My “philosophy” of teaching and learning is largely rooted in the work of bell hooks, Paulo Freire, Carl Rogers, and feminist theorists and psychologists. Much of my philosophy is based on my experience teaching, my training as a mental health counselor, and reflecting on my own experiences as a student.
Before I entered high school, I had been in five schools in three different countries and many times the only allies that I had were my teachers: they were my mentors, confidants, protectors, and cheerleaders. When I think back on my childhood, it is my teachers that I remember with clarity and fondness. When I had not yet made friends in a new school, they were my friends on the playground. When I doubted my ability they both challenged and encouraged me. In college, they challenged me and set standards and expectations for me that I would have never thought achievable. As I enter this profession, I feel the responsibility of not just educating, but of mentoring, encouraging, and challenging, and it is a responsibility that I wholeheartedly embrace.
Power and Collaboration
I believe that teaching and learning is a collaborative effort; something entered in to with both risk and vulnerability (for both students and teachers). It is because of this that I conceptualize myself as an educator in much the same way that I conceptualize myself as a counselor: as a feminist, I am concerned with the constructs of egalitarianism, privilege, and power, and from a Rogerian perspective I strive to be authentic, genuine, and empathic.
To minimize the inherent (and learned) power distribution in the classroom, I must be willing to meet the student on equal ground and one way of doing this is how we choose to address each other. If I call you by your first name, then it is only appropriate for you to respond similarly. It might seem simple, but I think that setting the classroom tone in this way sets the framework for collaboration and valuing the individuality and experiences of everyone. It is the first step in establishing the classroom norms, which I feel need to be discussed and agreed upon with each class as they will differ based on class composition, size, topic, material, and content.
Structure and Flexibility
While these two terms might seem like opposites of each other, I don’t see them as such. I think that it is crucial to begin a class with a cohesive and well thought out agenda, with clearly delineated tasks, objectives, expectations, and requirements. But I also think that it has to be flexible enough to account for different learning, engagement, assessment styles, and strengths or weaknesses. Some people will engage in class discussions and others will not. Some people excel at writing papers or group activities, while others will excel at taking tests. I think that it’s crucial to account and accommodate for this by allowing for various ways to participate and test knowledge, which I try to do with each class that I teach by incorporating various testing methods and opportunities.
In my Case Management class, students engage in semester long role-plays as case managers and mock clients in addition to
participating in treatment teams. This is a writing intensive class (with a heavy focus on clinical writing) aimed at preparing students with the skills and tools necessary for work in many human service professions. In my Group Work class, students spend the first half of the semester learning theories of group work and practical tools for running groups, and during the second half of the semester they participate in small groups led by their peers. In Community Mental Health, Introduction to Rehabilitation and Human Services, and Working with Children and Families students learn about disability culture, mental illness, and at risk youth. This knowledge is rooted in theory and supported by case studies and small group work. In these three classes, students are active participants in the learning process, often engaging in class presentations and discussions.
How Students Learn
I think that, while still acknowledging a variety of learning styles, there are some core constructs that are crucial. I think that students learn best when material is presented in a way that is interactive, when it is applicable to their lives, interests, or career goals, and when they are given an opportunity to either discuss or apply the new knowledge. From this perspective, I think that it is useful to provide information in a manner that moves from the macro to the micro: a cursory overview of the larger concepts, followed by an increasingly narrower exploration of the concepts, and culminating in a discussion or exploration of how to apply to concepts/material. Finally, I think that perhaps the most crucial component, the piece that, if missing, would render most of this irrelevant, is that students need to be engaged with the material. In my experience, this happens when the teacher is engaged with the material and there is an energy that is created when a teacher is both willing and open to sharing their engagement and passion.
Teaching in Rehabilitation and Human Services (RHS)
My experience as an educator is grounded in my experience as a student, a counselor, and teaching 5 distinct undergraduate courses over 4 years in Rehabilitation and Human Services at the Pennsylvania State University. RHS is a unique field to teach in because content knowledge is balanced with personal reflection, practical application of knowledge, and exploring one’s biases and beliefs. It is, in essence, an inherently deeply personal course of study. Beyond learning content related to disability culture and techniques, students in my classes are encouraged to explore how they have come to understand the world, relationships, and the ways in which they interact with (and are impact by) society. This type of reflection in an academic setting is often new and unfamiliar to students but critical in becoming a competent and multiculturally sensitive human service professional. I am able to support students through this work because I teach 7 classes each year in the department, which allows me to build relationships and get to know my students. Throughout a semester, students can expect to participate in self-reflection, group oriented task work, and engage as teachers to their peers, in addition to didactic learning.