Today, I have a teaching portfolio due for one of the schools where I teach, so I had to write a “Statement of Teaching Philosophy,” which is simply a document that tells how I think about teaching. These are kind of hard to write for a number of reasons including that my philosophy shifts as I see changes in student populations and as I learn more about how to teach well. But they’re also kind of like Personal Statements for college applications where you have to cram a ton of information into a little space. That said, they are helpful documents in that they do help me focus and articulate the unsaid practices I use in the classroom. So, for your reading “pleasure,”

“Just tell me what you want,” she says.
“I want you to write an opinion editorial like those I gave you links for on the assignment sheet.”
“Right. But how do I start? What do you want me to say?”
I tell her I want her to say what needs to be said to achieve the purpose she wants for the audience she has chosen.
She groans and rolls her eyes.
“You can do it,” I say because I know she can.

Strong teachers act as mountain guides for their students. We are leading them up the face of a steep cliff, and we know that the rewards for reaching the summit will be vast – a great new view of the world, new knowledge to use on the mountain and off, and an amazing sense of accomplishment – and it is our job to help our students reach that summit successfully, if the students decide to continue the journey.
Yet, the journey is theirs to make, not ours. A good teacher recognizes that she is giving direction but that she must let the climbers make the climb for themselves. In the classroom, this means she provides guidance on key terms (the elements of an effective thesis statements, methods for controlling tone in a piece, the types of symbols that show up often in poetry). She shows them where they might run off the path (by offending their audience or relying too heavily on their own experience as evidence of a claim). But she does not make the journey for them (by being too prescriptive or giving such specific feedback that the student only revises what the teacher marks.) A good teacher shows them that there are several paths up the mountain, lots of places to grab hold, and that the student must choose the best path and handholds for their individual writing journey. The climb of writing can only be made by each student, and while the teacher may have to give up some time and space where she lectures more, and while she may have to watch the climbers stumble a little on the way, she knows that the experience of writing is the best teacher of all.
To facilitate the students’ ownership of their own writing journeys, I must be an effective guide. I must provide clear, accurate guidance about how to continue our climb. Therefore, I lead brief discussions each day about elements of our journey – i.e. thesis development, selecting a research topic, identifying rhyme and rhythm in poetry – and then I encourage students to incorporate that information in the analysis of texts we read and in their own writing. I also am sure to make my assignments clear and to discuss them several times throughout the writing process so that a path to a “finished’ draft is as clear as I can make it.
Additionally, I believe learning to write can be a powerful communal process, so I incorporate a great deal of group and partner work so that the students can help teach each other how to make this journey. They undertake peer reviews of each other’s papers; they work in small groups to identify the key components of any essay we’ve read; they discuss ideas with each other in online discussion boards in which I am only an observer. While I make myself very available to the students for questions and conferences, I know that part of learning to climb this mountain is knowing where to find support and help from the people on the journey with them.
Perhaps the most challenging part of guiding my students through this journey up the mountain is the desire to be a Sherpa for them. I want to load up the baggage of their writing histories – strange lessons they’ve learned from other teachers (“Never ask a question in a paper. It makes you look like you don’t know what you’re talking about), their emotions about their futility as writers (“I am always going to be a numbers person, and writing will never be for me.”), and their lack of motivation (“I don’t want to read a poem more than once. I just want to read through it and know what it means.) – and lug them on my back through the journey. But just as the process of climbing is important for them to take on personally, the process of knowing which baggage to shed, which to repack in a different understanding, and which to push through is something that they must take on themselves. As their guide, I can give them my insights and suggestions, and I can encourage them to keep climbing. But ultimately, the decision of how to climb – with what level of commitment, enthusiasm, and depth – is theirs.

I am their guide, and so I take the journey with them, retracing my own footsteps and finding new paths each semester. In many ways, I am also on a journey but my mountain is teaching, and I love the chance to climb it again and again, a group of students surrounding me as I go. For those students who choose to take on the journey to the mountaintop, I can give them help, maybe even a belief in their own ability to make this journey. And if I’ve guided them well, their future writing journeys will be easier, too, for they will know the tools they need, where they can get the help they seek, and the exhilaration of reaching the summit of that peak.