedagogical strengths and kept research aspirations secondary.

The challenge, in fact, says Giles-Wilson, is to write this type of statement without the “Research I institution perspective” in mind. Liberal arts colleges fashion the “growth model” of education in which a student “develops into a well-rounded citizen who has read books and has digital literacy,” she adds. The aim of the teaching statement, therefore, should reflect a desire to facilitate their intellectual development.

Before you begin writing, Giles-Wilson suggests considering the ways that your research informs your teaching and teaching informs your research. Once you have a firm grasp on the connection, it will be easier to draft a letter that underscores your pedagogical prowess.

Even if the job announcement does not call for a teaching (philosophy) statement, says Giles-Watson, include it in your cover letter anyway. The text of the teaching section should appear before you jump into your goals or accolades concerning research. She states that at many universities, it is acceptable to exceed the two-page limit as long as the extra material emphasizes your teaching philosophy.

“Talk about why teaching is rewarding for you,” she says. “Lots of people apply to liberal arts jobs. An adviser may have told them to apply for whatever is out there. […] Committees are looking for this. Tailoring your materials makes a big difference.”

Prospective candidates applying for positions at liberal arts colleges also must consider tone in their teaching statements. Avoid indulging your ego. Too much “I-centeredness” is off-putting for some committees, Giles-Watson says.

“If it’s a positive tone and focuses very much on the students — what you do and how it engages the students — that’s all part of the punch,” she adds.

An energetic commitment to progressive pedagogy is important to address as well. Re-organizing your curriculum vitae (CV) reinforces your allegiance to this realm of academia. If you are applying to a chiefly teaching school, Giles-Watson suggests placing pertinent information above the research and publication portions on your CV. Doing this indicates to committees that you are “prioritizing teaching.”

Being short on teaching experience does not necessarily mean you will not get the job. In your statement, be ready to make the case for yourself. If you attended a liberal arts college yourself, indicate what you valued most about the experience. Undergraduate research mentoring and advising is worth noting in your statement. Provide details about what you can offer in this regard, drawing from a short story or example. Be specific about why you think the “liberal arts college approach” is the best possible sort of undergraduate education. Get teaching experience as quickly as you can if you do not have any as you enter the job market. For the hiring committees at liberal arts colleges, “one-on-one tutoring counts because it indicates a real interest in working with students,” Giles-Watson notes.

If, on the other hand, you have extensive teaching and coaching experience inside the classroom, specify what you do (or will do) to engage and retain students in your classes. Describe something you have done in class that your previous students enjoyed. Also explain in concrete detail what a 60- or 90-minute class session is like, and how you utilize technology in your teaching. Student blogs, innovative assignments, presentations and group projects all indicate your willingness to adapt to technological transformations in pedagogy. It is important to indicate how you measure learning outcomes and how you assess whether your students are learning or not.

“Formative and summative assessments each serve a purpose,” Giles-Watson says.

If granted the interview, keep in mind a student who attends a liberal arts college is seeking a “more personal” university experience. As such, hiring committees search for prospective professors who demonstrate they can help undergraduates in particular navigate an unfamiliar intellectual and social terrain.

“They’re looking for people who really want to teach,” Giles-Watson says. “They’ll ask questions that’ll tease out that information.”

Do not take the bait if the interviewer jokes about clever ways to make classes smaller, she adds. Above all, in your statement make sure that teaching is something you are committed to and ultimately enjoy doing.

Humanities for Hire is a yearlong speaker series sponsored by UC San Diego’s Center for the Humanities. Each month the Center offers a presentation-workshop in which graduate students can learn more about the professionalizing aspects of academia.

Various Perspectives on the Teaching Statement
What is a Teaching Philosophy Statement?
The Teaching Philosophy / Teaching Statement
Columbia University: Writing a Winning Teaching Statement
The Dreaded Teaching Statement: 8 Pitfalls

WRITTEN BY: Brie Iatarola