The Teaching Philosophy of Robin L. Simmons
Each new semester I know exactly how most of my students feel. They are experiencing the same misgivings that I have when I service my car. Because they lack expertise in the subject that I am teaching, my students worry that I am about to take advantage of them. They wonder if I am going to overcharge them in terms of time and effort for work that they don't really need to do. I see the thought balloons above their heads and the questions posed inside: Why should a future pharmacist have to write all these words? What does Homer have to do with computer programming? What future client is ever going to ask me to define a comma splice? When will I need MLA-style documentation at the hotel?
I know that my students are reconciled to pay more than they really want for something that they don't believe is entirely necessary. When I say, "Read thus-and-such pages in Textbook X," they feel the same resignation I experience when Joe Mechanic waves me up to the counter to give me the bad news: "Your gaskets are leaking, ma'am. It's a pretty expensive thing to fix. And it's going to take us a while to do the work." What can I do except hand him my MasterCard and return to the waiting area to watch afternoon soaps? What can my students do except sacrifice family time, lunch breaks, or sleep to complete their assignments?
The empathy I feel for the students sitting in my classes is the biggest influence on my educational philosophy. I want my classroom to become a much more comfortable place than the repair shop lobby. I want my students to understand exactly what they need to do, the reasons why, and the importance of doing it. And most importantly, I have to be more trustworthy than Joe Mechanic with his outrageous price quotes and vague estimates of repair time. To accomplish these goals in the classroom, I believe that all good teachers must do the following things:
- A good teacher must make her students understand the immediate and long-range importance of the course;
- A good teacher must model the behavior required to reach the course goals; and
- A good teacher doesn't mind holding both her students and herself accountable.
Communicating the Importance of Course Goals
Many times Joe Mechanic has warned me that if I don't fix a problem immediately, my engine might lock, my brakes might fail, or my transmission might drop out. On the one hand, I sense his insincerity. I would wager that he's trying to meet a daily revenue goal by doing one pricey job instead of fifteen oil changes. On the other hand, maybe he's telling me the truth. We have all seen bewildered motorists standing beside cars engulfed in flames. Did these folks fail to listen to the warnings of their mechanic? Memories of smoking vehicles are enough for me to say, "Go ahead and take care of it." I feel foolish and frustrated because I'm not convinced that the repair is necessary, but I don't know enough about car maintenance to know for certain that Joe is swindling me.
I think that many students have the same feelings about their education. Although their teachers might rant and rave about the importance of the difficult and tedious work ahead, the students are thinking to themselves, My boss doesn't have this information, but he still has the power to fire or promote me, or My brother-in-law doesn't have this skill, yet he's making $20,000 more a year than I do. If students don't believe what a teacher is saying, they feel on guard, the comfort level in the classroom drops, and all of a sudden, the students are dodging potholes in the trust that they should have for their instructor.
A good teacher knows that she must convince her students that the course goals are really important. This way, her students won't think that she is suckering them into unnecessary brain repair. Communicating the importance of course goals is sometimes very easy. In Developmental Writing II, for example, all that the teacher must do is gravely explain how the two graders of the do-or-die final exam will flunk a paper that doesn't meet the minimum exit requirements. Then the students perk right up, acquiring an instant interest in the course content.
But whenever students believe that they are learning something only to perform well at a final exam, then the teacher has done a poor job of showing her students the importance of the class. In effect, the teacher has done the equivalent of getting someone to buy new tires when the tread indicated that the old ones were good for another 15,000 miles. She has caused the students to pay in terms of time and effort because she needed them to have the skill for her class, not because they really needed it for their future.
Instead, a good teacher convinces her students that, above all, the course material will discipline their minds. Consequently, the students become better able to organize, evaluate, make valid arguments, and work with new data. Their minds, as a result of their course work, will become more flexible whether they are studying rhetorical patterns, Spanish verb tenses, or algebraic formulae. Her students might never need to recite the four rules for fixing comma splices once they leave Freshman Composition I. But the skills that they acquired when they learned to break down a sentence, determine where the error occurred, and fix the problem correctly are the same skills they can apply in any area of their professional life. Whether they must evaluate a software program, make a personnel decision as a manager, or find ways to reduce a budget, they first need to break the item into its component parts, understand the relationship of the parts to the whole, and gauge with some accuracy how the removal, addition, or alteration of a part will affect that item. A teacher who can convince her students of this truth is a good teacher.
Modeling the Behavior Required to Reach Course Goals
One morning I went out to start my car and discovered that the gearshift was locked. No amount of muscle would budge it out of park. The tow truck driver who arrived to help discovered that a small plastic pin inside the gearshift had broken. With a wadded piece of paper, he rigged a shifting mechanism so that I could drive the car to a repair shop. "Now be careful," he warned. "They might tell you that you need a new transmission, but all you really need is another plastic pin. Should cost you about a buck fifty before labor." Because this young man had shown me the problem, rigged a temporary solution that I could understand, and helped me rehearse what to say to Joe Mechanic, I knew that I was going to spend $20 instead of $2,000. Joe couldn't take advantage of me because I knew where the problem was, how to fix it, and how much it should cost. That knowledge was power. Imagine what I would have learned about car repair if I had spent an entire week with this young man!
My tow truck driver was the perfect teacher because he modeled for me the behavior that I needed to succeed with Joe Mechanic. A classroom teacher can be successful only when she does the same. A teacher who, for example, is lecturing on a rhetorical pattern like comparison/contrast must be able not only to explain the organization of the essay but also demonstrate how she herself would write it. She should be able to model choosing the topic, prewriting, outlining, and taking the paper from rough draft to polished copy. A teacher who is explaining subject-verb agreement must do more than read the answers found in an instructor's manual. She should be able to articulate her thought process as she analyzes a bad sentence and applies the necessary rule. If a teacher believes that punctuality is important for both assignments and class attendance, then she must never be late, either to class or with grading. A really good teacher models so much of the right behavior that her students don't fear popping the hood of an assignment and tinkering around with the components underneath.
When Joe Mechanic tells me that a repair will cost $500, I should be able to expect that he will silence my car's squeak, cough, or choke. As the expert mechanic, Joe should be able to identify my car's deficiency, whether it's a worn or improperly installed part or an adjustment to one of the engine's components. He should then perform the necessary modification to fix the problem. Similarly, a student should expect that whatever deficiency in knowledge he has when the class begins, the teacher will "install" it by semester's end, providing the student with whatever "brain repair" he needs to perform in a certain way. Like the car mechanic, a good teacher supplies the parts, connects them with care, and through evaluative means, like essays and exams, does the equivalent of taking the student on a test drive around the block.
During this process, the teacher must be accountable for certain things. For example, the teacher must assess whether the student has the necessary prerequisite skills for the class he is taking. No matter the expertise of the mechanic, no one can get a '78 Gremlin to win the next Daytona 500. In addition, the teacher must accurately evaluate what work needs to be done and then do that work, whether or not it's what she enjoys teaching. Otherwise, her students will not successfully master the course goals. A highly detailed car might catch everyone's attention with its sparkling paint and fancy wheels, but if its manifold is cracked or its fan belt frayed, it's not going to reach its destination. Similarly, a writing teacher cannot spend weeks discussing figurative language, the sparkling paint of composition, if her class is demonstrating a more basic problem, like fragments or verb tense errors, that will hurt them on the next assignment.
And finally, a teacher has to evaluate her students' work honestly and advise according to what she sees. She must tell a student who cannot pay in terms of time and effort for the brain repair that he needs that she cannot do the job for half price. It would be just as criminal as Joe Mechanic's telling a poor college student that her '78 Gremlin with balding tires and a leaky radiator is ready for the cross-country trek home because he did do the oil change.
Not all of the accountability rests with the teacher, though. When the student "pulls into" the classroom, he is entering a partnership, and half of the responsibility is his. Once the teacher has done her job, the student must make use of his brain repair as it was intended. If Joe Mechanic does a front-end alignment on my vehicle, but I still refuse to slow down for speed bumps, I will soon be back at the shop needing another alignment. No matter how well a good teacher explains a concept, models a skill, or reinforces something that she has taught, if the student does not do his job to maintain that piece of knowledge and use it as it needs to be used, he'll soon be pulling off the road, unable to continue the road trip to his degree.
If a teacher convinces her students that the course goals are really important, her students will feel enthusiastic about the material. If a teacher models the behavior that she wants from her students, they will understand what they must do to gain expertise in the subject that they are studying. If a teacher gives her students the skills they need and then shows them how to maintain those skills, then the students will function like well-tuned automobiles purring down the road.