The purpose of a teaching philosophy
The main goal of a teaching philosophy is to show search committees that you are ready and able to teach the students at their institution. There may be few formal opportunities to get on-the-job training to be an effective teacher once you start in your new role as a faculty member, and it is expected that you will be able to teach with minimal supervision once you start. This means that you should certainly seek out opportunities to gain meaningful teaching experiences as you are working on your PhD or as a postdoc. There are plenty of opportunities to do this as an adjunct, a teaching assistant, a mentor, a journal club coordinator, and in any situation where you are imparting knowledge to others, whether in groups or one-on-one.
A teaching philosophy is a document that describes your general approach to teaching. Can you summarize for the search committee what your goals are when you teach? If you can articulate this, and do so in a way that aligns with that institution’s own teaching philosophy or mission, then you will have done a good job at showing that you understand the role and responsibility that may take up a fair proportion of your life as a new faculty member. Search committees will be interested in seeing how you have improved over time, how you have incorporated new approaches, and even how you have learned from approaches that did not work.
To a certain extent, your teaching philosophy can focus on broad concepts of learning, and it can be philosophical at heart. However, it is helpful to show how your teaching philosophy has developed over time so that any broad concepts can become more tangible and real. For example, where did you get your ideas or inspiration? What has cemented the approaches you take? Was it your experience as a student, as a teacher, or based on research you may have done on teaching theory? Philosophies should not just spring out of nowhere, they develop and evolve as you put them into action and test them. One of the purposes of the teaching philosophy is to show search committees that you have a firm foundation on which you can develop as a faculty member. If your philosophy comes without context or explanation, you are not going to be as convincing.
Really good teaching philosophies quickly turn from general concepts to specific illustrations of teaching in action (whether you are doing the teaching or you are being taught). As search committees are looking for someone who will be able to teach existing curricula, develop new and interesting courses, and who can connect effectively with students (and other faculty), they will be looking for some evidence that you have done something similar already. If you are potentially going to be teaching both graduate and undergraduate students at the institution you are applying to, can you describe experiences where you have interacted with both of these groups that is in some way relevant to teaching approaches? What are the differences between these groups that you have observed, and how have you adjusted your approach? What about teaching students from diverse backgrounds or international students, what evidence can you provide within your philosophy that might show that you have the ability to do this, try to tailor your teaching statement to indicate you can work effectively with the population of students that attend the institutions that interest you.
Ultimately, your teaching philosophy should complement your cover letter, CV, and research statement to illustrate what makes you an ideal candidate for the job. The more specific the illustrations that you provide, the more meaningful your philosophy will become, and the more interesting it will be to read.
Timeline: Getting Started with your Teaching Philosophy
Developing and teaching your own class is not a necessary prerequisite to having your own interesting and informative teaching philosophy (but it can certainly help!). There are many aspects of your academic experience that you can draw upon when thinking about and developing your own philosophy.
As a student, you have seen a range of good, bad, and indifferent teaching styles and approaches. The teaching philosophy is not the place to complain about the negative ones, but it is an opportunity to discuss what you learned from these experiences as a student, how you can integrate what you learned into your own teaching approaches, and why this will make you an ideal candidate. You should mention those approaches you saw to be very effective at achieving teaching goals, and be clear as to what you see these goals to be. As stated above, do not be afraid to give specific illustrations of particular situations where you saw teaching being truly effective. These specific examples will help your teaching philosophy standout from the rest of the philosophies in the application pile.
If you are interested in gaining additional teaching experiences while you are studying at Penn, then consider visiting the Center for Teaching and Learning, which works with graduate students to help them improve their teaching at Penn and to help prepare them to become faculty in the future. It is important to think about teaching as more than just standing in a classroom giving a lecture. Mentoring students, overseeing aspects of your lab, coordinating practical or lab components of courses, participating in journal clubs, all involve teaching to a certain degree, depending on how you choose to define the term. You can certainly use these experiences as the foundation for your teaching philosophy, and expand on how these experiences will translate to more formal lecture-based situations.
It is easy enough for anyone to say that they have a “student-centered teaching style” where they focus on the different learning styles of the students. However, it is much more effective to back-up broad statements like this with specific illustrations of your teaching in action, especially when the examples you choose have some great outcomes you can highlight (e.g., high student evaluation of the course, student retention throughout the class, individuals choosing your subject as a major). Do not spend too much time trying to drop in teaching buzzwords if this takes away from actual examples of you using or experiencing effective teaching approaches. And remember, your teaching philosophy is always going to be subject to change as you continue to have new and different teaching experiences that inform you. There are always new learning theories, new technologies, and new ways of assessing teaching effectiveness, which you can integrate into your philosophy over time. Keep your philosophy statement updated with your new perspectives and new illustrations.
Follow these general steps to begin developing an effective teaching philosophy:
Step 1: Think about your experiences as a student, and any experiences you have had as a teacher, and describe what you see as your teaching goals and what you believe are effective outcomes of learning. Do not be tempted just to make up a philosophy that sounds good, really give some thought as to what you believe teaching actually represents. Additionally, you can try to envision how you would like to be described by your (future) students if they were asked about what kind of teacher you are. Specifically show how effective teaching approaches are tied to outcomes and results as you are describing your experiences. It is OK to talk about learning experiences that you have had or seen that you have improved (in other words, that were not as effective as you had hoped), especially if you describe how you used student or faculty feedback or your own evaluations to do so.
Step 2: Ask faculty in your department if they are willing to share their own teaching philosophies with you. To a certain extent, there will be some subject-specific differences in what is expected from a teaching philosophy, and so it is always a good idea to see how others in your field have done it. You should try to draft your own teaching philosophy first before you review any philosophies shared with you. Your goal is to create a unique philosophy tailored to your experiences and perspectives, not to echo the philosophies of your advisors.
Step 3: Look at the website of the academic institution(s) to which you are applying, and try to find out about their institutional teaching philosophy. You can usually find this in their mission statement, or on departmental homepages. If you can describe your own philosophy in a language that is similar to the way they describe theirs, then you will help them to see how you will fit in as a faculty member. It is advisable to tailor your teaching philosophy for each application, however, more time should be devoted to tailoring your cover letter and CV.
Step 4: Integrate all of this information together in 1-2 pages, remembering to make your philosophy rich with actual examples and illustrations of your teaching experiences and ideas. Schedule an appointment with a career advisor to get feedback on your draft. You should also try to get faculty in your department to review your philosophy if they are willing to do so. In particular, faculty who have seen you teach or your student evaluations are important resources for feedback (and can serve as references).