Your Philosophy of Education and Why It Matters

I remember all of those education classes I took in college…. Actually, that is not exactly true. I remember taking a number of education classes, but, to be honest, they all sort of blend together in my mind. I remember many of them required twenty hours of classroom observations over winter and spring breaks followed by lengthy papers in which I reflected on whichever was the focus of the class….. classroom management, special education….

Ultimately, these courses were intended to prepare future educators  for how we would approach things in our own classrooms. They were intended to help us answer the question, “What is your philosophy of education?,” a question-  one that seemed vague, theoretical, and would generate predictable, cliche responses – that would likely come up in a possible job interview.  

However, it is only after getting experience  in the classroom that educators can really figure out their philosophy of education. And we don’t just figure it out by the end of our third year of teaching when we hopefully earn professional status….It takes a long time and, during that time,  we evolve as a result of our different experiences– both in and out of the classroom. Those experiences include making mistakes. At least that was the case for me. 

 Although I cannot remember exactly how I would have answered the question “What is your philosophy of education?” as a recent college graduate in 1990, it was probably something along the lines of, “ I love my subject matter and working with high school students. Even though they might struggle with English or find it less-than-exciting,  I want to help them improve their reading and writing skills and at least gain an appreciation for them.” 

While I do still believe in those ideas, twenty five years later, my philosophy has developed as a result of my experiences as a teacher. Also, as I have travelled through life, the moments, the conversations, the people, different events have all influenced who I have become as a teacher, what is important to me, the things that drive everything I do… 

That is why, although not everyone may agree with this, I think there are stages in a teaching career and, with each stage, we evolve as does our philosophy of education. These stages are not necessarily chronological…. And we might go through them multiple times…

At the beginning of our career, we work hard to prepare challenging, engaging lessons for our students.  We are trying to establish our reputation with colleagues, administrators, parents, and, of course, students. We lack confidence in many ways.  Everything is new: the curriculum, the schedule, the culture of the district, the club the principal encouraged us to advise so we could” really get to know our students”. We are overwhelmed by the amount of paperwork and number of meetings they didn’t talk about in our education classes.  We have no point of reference for student work. Even if I am using the rubric (hopefully the right one), how do I know if this essay is an A or a B? Am I too hard? Too easy? Too strict? Too nice?

Early in our careers, while we may not knowingly think in these terms, we try to figure out  “Which approach is right for me?” Do I want to be the tough teacher who “never gives an A”? Do I want to be the teacher who gives an A just because “the student works hard?” Do I want to be the students’ friend? Do I want to be the teacher who “doesn’t smile until December?” Do I want to be the counselor I always wanted to become,  the one who wants to save “those kids?”

Throughout  year one, year two, year seven….year fifteen,  we do some really great things as teachers. We connect with students, we watch them grow, we have assignments go better than we expected, we successfully advise a class for four years, we receive heartfelt thank you notes from students and parents, we receive praise from administrators…… and we do some less-than-stellar things….. We overreact to a behavior problem that we inadvertently exacerbate, create lessons that flop, find ourselves grading a set of essays, only then realizing that our directions are confusing and it shows in the work that the students produce…. We create “gotcha” quizzes so that students know that we are rigorous, challenging teachers….

Most  importantly, though, is that we honestly reflect on all of it… all of it…..the good, the bad, the successes, the failures, the second chances we wish we had…..And then make changes the next day, the next quarter, the next semester, the next year….. And some of them are successful and others fail…. And we again make changes….and do the same the following year,  and the next one, and the next one……

And then, once we think we have a good grasp of things, something changes…. It might be new curriculum standards at the national  level or changes in standardized testing at the state level…. It might be a shift in instructional practices at the district level or schedule changes at the department level ….

Because there are so many changes — almost all of them beyond our control– that occur over the lifetime of a teaching career, it is especially important to try to answer the question “What is my philosophy of education?”In other words, no matter what curriculum or standards we have to teach, no matter the initiatives or  mandates that come and go, we need to answer the questions, “What drives me as a teacher? What is important to me? Beyond the mandated curriculum and standards, what do I want to accomplish through my teaching and how does my approach in the classroom reflect that?”

Not everyone will answer these questions the same way– nor should they. It is important that teachers have different perspectives;  it’s essential, in fact. Our students need to have different experiences in our classrooms. 

Through many hours of reflection over my career, here is what I have learned about my philosophy of education; I have included clarifying remarks so you know “why I think what I think.”

I want students to learn about themselves through the curriculum.

The best part about the written word is that people write to say something about the human condition. I want students to learn about themselves by reading and writing about both fiction and nonfiction and realizing others have similar experiences and feelings,  that they are not alone. 

I want students to become better thinkers and “know why they think what they think.”

I want them to question things, challenge things, make informed decisions, have informed opinions. If they are going to have an opinion about something, they should be able to articulate why,  not just say,” I don’t know… just because….” If they don’t like a particular piece of literature, a kind of food, or a policy, they should be able to explain why. If they don’t know how, I can help them develop those skills.

I want students to see the importance of perseverance, resilience, grit. 

So often students  give up when they feel a task is “too hard” or they don’t know where to begin. By giving them strategies that they can use “in real life,”  they will feel empowered. 

I want students to see that what we do in class has real-world application.

I want them to know that I value their time and energy, and I want them to be able to apply what they learn in my class in their own lives. I want them to learn how word choice affects a piece of literature and then show them how it is the same as in the lyrics in the music they listen to when they are stressed or the words they use when trying to argue a point.  

I want students to understand the value of asking and answering questions

Questions help us figure out what we think about a topic and why. 

They also help us connect with others.

I want to support all students- especially those who lack confidence in reading and writing- as they  learn strategies to navigate challenging material and, as a result, become more confident. 

I want students to gain more confidence by overcoming materials/situations they find

challenging by using specific strategies to help them.

I  want students to become aware of how they learn, to reflect honestly on their strengths and weaknesses , and to make improvements so they can reach their potential. 

It’s important for students to learn what they are good at and what they struggle with so we can work together on their areas of weakness. This is one of the reasons I work hard to incorporate organizational skills (note taking, time management)  and study skills into most assignments. This will serve them well when they make decisions and as they travel through life. Students are not always honest with themselves about their strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes they say “I’m just not good at writing,” when, in reality, sometimes they do not put in the effort to become better writers. I find that in talking about this during a writing workshop,  students are willing to admit that they do not work as hard as they could. With that said, there are students who sell themselves short and believe they are poor writers, even though they are not. 

I want students to be aware that their academic success is connected to their social and emotional well-being. 

I am a strong advocate of SEL (Social Emotional Learning) in our schools. Although 

I believe it is extremely valuable to have school-wide activities and speakers to

address SEL-related topics, I firmly believe one of the most effective ways to address

it is in our own classrooms– helping students learn communication skills, explicitly 

teaching strategies that empower them, learning to work with others, 

making informed decisions. 

I want students to learn how to walk in someone else’s shoes. 

Awareness of others  is important. We need to practice empathy. 

During my first class with all of my students, I tell them that my goal for them is “to know why they think what they think.”  The same should be true for teachers, especially when it comes to our philosophy of education. If we don’t know why we are approaching something in a certain way,  if we are just going through the motions, if we don’t know why we are giving an assignment or using a particular instructional approach, our students won’t know either. Our philosophy should guide all of the decisions we make about what we do as teachers. 

Twenty five years into my career,  my philosophy is still evolving…. And I hope it does until the day I retire. 

Food for Thought: What is your philosophy of education? What is important to you as a teacher? How do you convey that in your classroom on a daily basis? Does your instructional approach align with it? Do your assessments align with it? Does the physical space in your classroom reflect what you value? Has your philosophy of education changed at all since you started teaching?

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