A Philosophy of Teaching

by Dale H. Easley

Teaching is communicating. The teacher has something---an idea, a way of understanding the world---that the student lacks. The implication is not that the teacher is superior but that he or she has something worthwhile to share. The test of effectiveness in teaching is not, therefore, the amount of material presented by the teacher's lecture nor the performance of students on a test. Instead, effectiveness in teaching is essentially effectiveness in communicating worthwhile concepts. The foundations of effective teaching are threefold:
  • Relationship: the context in which communication takes place. There is always a relationship present between the teacher and each student. A teacher does not speak into a void, but into a space provided by the student. Though that space is shaped by many factors beyond the teacher's control, the teacher's skill in listening and empathizing determines his or her ability to understand the nature of that space and to shape it in preparation for accepting the ideas the teacher presents. Our tendency is to focus on the things present in a relationship and to seek to get rid of the disagreeable ones. However, removing something bad is no guarantee that something good will replace it. A more powerful approach is to focus on the things that are missing. Then we can determine how best to create them.

  • Integrity: The teacher must always be honest, admitting mistakes and lack of knowledge, giving true reasons for grades, never intentionally misleading students. But integrity is more than truthfulness. It implies competence. If a man claims to be doctor, integrity requires not only that he have the required education, but that he has kept up with his field, that he has remained a competent practitioner of his art. The alcoholic doctor whose hand trembles when he operates hardly has integrity, even if he is sober at the time. Likewise, a teacher must be competent in the material being taught, keeping up with new ideas and theories, seriously evaluating what material the student needs to learn. Finally, a major component of integrity is enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is the difference between fulfilling the letter of what you say and fulfilling the spirit.

  • Responsibility: The teacher must assume complete responsibility for the student's education, no matter that the student is on drugs or was abused at home or simply didn't get a good night's sleep. Being responsible doesn't mean thinking that you can make everything right. Nor does it mean sinking into self-blaming or accepting abuse. Each of these lacks integrity. Instead, it is an attitude that refuses to pass off failures and shortcomings to others. It is a positive, empowered attitude.
Perhaps you've had the opportunity to be served in a restaurant by a really good waiter. He exudes competence without being snotty. Neither does he suck up. You feel important and cared for, but not patronized. If he suggests a particular dish, you're open to trying it because he has first listened to and clearly understood what you want for the evening. And if anything isn't as you wish, he takes responsibility for correcting it. You will never see a good waiter blaming a customer---the customer is always right, even when he isn't. You may say that this approach is fine in a restaurant, but would never work in a classroom. Perhaps not always. Even the best waiter may sometimes have to resort to having an unruly customer tossed out. Nor are there "required" restaurants. But in a good restaurant, it is clear that being there is a joy, that what is being presented is valuable and worthy of respect. The entire dining experience improves the quality of our lives. Shouldn't education be the same?