Educational Theory, Social-Emotional Learning

Teaching Philosophy Tune-Up

In nearly every teacher training, MEd, or apprentice program in North America, emerging and veteran teachers are asked to sit down and put pen to paper with regards to their personal teaching philosophy. In this format, teachers are encouraged to think deeply about their ideas, ethos, values, and beliefs surrounding education and their learning spaces and will inevitably reflect on the lessons and truths of their present and former classrooms. In doing so, it can help teachers deepen what they believe, but also over time, become aware of blind spots and areas of growth in their beliefs. Teaching philosophies seem to get dusted off and tuned up mostly when applying for new jobs and looking forward, but I’d like to get in the habit of reviewing mine on a yearly basis. With Spring Break looming in the distance and the promise of fresh starts and strong finishes, what better time to re-evaluate and share?

My Updated Teaching Philosophy (Feb 2020)

I believe learning should be authentic, and students are capable and ought to study real-world challenges, engage in meaningful dialogue with one another, with their school, as well as connect with members of their broader communities to learn more about the world and people around them. I believe students ought to be represented respectfully and honestly in their learning material and experiences, and I value students’ safety to share themselves, as well as their beliefs and concerns openly and without judgement in a supportive classroom environment. I value a classroom and school community in which students know where they are situated physically and politically and from a land-based perspective. Educators hold an immense amount of power and influence in classrooms. I value a teaching approach that is constantly self-evaluative: one that questions and critiques personal positionality; one that actively seeks to scan for blind spots or biases; and one that seeks and responds to difficult feedback and professional development focused on these matters. I value safety, individuality, personal expression, and identity and believe these are essential foundations upon which a classroom environment can be built. 

My instructional approach is student-centered, and I seek to connect deeply with communities within and around the schools I teach. I believe classroom management is one piece of the puzzle in co-constructing safe and healthy learning spaces with students, however, it cannot be the only piece. Foundations of a safe and expressive classroom cannot be achieved simply by catchy call-and-responses in the classrooms nor creative methods to divide groups. Rather, they require deliberate practice on the part of the educator, as well as deliberate practice between the educator and students, as well as between students. While classroom management can help an educator respond and react, as well as provide students with structures, if the fundamental pieces of the classroom community are lacking, there is no essential purpose for management. Indeed, I believe the foundation of successful classrooms lies in relationships, particularly in fostering, maintaining, and restoring relationships, responding reflexively to what situations demand. Indeed, student-teacher relationships are an essential key to having a successful (meaning supportive, safe, and growth-oriented) classroom and have far-reaching effects beyond the present school year. 

Additionally, it is essential as an educator to advocate for supportive relationships with students across the school community, rather than in one’s own classroom walls. When the structure of the school is one of a community of support and caring, students can be insulated from large and very real stressors, not limited to family and friends dynamics outside of school, pressure of workload and academic demands, social dynamics and issues within the school, as well as overarching positionality within existing power structures (race, ability, sexual orientation). Children come into their classroom with all of these realities and cannot hang them at the door, and necessarily, then, as an educator, I ought to focus on creating a supportive and caring environment for which these realities may be expressed. In order to foster these relationships between educators and students and student-to-student, deliberate practice in engaging in community must take place on a routine basis with clear expectations of engagement. These relationships founded on trust within the classroom largely must be earned, as some students may not come to school eager or willing to trust their educator and/or peers. The reality of students’ lives outside of school, earning trust, and building relationships necessitate that this type of social-emotional learning needs to be embedded within the curriculum across all subjects and concretely integrated into all activities, rather than as stand-alone, discrete, and somewhat abstract or not directly applicable lessons. Practice and routine with social-emotional learning and relationship-building across all subjects also involves students in the conversation of values-based norm-setting and helps them concretely see, empathize, and relate to others’ experiences in the classroom. In short, students can fully receive, embody, nor extend actions of support through deliberate and routine practice. As well, for this relationship-building to be most effective, educators also must engage in the process, rather than solely facilitating these activities with students. 

Defining and articulating my teaching philosophy is only part one of actually realizing it. In order to build, sustain, and grow a supportive learning space enriched (with social-emotional learning across the entire curriculum) in my classroom, there are a series of rituals and traditions in place, as well as intentional structural supports. These activities, rituals, and traditions are inspired by others, as well as personal creative takes.

At its core, my classroom is a safe and supportive learning environment. The approach I subscribe to is relationship-based and follows many of the guiding principles of Developmental Discipline, which fosters self-awareness and empathy, as well as a commitment to all learners in the classroom. This commitment to the classroom also includes an awareness and an excitement that every person in the class is different and brings their own culture, beliefs, values, experiences, and identities. To foster this, my students and I engage in daily, weekly, and mid-year reflections. 

In order to articulate how the above listed activities speak to the goals of my classroom, a brief description of each activity can lend clarity and further speak to the means to the desired ends. Daily check-ins in the classroom give students opportunities to not only build comfortability in sharing and articulating their response and reflections in real-world challenges. Additionally, students also build comfort and practice in listening to others. Hearing and connecting to others’ experiences helps students build the necessary foundations for engaging in meaningful dialogue with one another, as well as with their teacher and potentially school administrators (or whomever is involved).

1-on-1 Teacher and Tea TimeI throughout the school year gives students and parents the opportunity to share something that is on their mind (positive, negative, neutral, growth-oriented, questions, etc.). This is an initiative run on an as-needed basis, however, all students have at least 2 per term/semester. During this time, students can engage with me in more of a mentorship/coaching relationships and bring up things related to their home and/or community life, school, or anything else. This is time dedicated to forging and strengthening a positive, supportive student-teacher relationship in which I serve as their advocate. 

In order to build positive, respectful relationships, my class engages in Mid-year Keep/Scrap/Adapt goal reflections. This reflection happens, as the name indicates, in the middle of the year. In this forum, students are able to share, in a Socratic format, how they have contributed positively to the class, behaviours they’d like to keep, and what they’d like to change. Additionally, they can also voice what is working for them in the class (what they enjoy and would like to keep), as well as what isn’t working and what they’d like to change. In being able to communicate their contributions, reflect on how they might differently or more healthily contribute to the class, and hearing every other student do the same, students bolster relationships as well as their own security and place in the class.

From a curricular perspective,  engaging students in representative reading material, in which a rich and wide variety of central and support characters are represented with dignity can also help build relationships in the classroom. This reading material is not limited strictly to English Language Arts, but rather will engage students in a variety of different perspectives and ideas mathematically, languages, social studies, science, career education, ADST, and beyond. In ensuring there is a wide range of representation in course material, students will hopefully feel a sense of safety and support and thus more willing to engage without feelings of judgement. 

Social-emotional learning plays an integral role in my learning spaces. In these spaces, students have a safe, nurturing space in which to learn, explore, connect, and grow. These are spaces that celebrate success as well as failure and are framed around growth. In my classrooms, there are structures, systems, and tools to help students engage in social-emotional learning at all times, including during lessons as well as breaks in the day. Students are introduced to and engaged in the practice of SEL, including “self-management, relationship skills, and responsible decision making.” What this looks like in my classroom is offering students deliberate and optional breaks during learning (brain breaks and/or sensory breaks), where they can recognize their emotional state and re- or de-stimulate themselves accordingly. In teaching and working with students to develop skills to self-regulate and take agency in their own self-advocacy, students grow into a heightened sense of awareness and gentleness with themselves and others. 

It is easy to become idealistic about one’s classroom environment when typing a teaching philosophy, however the reality is, difficult situations will invariably arise. These difficult situations are welcome in my classroom because often tension between others ultimately can lead to learning and understanding. If students are experiencing tension or difficulty, it likely means they have not yet negotiated how everyone can make space for their true and authentic selves not at the expense of others doing the same. Therefore, a strong focus on social-emotional learning in the classroom also fosters relationships outside of students individually and encompasses the entire learning environment. In my classrooms, students develop peer leadership and followership skills and consistently practice and explore what it means to respect and attend to others. This includes working together on assignments, creating presentations and/or shared learning experiences, solving problems, and giving one another peer feedback, as examples. Because these skills are practiced in academic settings, they are not stand-alone skills and are integrated deeply into students’ learning experiences, such that they become an integral part of the curriculum.

Implementing a Student-of-the-Week spotlight in a non-intimidating, creative, and choice-based way is another way my students feel appreciated and connected in their communities. Students are nominated to be a SOTW for one week throughout the school year and nominations are guided by community norms in the school community (such as Grit, Curiosity, Social Intelligence, Self Control, Optimism, Connection, Craftsmanship). Students are nominated based on how they displayed community norms in the community, and they are given choice with respect to seating, as well as the classroom community gathering, where they may decide to facilitate or suggest an activity.

  • When is the last time you updated your teaching philosophy?
  • What is most important to you as a teacher? 
  • What strategies do you employ in your classroom to create, maintain, and grow with and alongside your students? 

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[Photo by David Peters on Unsplash]

Professional Development

5 Most Important Things I Learned from My Graduate Program

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No, no… you most certainly do not have to call me Master Teacher Sara.

But if you insist… ok, fine! I’ll allow it 😉

Other than the obvious perk of having your students (and more perhaps satisfyingly, their parents) call you “Master,” pursuing a graduate degree in education has a wealth of benefits, in addition to its sacrifices. I’ve shared my journey and some reflections on the process here, focusing principally on the greatest lessons I unearthed in the process.

The Stats.

After four years of classroom teaching, I made the decision to head to graduate school to pursue a Master’s of Education (MEd) in International Education. I chose Endicott College’s program ultimately because it provided face-time with classmates and professors over the summer in Spain and Switzerland, as well as spring and fall online sessions, which afforded relative freedom and autonomy to continue working throughout my 3 years (3 summers + 2 fall terms + 1 spring term). The program was reasonably affordable and comparable to most MEd programs.

The Sacrifices.

Before sharing my distilled list of wisdom, I’m also compelled to note that pursuing a higher degree required sacrifice, though as a single, childless and pet-less woman in my late 20s with relative financial stability, my sacrifices weren’t as grand as some of my classmates. The school I at which I taught has a strong expeditionary focus and curriculum is created based on the real world; with such a dynamic system, projects, questions, topics are constantly changing based on what’s happening internationally, locally, and regionally and as a teacher, if you’re not ready to pivot and dive deep into something new, you’ll sink– and drag your students down with you. I knew that in order to be a successful teacher in this context, I simply couldn’t manage to balance my own studies and remain relatively healthy and even moderately social. As such, I left the classroom for a fantastic curriculum development and consulting position and was afforded some form of balance to study and work.

Why an MEd?

I came into education in what you might consider the back or side door, which is to say I didn’t pursue an undergraduate education degree, worked in education for 3 years, and came upon a teaching apprenticeship program, and landed an independent school teaching contract the following year. Would I recommend this bask/side door path? Mostly/kind/not really. If I could tweak just one thing, I’d go back and pursue my teaching credential (and ditch that one boyfriend way earlier, but I digress…). In my younger years, I found this superfluous, convinced I’d only work for independent schools. As a millennial elder (viewer discretion advised), I see a teaching credential indeed opens up many more doors, but that’s for another post.

While teaching as a credential-less young person and navigating the exciting waters of expeditionary learning, I found myself craving some theory and background information that was more robust and holistic than what I was getting in professional development. I wanted more on curriculum development, language theory, classroom management, child development, classroom diversity, and more. I was grateful for this appetite to learn more, as it indicated passion for my work and the desire for excellence in teaching.

I was principally drawn to Endicott’s model, which combined intensive summer courses with online work, and I was curious about the field of international education. I didn’t want a program that forced me to sit at a desk for 2 years and wax theory, nor did I want to student teach, having already been a teacher for over 4 years. I went back and forth between MA and MEd programs and eventually found myself most excited about Endicott’s approach and curriculum, though in the end (and no disrespect to my alma mater), I’m sure my degree is comparable to most MEd or MA programs.

What I Learned.

In short, I got exactly what I wanted out of my degree program in regards to curriculum and training.

Where my expectations were exceeded, however, was outside of the curriculum and squarely related to what happened in between the papers, the careful placement of periods and italicization in APA citations, and the dreaded navigation of Canvas.

I humbly present my five biggest nuggets of learning:

Trust & Use Your People

Perhaps the single most important aspect of any graduate program is the networking potential, and I don’t mean that in the gross elbow-rubbing old boys club style. My program had a small cohort of individuals who taught and/or lived in China, Spain, Morocco, Norway, Italy, Brazil, Turkey, Vietnam, Malawi, Columbia, France, Ghana, Netherlands, Germany, Nepal, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Panama, Canary Islands, Canada, and more. The diversity, ideas, stories, cultures, and more supplied a seemingly endless stream of perspective. As a class, we could examine one topic from nearly 14 different perspectives. Having my dominant worldview and opinion challenged (kindly) on a daily basis in class filled my brain with more ideas than any textbook or scholarly journal could.

In class, we quickly built a community of trust constantly asked one another for opinions, advice, or perspective. I used to be shy about sharing my work, especially my written work, however, it was clear that if we each operated in a bubble, we’d be missing out on 9/10ths of the learning potential. Following graduation, I still reach out to my classmates and ask them to edit or give feedback on my writing or projects I want to run with students. This type of professional community is rare, and so rich.

APA Citation Loves You More Than You Love It

Psych! Some of my biggest learning really is related to APA citation!

Citing work, though tedious and seemingly neurotically detailed in its punctuation and typeface standards, ultimately bolstered in my mind the importance of owning my work and my own ideas. As young students, we (those of us with calibrated moral compasses, that is) are terrified of accidentally mis-citing and subsequently “stealing” other people’s work but mainly because we don’t want to get in trouble and lose points (life fact: points aren’t real).

But as I started to synthesize increasingly more complex ideas and create my own work, I recognized the value citation can have in protecting me! I want to own my ideas, even if I’m keen to share them, too. As I started writing and creating more and more, I found that people “using” my work, even on social media, did feel unfair and like stealing. It took a minute for me to be okay with owning my own work, but ultimately my ideas are a result of my work, effort, and sacrifice, and it’s not fair for someone to snatch the final product without doing the dirty work.

So, whether you subscribe to APA or Chicago or even IEEE (gasp), cite, darn it! Stop stealing people’s stuff, and start protecting your own.

It’s Not All About Me/You

Deciding to take on a higher degree is usually rooted in some type of selfishness. A Master’s degree can make you a more qualified or attractive applicant, increase your salary, and make you the source of teacher’s lounge eye-rolling  (mostly jk), and ultimately the degree is for you.

However, in my program, I found myself consistently proud of or excited for classmates. It was amazing to watch my classmates (and me) grow over the course of a few years, trying new things in their classrooms. I was inspired by how all of my classmates were there to be a better teacher for their students and their school. They wanted to improve how they could foster student learning, how to engage their faculty in initiatives, and think about ways their classroom culture could be elevated. More often than not, a discussion would be inspired by a teacher asking for advice on how to reach a student. The care and dedication implicit in this type of program is a poignant reminder that while ultimately some perks may come from a higher degree, the impacts are farther reaching and much less self-serving– one of the dearest things about the field of education.

Hard Things Take Time: Start Them Now

I can’t tell you the number of times I avoided actually just starting a paper, before I checked every possible thing the internet had to offer. Some weeks I would laugh-cry at my schedule wondering how I was going to possibly engage meaningfully in my group project online while also traveling back and forth to Asia. Once I totally misjudged a deadline and ended up writing a 21-page paper on broken hotel lobby computer in Costa Rica at 2am.

And if I learned anything from those coffee-fueled moments of academia adrenaline, it is simply this: just start. Hard things will ultimately take time, but they are worth it. Recognizing that investing in a higher degree must come with the understanding that it will take time is the first step. If you just start, even if you’re not exactly sure where you’re going, you’re making progress. Prior to school, I was paralyzed with “writer’s block,” but really I felt like unless I had exactly the flow and direction of my ideas, it simply wasn’t worth the time to write. Yet, in school, I can’t tell you how many new ideas or “aha!” moments came when I just allowed myself to start. Indeed, this lesson itself led to the creation of this blog!

Be Proud of Yourself.

A Master’s degree is never handed or bought; it’s always earned, and I proved to myself that I was capable, worthy, and skilled in this field. That I belong. I’m a teacher.

I’m proud of completing my program ultimately because doing so took a commitment, sacrifice, and focus. To be willing to take this on is noble in and of itself and to learn, to network, to connect, and to flourish on top of it is nothing short of incredible. To feel proud of yourself? That’s pretty incredible.

Worth It?

In short, yep!

I am me, and I’m not you, so perhaps the Master’s of Education path is not one you want to go down; but perhaps it is. There are no shortages of resources that discuss whether and MEd is worth it, or not.

But ultimately, the vitality, richness, and depth of the program originated from my wonderful classmates and professors who infused the curriculum with life lessons and global experience.

Of equal importance was the professional confidence it imbued in me. If I’m ever feeling a lack of confidence, all I need do is look in the mirror and remind myself:

You’re a freaking MASTER!

[Photo by Vasily Koloda on Unsplash]