Questions to contemplate as you draft your Teaching Philosophy


Please bring to our session on Sunday three copies of a one-page Working Draft of your Teaching Philosophy.   On Sunday, you will distribute your copies to two others (the three of your will become a Workshopping Group).  During our session on Monday, you will discuss your philosophy statement with your group.

A good philosophy statement discusses principles as well as specific strategies or techniques that illustrate how one will apply the principles.  As you begin to draft your teaching philosophy, consider addressing the following issues and questions.  However, please note, the following issues/questions are not linear; that is, a good philosophy statement will not necessarily start with a paragraph on values, then discuss goals, etc.  Instead, your philosophy statement should integrate components of all of the following issues.

A.  Values  What are your underlying values as a professional?  In other words, why do you teach?   Why is what you teach important to you?  Why are students important to you?

B. Goals  What are your goals for your students and yourself?  How do those goals play out in  terms of course content, skills, attitudes, values, personal growth?   Why are your goals important to you?

C. Pedagogy What is your pedagogy?  How would you explain and/or justify your pedagogy?  What  techniques (lecturing, group work, etc.) do you incorporate in the classroom and why?

D.  Assessment A philosophy statement should include an understanding of the importance and use of  assessment.  Explain your principles and techniques for assessing your students.

E.  Improvement/Professional Development Your philosophy should also address those areas that you want to continue to work on as a teacher, researcher.  What are these areas of improvement and how are they tied  into A thru D above?


The following two examples of teaching philosophies have been developed and revised over a number of years.  We will discuss these and other examples during Bootcamp.  For now, notice how different the two are.  The point is that everyone's teaching philosophy will be unique and reflect the individuality of the teacher.



Margie Krest
University of Colorado, Boulder


An Ongoing Dilemma
         For me, teaching writing is a privilege.  When I tell my students this, they react with a question:  "WHY?"  My answer is simple:  It allows me to fulfill an important goal in my life.   That goal is to help students realize the power of communication, to share with them the ways in which good communication skills can help them attain many of their goals, and to help them see the ways in which poor communication skills might jeopardize those goals.

At the same time, I am constantly confronted with a dilemma about teaching writing:  No matter how long I teach (it's been over 20 years), teaching writing does not and should not get easier.  The amount of time one must spend outside the classroom to respond to or grade papers is enormous, and if one is to teach it well, the daily plans from semester to semester and class to class must continually change. This is true for a number of reasons.  A writing course must take students beyond a textbook and textbook definitions of good writing.  Concepts are only useful to students in abstract ways, so students need repeated opportunities to practice and apply any concepts to their own papers, their own research, and their own style.


         Thus, each class period becomes a challenge.  Daily, I strive to provide my students with a balance.  We discuss the process of revision, but I must also provide time for them to practice revising ideas and articulating them more clearly. We discuss grammatical and stylistic concepts and examples, but I must also provide time for them to recognize and apply those concepts to their own papers.  Helping them construct their portfolios is also a challenge.  While most students' process is to write a paper, turn it in and be done with it, I must provide them with the incentive to write a paper, revise it, submit it and then revise it again.  I must also help them see the value of their portfolios as "works in progress," as reflections of the ways in which their writing is changing, growing and taking shape. 
An additional challenge is to create a classroom environment in which students feel it is "safe" to articulate an idea poorly and equally "safe" to accept suggestions, corrections, praise and criticism.  In this cooperative rather than competitive environment, I believe it is more important for students to learn, for example, to identify their own faulty parallelisms, not simply correct a textbook example; they must learn to articulate their own arguments, not simply read or critique another's.  My goal is to guide and mentor students into thinking more critically and writing more succinctly.  More importantly, my goal is to help students identify their own writing processes so that they leave my class confident, not just of a particular body of knowledge, but that they have developed a process of thinking and writing they can apply to any learning situation.


Always questioning the extent to which I have met these goals but always confident that my students are headed in the right direction, I sit in my office behind a continuous stack of papers, slowly sipping my double cappuccino and constantly repositioning my reading glasses—eager to hear the voices of my budding scientists.


The Practical Guidelines

The basic principles from which I teach revolve around the theories and published research about the teaching of writing developed throughout the past 30 years.  As a writing instructor, I work from four principles; these principles direct what I teach, how I teach, how I interact with students and what I require of students.  The following describes those principles and how each informs my teaching.


Writers need guides and mentors, not just critics and judges.

The basis of my teaching is to act primarily as a mentor.  I help students focus on developing their writing as well as understand their own process of writing so that they can apply their skills in a variety of situations. To facilitate this development, I constantly communicate with and intervene in the students' efforts to write.  My role is not merely to judge or critique their writing; my role is to guide and mentor them as they work their way through difficult concepts.   I discuss drafts with students one-on-one and in groups, respond to drafts and revisions without assigning grades, point out strengths and weaknesses, and motivate them to revise.  The research is quite clear that the majority of learning takes place not in the "drafting and grade" model but in the "revising and feedback" model of teaching writing.

Writing is a process that requires writers to develop a cognitive awareness of the writing choices available to them.


In order for writers to make choices about their content and style, they need to be reminded and further informed about those choices open to them. Thus, I teach specific aspects of writing:  style, mechanics, organizational patterns, analysis, logical thinking, and audience awareness, as well as how researched information and their own claims about that research can most effectively and efficiently help them communicate to a listening audience.  Numerous research studies confirm that when rules and skills are taught in isolation, the majority of writers cannot apply individual rules to their own writing.  However, when style, mechanics and grammar are taught as concepts and rhetorical devices that writers must apply directly to their own manuscripts, writers improve.  Also, the ability to understand and apply concepts is a developmental process, a process which is recursive, not linear.    Thus, my teaching involves reviewing concepts and showing students how to apply those concepts in different situations and more exacting ways, and how to employ different strategies and techniques based on particular audiences' needs.

          Writing is a process that requires writers to develop their ability to think critically.

Teaching writing involves teaching students how to use writing to explore and examine their own and others' claims and how to discuss the implications of those claims.  But this type of critical thinking is a developmental process, an extremely complex process.  So, although I strive to reach particular outcomes, my emphasis is to teach students how to develop their critical thinking abilities.  Thus, I meet them at their particular levels and teach them specific skills step-by-step.  For example, if they do not know how to separate factual information from their opinions about those facts, they need writing assignments that require them to practice articulating this difference.  If they do not know how to access sources to which they can react, I show them how to find and incorporate sources into their papers.    And, if they do not know how to articulate a logical argument or how to recognize a logical fallacy, I illustrate how to develop their arguments more maturely. 
Teaching writing necessitates continued exploration of research and writing processes.

As in any field, new studies provide professionals a broader understanding of theories and a better array of techniques for implementing those theories.  Thus, I continue to allow the published research to inform my own process of writing, my understanding of how students learn and develop as writers, and my use of new techniques for teaching writing.   In addition, I continue to examine my own writing processes and remain cognizant of the numerous concepts and skills needed to produce well-written documents. Thus, I write, share my writing with my students and submit publications to share my ideas and techniques for teaching with my colleagues.

Margie Krest, Senior Instructor, Scientific Writing—Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Colorado, Boulder. CB 334, Boulder, C0 80309 e-mail:; voice mail: 303-492-1066

Teaching Philosophy : "A Therapeutic Analogy"
Mitchell M. Handelsman University of Colorado at Denver


I was trained as a psychotherapist, and my philosophy is based on the assumption that the principles of good therapy also underlie good teaching.  Although it is clear that teaching is not therapy, the two activities share enough similarities that a therapeutic analogy can serve as a framework with which to understand and practice the art of teaching.
Psychotherapy and teaching both encompass a wide variety of behaviors.  However, they can both be defined broadly as an exchange of information, primarily verbal, between one person in an expert or authority position, and one or more persons in need of some change.  The exchange of information and effort results in an increase in skills and knowledge in those people coming to receive a service, and some satisfaction for those providing the service.  According to this definition, therapy may be considered a special type of education, wherein the knowledge and skills to be gained are much more personal.


Teaching, Like Therapy, is a Pragmatic Enterprise

Psychotherapy is aimed at producing change.  It is not the blind application of disembodied techniques, nor is it a forum for the glorification of a particular theory or therapist.  Likewise, teaching is more than spouting information, thinking up a series of interesting discussion topics, or gaining adoration or converts.  Rather, it is the fulfillment of a contract I have with students (including advisees and others who are not enrolled in class) to use my expertise in their interests.  Thus, my first step in preparing a class, workshop, or other teaching relationship is to start at the endpoint:  How do I want my students to be different as a result of this interaction?  It is only in this context that other types of questions become relevant:  For example, What should I teach?  How should I approach my students and the material?  What should I require?

In this approach, technique becomes both less important and more important.  It is less important because it is not the content of teaching.  It is more important because the specific techniques I use in class and with students are the means of achieving goals, and much be assessed using stringent criteria.

An implication of this approach is my need to know with whom I am working:  their level, goals, "stories."  Below, I discuss my need to be open to students' agendas and their points of view.


Teaching, Like Therapy, Requires Personal Involvement
Although there are many forms of therapy (e.g., psychoanalytic, client-centered, behavioral, family systems), research suggests that there are a few variables that predict successful outcome in all therapies.  These variables concern the attitudes that therapists have and convey to their clients:  Carl Rogers named them genuineness, unconditional positive regard, and accurate empathy.


Genuineness refers to the ability to be open to, and comfortable with, one's own feelings and reactions in a relationship, and the ability to share oneself with others in a beneficial way.  What do I bring—as a person—to this enterprise?  (If nothing, then students could get what they need from books, the internet, movies, etc.)  The first quality seems to be the most common among the people who have written about teaching:  enthusiasm.  I can use my feelings and reactions to assess what's happening with my students—if my enthusiasm is waning, chances are students are burning out also.  At these times I cannot blame my students; rather, I need to regain my own passion and concern for my material, for the process, and for students.

Another quality I need to be in touch with is my willingness to learn:  keeping current, doing research, modeling that learning is ongoing.  I must display the same openness to diverse views and new information as I am trying to cultivate in my students.  I must be comfortable admitting when I don't know something.


Unconditional positive regard is the acceptance and prizing of a client or student.  Students come with a variety of agendas and motivations.  Some of them fit with my own idealistic notions of education (wanting to learn everything) and some do not (wanting to get the course over with).  These latter students are just as human as I, and deserve my full efforts to provide the services they are paying for.  This attitude allows me to establish emotional contact.

An important way to communicate acceptance is through empathy, which refers to a knowing and communicating how clients or students view the world.  My awareness of students' values, views, and experiences increases their engagement and helps me structure learning experiences that are meaningful to them.


Teachers, Like Therapists, Are Bound by Ethical Obligations

Therapists are bound by codes of professional ethics, given their fiduciary relationships with clients.  Teachers are also in a position of trust relative to students, and must take care not to abuse or exploit that trust.  Here are some of the most important principles.


Respect.  Respect for persons is the most important ethical principle in both therapy and teaching, from which other principles can be derived.  Students' deficits in knowledge and skill do not lower their dignity.  A respectful relationship produces education—not data, degrees, or expertise.

One practical implication of the principle of respect is the avoidance of adversarial relationships with students.  The principle of respect also leads to the rules of fidelity and veracity—keeping promises and telling the truth.  I need to give students appropriate and timely feedback, to write letters of recommendation that are honest and prompt, and to deliver on my promises.


Informed Consent.  Therapy and teaching both involve a contract, either explicit or implied. Everybody is happier when the contract is clear and is based on accurate and complete information. The major implication of this principle is the importance of the syllabus.  It must be complete, accurate, informative, and promptly distributed.  Grading criteria need to be clear, and there must be good reason and adequate notice for assignments to be changed.


Beneficence and Nonmaleficence.  Do good.  Avoid harm.  The following questions stem from the principles of nonmaleficence and beneficence:  Am I prepared to teach a particular class?  Am I doing a particular exercise or technique for sound pedagogical reasons, or for my own convenience (of course, these two considerations are not necessarily mutually exclusive)?  Am I exploiting my students (sexually, financially, emotionally, etc.)?  Am I giving my research assistants enough of an opportunity to learn from what they are doing?  Are my jokes offensive to some group of students?  Am I giving students timely feedback about their performance?  Is my performance giving all of academia a bad name?


Justice.  Aristotle said to treat equals equally, and to treat unequals unequally in proportion to their unequality.  If I treat students unequally it must be along ethically relevant dimensions (e.g., performance on tests) and not along irrelevant dimensions (e.g., physical attractiveness).  Important implications:  How do I allot my time?  Are my greetings equally friendly for students coming in to argue a grade and to discuss a research idea?  Is my grading based on relevant aspects of performance?

Privacy and Confidentiality.  Confidentiality is a cornerstone of therapeutic practice, but it is not as prominent in teaching.  After all, it is a matter of public record who is enrolled at a university, and anybody can see who comes to class.  However, students still deserve to have as much privacy as possible.  For me, this means posting grades by code numbers, not gossiping about students with other faculty, and not sharing their products—tests, papers, etc.—with others without students' consent.


Psychotherapy is not the only useful analogy for teaching.  But use of this analogy allows me to consider my teaching activities from different and enriching viewpoints.  I believe that teaching comprises relationships and is heavily emotional.  Although I must know the material I need to teach and how to convey facts and ideas, I must balance my efforts to accumulate and convey my data, knowledge, and wisdom with an appreciation for the human beings engaging in this process.
There are situations that come up all the time when it is not possible or appropriate to review this entire philosophy.  In these circumstances, here is my guiding principle:  What would I do if I were the kind of professor I would like my students to think I am?
 Mitchell M. Handelsman, Ph.D., Department of Psychology—Campus Box 173, University of Colorado at Denver, P.O. Box 173364, Denver, CO 80217-3364.  E-mail: