My philosophy of teaching has evolved out of my experiences as a student, practitioner, researcher, and instructor, as well as my awareness of the discourse around best practices at the postsecondary level, particularly those of culturally responsive teaching. I have also grown in my thinking from excellent teaching mentors and the study of adult learning theory that has provided me a firm foundation for my curricular approach as well as my daily instructional practice. I believe that each of my interactions with the students at my institution have potential to be valuable instructional experiences that appeal to their cultural dispositions while challenging them intellectually. When I talk to students in the halls or exchange emails with them, I am teaching. When I mentor students in program development and research, I am teaching. When I curate found content for an online course, I am teaching. When I present research, I am teaching. When I post on a course Facebook page, I am teaching. I teach in the front of the classroom, in the feedback I give, and in the assignments I create.
I have taught different topics using different modalities, but my goals for instruction stay consistent: (1) for students to have a nuanced understanding of the topic, (2) for students to engage in higher level thinking (analysis, evaluation, critique, and synthesis), and (3) for students to be able to apply what they learn in real world contexts. Achieving these goals looks different when I am mentoring compared to when I am teaching in a traditional classroom compared to when I am teaching online.
I have taught in a traditional classroom setting as a teaching assistant and co-instructor for an advanced course on adolescent development. In a traditional classroom, instruction has an element of performance and there is a balance between creating a comfortable learning environment and pushing students outside their comfort zone. In this setting, nuance looked like constructing a syllabus that explored adolescent development from multiple contexts (peers, family, school) and from multiple domains (cognitive, physical, and socioemotional). Our exams encouraged students to think about the interactions between context and domain with questions like, “it is argued that adolescents have capabilities to be active producers of their own development but also can have difficulty managing risks effectively. What type of guidance or guidelines from parents might help youth navigate new media?” The kind of higher level thinking that is necessary for answering a question like that had been scaffolded in lecture and discussion. In this case, students were supported with applying these concepts by weaving in my own practitioner experience into lecture.
My first experiences teaching at the collegiate level were for an asynchronous online course: Introduction to Human Development. The online teaching environment is reliant on the ability to anticipate how students think and structure content that is clear and intuitive. In this class students participated in independent learning through readings, exams, and interactive learning modules. These strategies were effective for knowledge acquisition, but in order for students to think in a more nuanced way, I developed section introduction assignments using engaging videos that already existed online (e.g. TED talks, Moth performances, and mini documentaries) coupled with discussion questions. These videos would highlight marginalized voices such as the role of friendships for transgendered children, the transition to parenting for gay dads, and African Americans experiences with racism when providing end of life care. The discussion questions facilitated higher level thinking around these topics. The online environment naturally provided opportunities to apply the content to promote science literacy.
I have mentored 15 undergraduate students on research and programmatic projects including social skills groups and human sexuality classes for adolescents with autism. When mentoring, the instructional relationship is personal, extemporaneous, and project oriented. In this teaching environment, nuance looked like helping students see differences between didactic and experiential models for social skills instruction or how a qualitative research can answer different questions than quantitative research. Higher level thinking looked like facilitating reflective practice with students so they can understand what worked and what did not in the project. Application looked like tying the tasks that they worked on in the project to their larger career and academic goals.
I use the concept of cultural humility to guide my engagement with all students. Cultural humility is a process of reflection and self-critique to develop dynamic and mutually respectful partnerships with communities and individuals. To that end, I worked to craft a statement on social justice in Human Development and Family Studies classrooms for our graduate student association. In this statement, we pledged to cultivate anti-oppressive classrooms and infuse curricula with critical understandings of policy and practice.
My students have gone on to be speech and language pathologists, social workers, teachers, child life specialists, and early childhood educators. This type of work takes a great deal of thoughtfulness and preparedness. Whether or not they can apply the content directly to their work, I know that they can use critical thinking skills, an appreciation of contextual factors, and the ability to analyze important problems. I am committed to teaching students these skills. In an evaluation, a student once commented, “Sarah was very passionate. There is no doubt that Sarah loves what she does and is enthusiastic about her work. Having a passionate instructor is a way to keep the students engaged.” What keeps me engaged is watching students be passionate about challenging topics, enthusiastic about learning, and dedicated to helping others. As much as my practice and research are the basis for my teaching, working with students energizes my practice and informs my research.