Submitted as part of the annual teaching portfolio
On Dwelling in Possibility
The academy is not paradise. But learning is a place where paradise can be created. The classroom, with all its limitations, remains a location of possibility.
-bell hooks, in Teaching to Transgress
I have come to see my statement of teaching philosophy as a living document, growing with me as I face the challenges presented by teaching, test my praxis in the classroom, and reflect on possibilities. Teaching is as much about a teacher’s lifelong learning as it is about the students’ acquisition of knowledge. As Paulo Freire, the great liberatory educator, once said, “I cannot be a teacher without exposing who I am.” My current statement is my confessional.
The greatest lesson I have learned teaching at a community college is the inevitability of losing some of the students. Amidst the buzzwords of active learning, student engagement, and student retention, faculty watch students simply “ghost” away. While difficult to accept, this truth has also made me realize that those students we don’t lose are all the more precious with possibility.
A colleague who teaches at a research university once commented that teaching at community college is educational triage. This profound observation has helped me come to terms with letting go. Students come to school with severe gunshot wounds, both educationally and literally, and faculty make hard choices every single day about who to help.
I was trained in an academic discipline, rhetoric and communication studies, which likes to position itself as the grandest among all the disciplines for preparing citizens for democracy. Rhetoricians claim as their heritage and their academic obligation the art of democratic discourse. The field originated with ancient Greek rhetoric, but its status as a professional discipline emerged from the American Lyceum and Chautauqua movements that gave rise to adult education and ultimately to community colleges. As I traveled through graduate school and a career in various Research 1 institutions, I was immersed in the philosophies of critical pedagogy, feminist teaching, and liberatory education, all of which hold dear the premise of “starting where the students are.” Nowhere was my grand academic training and teaching philosophy truly put to test until I began working at a community college.
Years ago, I made the paradigm shift from “covering the material” and what Freire calls the “banking model of education” to partnering with, facilitating, and coaching students. In the past, I have used in my classes techniques such as individual education plans, student-designed courses (i.e., rubrics, assignments, and selections of readings or topics), and experiential learning. I have always sought strategies that allow me to craft community, promote mutual regard, and empower students. This is the very “stuff” of a teaching philosophy statement, an accounting of what we do, yet it does so little to enumerate my altered understanding of teaching.
In my time at at a community college, I have overcome my disdain for what I perceived as crutches: bonus points, hand holding, overly generous interpretations of “excused absences,” and the like. I have adjusted in ways that would have been foreign to me at a university. I do give bonus points, hold hands, and rarely enforce a strict attendance policy at the semester’s end. I also waffle between demands for rigor and a deep desire to create spaces of possibility for those who are willing. The student who says, “Hey, I thought I was supposed to get something as good I would at STATE U,” makes me realize I have yet to find a viable middle ground.
Like most of my community college colleagues, I assist my students in ways outside the norm of university life; these are the necessary acts in which we all engage because of the context in which we teach. I have helped on a personal level by connecting students to community resources or calling them in the hospital for support. Over twenty years ago I failed graduate school, entered a treatment program, and began a long path to recovery. I often reveal this in class so that those who struggle can can see possible futures for themselves.
Even with the resources that schools provide, students ghost and leave us wondering.
At school, we cannot legislate student success through retention programs, we cannot feed our students’ children with financial aid checks, and we cannot rescue them. All we can do is provide them with what bell hooks calls “a location for possibility.”