Laura D. Borger
“In order to teach you, I must know you.”
I teach with an ethics of care.
In the past when asked to articulate my teaching philosophy,
this used to be a sub-tenet of such a document. Now, it is the document.
Teaching with an ethics of care means that I care about my
students. I get to know them as individual beings with a unique combination
of lived experiences – some of which will help them in the classroom, many
of which will hinder them in the classroom. Approaching them as
individuals, I use their strengths to compensate for their weaknesses. This
allows me to ‘trick’ them into learning because they trust me and, more
importantly, they trust themselves in the endeavor. They know what their
own strengths are as well. This exploits their confidence and allows me to
push them way beyond their comfortable boundaries, to push their learning.
Caring about my students means that they are the center of the
classroom. Although at first glance it may look like the “Borger
Entertainment Hour,” they are the ones responsible for moving the lessons.
I have never been able to be the teacher who has their course defined and
scheduled out at the beginning of the semester. I find that an impossible
proposition because I don’t know my students yet: how can I create their
curriculum without having met them? The curriculum in our classroom is
dictated by them: where they are when they enter our room, where they’ve
been, what they have with them right now. I know where we need to be at the
end and I don’t let them dictate that part of the script – they
underestimate what they can do sometimes. Most semesters the goal is the
same, however the path we take to that goal is always different because we
never start in the same place twice.
Caring about my students means their voice is as important as
mine. They assist in generating curricular content, not just because of how
I approach them when they enter, but because they are co-creators in this
space. They get to choose how to engage certain assignments. They get to
generate rubrics for assessing themselves (often they are tougher on
themselves than I would ever be). They get to teach each other. They get
to voice their opinions and they do so in a Democratic environment where
together we learn to make effective rhetorical choices in which no voice is
silenced – regardless of whether we agree with it or not. The only voices
that have no place in this space are voices of malice. We agree early on
that there is enough violence ‘out there,’ that many of them have had
violence done to them in the educational settings they’ve been shunted
through over the years (and may still experience it elsewhere on campus),
but no violence in here. They actively engage and maintain that environment
within the class and carry it with them outside the class as well.
Caring about my students means that I care about their writing.
I know that they cannot separate the personal from the professional. I know
that they take their writing personally and that they did not write to
demonstrate that they can do so error-free. They write to communicate
something. As such, I care enough to approach their writing as an act of
communication from one human being to another. Writing is a form of
meaning-making. Writing well means that it is going to be a messy process.
Writing well means that you have to take risks. Teaching well means that I
give my students space to be messy, space to take risks and fail and not
fail-fail. Teaching well means that I engage my students in dialogue
when I assess their writing versus engaging in an “error hunt” where who
they are as beings gets reduced to a page-count or comma-splice. Teaching
well means that I communicate with them about their communication so that
they can communicate with themselves and others.
For this to be most effective, I get their work back to them in
the most timely manner I can. Philosophically I believe new writers need to
get feedback relatively close to the time they turned work in. They need
some proximity to the work to remember the nuances of the process but just
enough distance to have fresh eyes. A week or two usually does it. Accomplished
writers can go months without receiving feedback without harm; neophyte
writers need that feedback sooner in order to internalize learning.
Assessment is always paired with one-on-one conferences. Depending on the
class I can cancel regular meetings to hold long conferences with students
to discuss patterns of error they’ve made across multiple projects. In
other classes, the luxury of conferencing is just that, a luxury. I have to fit one-on-one
into class and time-travel to the 1800’s when one-room-schools were the
norm, multi-tasking with groups and individuals simultaneously. Other times
I rely on the impetus of students to RSVP to my invitation for
conferencing. Dialoguing with students, getting work back quickly – not
just to be polite or efficient – giving them space to take risks without
abject failure, being comfortable with the ambiguity and messiness of
writing reflect this ethic of care. Rather than treating my students as
objects to be evaluated I treat them like people who want to be educated.
Caring about my students means that I care enough to engage in
reflective teaching practices. Rather than rely on old, yellowed notes (or
old, yellowed WebPages), I invent new prompts each semester. Though I don’t
believe in reinventing the wheel or throwing the baby out with the
bathwater: I keep what works and tweak what doesn’t. Even when an activity
fails miserably, I rarely throw it away. So often the reason something
doesn’t "work" in a classroom has nothing to do necessarily with the way I
presented it. To assume that “it’s all about me” means that success and
failure in my classroom are my responsibility. But the class dynamic is
created by all of us in the space working in concert (mostly), so I have to
reflect on all of the factors at work during instruction. Maybe the prompt
was written funkily, maybe students received some kind of group message in a
previous class that distracted them collectively (juniors in high school
being stressed about the ACT, CAS student being warned about failures in
Unviersity 100, etc.). Maybe the metaphors I used in lecture included
out-dated pop references (this happens when you age and your students do
not). Maybe the combination of activities doesn’t work in that sequence.
Whatever the reason, I am not afraid of failure. I treat my own failure the
way I expect my students to: this is a messy proposition, I am learning how
to do it (no matter how long I’ve been doing it, I am still learning how to
do it), there are a number of variables involved here, I can "revise" these
lessons to make them better, I can seek out peer-review on my own, etc.
Just because something I do fails does not make me a failure as a human
being, does not make me a failure as a teacher. If I think I am a failure,
then I have failed. But I don’t, so I haven’t.
Because I care, my students care. Because my students care, I
care. This philosophy is wonderfully Zen in its reciprocity. I am
passionate about teaching, my students (mostly) are passionate about
learning. When you are passionate, excited, and can laugh at yourself and
your mistakes, the mistakes don’t matter so much anymore. What you learn
from them does.
Last Update: 21