Submitted once upon a time as part of an 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 statements 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 a 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 persistence, faculty watch students “ghost” away. While difficult to accept, this truth has also made me realize that those students we retain 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. Many students come to school with gunshot wounds, both educationally and literally, and faculty often make hard choices about how to help.

I was trained in an academic discipline, rhetoric and communication studies, which likes to position itself as the grandest among all disciplines for preparing citizens for democracy. Rhetoricians claim the art of democratic discourse as their heritage and academic obligation. 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 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 techniques such as individual education plans, student-designed courses (i.e., rubrics, assignments, and selections of readings or topics), and experiential learning. I have sought out strategies that 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 overcame disdain for what I perceived as crutches: bonus points, hand holding, overly generous interpretations of “excused absences,” and the like. I adjusted in ways that were foreign to me at a university. I also waffle between demands for rigor and a deep desire to create wide open 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 the challenge of finding a viable middle ground.

Like most of my community college colleagues, I assist my students in ways outside the norm of university life; we all engage in these are the necessary because of the context in which we teach. I have helped on a personal level by connecting students to community resources or calling them to offer support. Over twenty years ago I failed graduate school, entered a treatment program, and began a long path to recovery. I sometimes reveal this in class because precarity is the norm in community college and students need to see possible futures for themselves.

Even with the resources that schools provide, though, too many students ghost and leave us wondering.

Schools cannot legislate student success through retention programs, we cannot feed our students’ children with financial aid checks, and we cannot rescue them with our noblesse oblige. All we can do is provide them with what bell hooks calls “a location for possibility.”