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Laura D. Borger
Teaching Philosophy

“In order to teach you, I must know you.”
~Lisa Deplit


            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 February, 2010 11:00 pm