Thinking about how you will present your teaching experience and teaching persona on the academic job market can be useful not only as a way of preparing for a job interview, but also as a way of clarifying for yourself the kind of teacher that you want to be, and the kinds of things that you value in an educational setting—whether or not you are at the point of seeking, or even want to seek, a tenure-track position. While the Bok Center will always be less prepared than your academic supervisor to initiate you into the specific expectations around teaching statements and teaching portfolios which reign in your discipline, we are happy to offer general advice about how to talk about the things that you do in your classroom. Please note: This service is limited to GSAS PhD students and others at similar career stages engaged in the teaching of Harvard College undergraduates.
It's a shame that search committees customarily ask candidates for "statements of teaching philosophy," a name which makes it sound as though the committee is looking for a lofty, abstract manifesto about the purpose of higher education. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The best teaching statements are, almost without exception, those which drill down and give a potential employer a vivid portrait of the candidate's presence and personality as an instructor. Insofar as they are "philosophical" at all, good teaching statements take care to explain a teacher's priorities. What must your students learn—and how, exactly, do you teach it?
Click here for an exercise to develop your teaching statement
In our Bok Seminar on Teaching and the Job Market, we encourage graduate students to think about the teaching statement as a hybrid of three things:
- A story.The most effective statements tell a story about the evolution of their authors’ teaching commitments and practices in dialogue with feedback from their students. Like any good story, it should be organized around some "tension," feature a "protagonist," be driven by a "plot," etc. These might come from: (1) your own experience as a student and/or teacher; (2) the research on teaching and learning (i.e. evidence-based pedagogy); (3) an interesting student profile in your courses; and/or (4) your scholarship.
- A performance of disciplinary mastery.Almost every discipline has some mental model of how knowledge is structured—and, therefore, of how one moves from being less expert to more expert. Which parts of that mental model are satisfactory, or even sacred? Which parts are unsatisfactory, or ripe for creative disruption? (Is there some foundational concept that could be taught more effectively? Have you tried letting sophomores do something that is usually reserved for seniors?) How can you bring the skills which you ordinarily apply to your research to your teaching to demonstrate that you have a bird’s-eye view of your field?
- A window onto your understanding of students. A reader of your teaching statement should be able to walk away from the text with a memorable anecdote or otherwise strong sense of how well you understand the students whom you teach—including how their identities and experiences inflect their experience of your teaching. How does your classroom actually look on a given day? Are your activities learner-centered? What sort of voice do you use when speaking with students?
In order to help graduate students think about how they might apply these lenses practically to their own statements, we suggest three exercises that you could apply on your own:
- Kurt Vonnegut's Shapes of Stories.Kurt Vonnegut worked out what he claimed were the eight essential "shapes" or storyformsof world (well, perhaps Western) narratives. (Here's his lecture on the topic.) We'll pair up students, have them pick a story shape, and ask them in three or five minutes to use that shape to narrate a teaching experience. One of the best things about this quick exercise is that it invariably requires you to identify an obstacle or moment of failure in your teaching, and to explain how you have grown and learned from the experience—a useful remedy to the temptation to describe yourself, implausibly, as a perfect teacher.
- Close read a curriculum. Harvard has a wonderful resource buried in its undergraduate handbook—a book of its own called the "Fields of Concentration." In it, each department attempts to explain what its faculty teaches, and why an undergraduate should want to learn it. It also lays out in detail the requirements which each department sets for its concentrators (the Harvard term for majors). We ask graduate students to close-read their department's entry, and to compare it to one or more curricula from similar departments at other institutions. What can we learn about how our fields—perhaps only implicitly—think a student advances from novice to expert? Is there agreement about what kinds of things every [historian/biologist/linguist] ought to learn, and in what order? This can be a terrific way to start thinking about what you prioritize in your own teaching.
- What are the examples doing?Depending on the field, we will collate a few sample teaching statements and give them a very quick read, focusing on the moments in which the writer speaks concretely about an instance of his/her teaching. By focusing on these moments—asking whether they illustrate something about the teacher or the students, and especially about whether they are meant to communicate something about the teacher's approach, or merely that he or she has experience—job market candidates become more aware of the value of deploying examples of their own teaching economically and purposefully.
For more information...
Although there are many examples of uninspiring teaching portfolios on the internet, teaching documents can be organized into a portfolio that demonstrates both serious thought and rigorous standards of scholarship. In The Teaching Portfolio, Peter Seldin estimates that a portfolio takes about 12–15 hours to create—a small time commitment considering its benefits, which include growth as a teacher and increasing your chances of success on the job market. As Seldin notes, the teaching portfolio "is to teaching what lists of publications, grants, and honors are to research and scholarship."
The Bok Center and the Office of Career Services advise TFs and other instructors to begin developing a teaching portfolio early in their teaching careers. Starting early and continuing to collect material during your ongoing development as a teacher is the best way to craft a portfolio that both captures your educational philosophy and documents your teaching efforts.
Typical Components of a Teaching Portfolio
- Statement of Teaching Philosophy. A polished, narrative statement similar to that describing one's goals as a researcher. (See above.)
- Description of one's past responsibilities as a teacher and advisor. Save all syllabi, handouts, and assignments from courses in which you teach. Make sure to make a note of exercises, assignments, and materials you developed yourself.
- A list of classes taught (as a course head, Teaching Fellow, or Tutor). This list might include additional data such as the number of students enrolled, the type of student taking the class—concentrators, first-year students, non-specialists, graduate students, etc. (This may be combined with #2 above and included on the CV instead of in the teaching portfolio.)
- Prospective syllabi. Sample syllabi of courses you have designed and taught (for example, a junior tutorial) and/or syllabi for courses you are prepared to teach if hired by the particular university/college where you are interviewing for a job.
- Sample assignment prompt, lesson plan, or class activity. An example of an assignment, lesson plan, or activity that you have written/used with your students and which illustrates your approach to teaching a common concept in your field.
- Objective and subjective evaluation of teaching skills. A list or chart of your Q scores by course accompanied by an explanation of how you interpret them.
Additional Items which Might be Included in a Teaching Portfolio
- Letters of recommendation. If you are concerned that none of your regular letter writers can speak extensively about your skills and ability as a teacher, advisor, and/or course administrator, you can use the teaching portfolio to include an additional letter from a course head for whom you have taught. Remember to request a letter while the faculty member's memory of your teaching is fresh.
- Description of efforts to reflect on and improve your teaching. If you have served as a graduate fellow at the Bok Center, participated in our Bok Seminars and/or earned a Teaching Certificate, or have given professional presentations at one of our teaching conferences or in a departmental workshop, be sure to note this on your CV and/or in a short reflective statement in your teaching portfolio.
- Sample student work with accompanying evaluation. This might be a photocopy of a student paper, with marginalia and an end comment evaluating the essay or report as a whole.
- Video clips documenting teaching. Have a section (or, if you give a guest lecture, the lecture) videotaped as part of a consultation at the Bok Center. Videotaped segments of teaching are sometimes requested in lieu of, or in addition to, an onsite job talk. Watching yourself teach on tape in consultation with a Bok Center staff member can be a springboard to articulating your teaching philosophy.
For more information...
Bain, Ken. What the Best College Teachers Do. Harvard University Press (2004), ch. 3.
Davis, Barbara Gross. Tools for Teaching. Jossey-Bass (1993).
Hutchings, Pat "Teaching Portfolios as a Tool for TA Development," in The Professional Development of Graduate Teaching Assistants, Marincovich et. al., eds. Anker (1998), pp. 235–248.
McKeachie, Wilbert J., "The Teaching Portfolio," in McKeachie's Teaching Tips, 10th edition, Houghton Mifflin Co. (1999), pp. 283–284.
Seldin, Peter. The Teaching Portfolio: A Practical Guide to Improved Performance and Promotion/Tenure Decisons, 3rd edition. Anker (2004).
Academic departments generally look for evidence of teaching ability in their interview candidates in some combination of four ways: (1) by asking the candidates to discuss a set of teaching materials, like sample syllabi, which they have submitted; (2) by asking them to parachute in and "guest-teach" one session in a live undergraduate course; (3) by running them past a student interview panel, whether formal or informal (e.g. over coffee); and/or (4) by deducing classroom communication skills from the quality and clarity of the candidate's research presentation.