Good Teachers Wanted

November 12, 1999

Question: Having recently finished my Ph.D., I am beginning to look for a job in academia and have noticed that some colleges are requesting "evidence of excellence in teaching." Although I have not written it down, I do have a broad teaching philosophy. However, I am not sure what colleges are looking for with this requirement. Please help!

Mary: You'll notice that the ad presupposes that you have teaching experience. If you don't, you'll obviously try to make the most of the background you can offer. However, if you're reading this column, planning to look for a faculty position, and, in fact, have little or no teaching experience, take the earliest opportunity to get more experience. We hear that the days when someone could get a job based solely on a superior research record are coming to an end even at highly selective research universities. At institutions thought of primarily as teaching institutions, the demand for teaching excellence is even greater.

If no teaching opportunity presents itself right now, offer to teach some sessions of someone else's course, and have yourself observed by someone who will be writing a letter on your behalf. If you're teaching now and in fact it's not your strong suit, take advantage of campus resources to help you improve. You'll also find many resources on the Web. See the resources page of the National Teaching and Learning Forum.

Julie: So we'll assume you get some experience somewhere and that you're a good teacher and move on. I'll agree the ad requirement is vague, but it does give you an opportunity to provide whatever evidence you think best supports your candidacy. This can include a summary of positive student evaluations, letters about your teaching, Web sites you've developed, or a document some ads require, a "statement of teaching philosophy."

Mary: You should also consider including a syllabus from a course you've taught because this shows how you organize a body of knowledge and shows your expectations in terms of assignments, grading, and participation in class. Hiring committees will be interested in that. If you have taught several courses, I'd suggest you send only one or two syllabi, for courses of which you are most proud. Hiring committees have so much paper to go through that one carefully selected syllabus is preferable to several.

Julie: Speaking of lots of paper, it's also advisable not to send lots of student evaluations. Instead, your letter should include student comments about your teaching. Go through your student evaluations and select 5 to 10 that give the most positive and thorough evaluation of your teaching. Give them to a faculty member who knows your teaching and who is willing to write a letter recommending you as a teacher. The letter can incorporate quotations from the student evaluations.

Mary: It can also be helpful to ask a faculty member who writes about your teaching to observe you teaching a class. That way the person can speak from first-hand experience. (Most letters that strongly recommend candidates' teaching abilities do NOT include such first-hand evidence.)

You can also develop your own one-page summary of student evaluations. For example, you could briefly explain how the evaluations were collected, give your average scores, and compare them to averages at your university and for your department, and include some sample student comments. I'm not suggesting this instead of a teaching letter, but simply as a possible addition.

Julie: Perhaps one of the most challenging and also most satisfying job-search documents you will produce is the statement of teaching philosophy. This is your opportunity to talk about why you think teaching is important and what you have to contribute to it. You want this essay to be interesting, thoughtful, and honest.

You should take your own approach to it and not feel that it has to look like anyone else's. However, you can get some general ideas by looking at institutional Web sites to see how colleges frame their teaching missions. As you write your own, balance general philosophical statements with specifics.

Mary: And it's the specifics that will keep your readers awake. Picture yourself as a member of a search committee faced with 200 to 300 statements of teaching philosophy, all of which earnestly explain that it's important to teach students to think for themselves. Will you remember one of those, or will you remember the person who explains how what she learned in a Peace Corps teaching assignment in a poor village in Senegal has subsequently influenced her teaching style in an Ivy League classroom?

Julie: That's such a good point; you do need to be memorable. So, think about the courses you have taught and the students you have worked with. What were some special challenges? Were there students who you could see make significant improvements and why? Were there teaching methods that were particularly successful? What did you set in motion to motivate students who needed motivating and what made "the light turn on" for them? As you answer these questions, think of specific instances and consider using one or two of them as the center of your statement.

Mary: If your statement is persuasive enough and your other qualifications are strong, you may be invited to a campus interview where you'll have an opportunity to demonstrate your teaching ability. If you're currently teaching, think about classes that you might want to use in such a demonstration. If you're not currently teaching, think about things you've done successfully in the past.

Julie: As you plan the class, get as much information as possible. Who will be in the classroom -- a mix of students at different levels? Faculty members? Administrators? If it is part of an ongoing course, what have they covered thus far? Plan to use whatever teaching style works best for you. If you are great at getting group discussion going, use that format. This is not the time to try a new teaching style or method.

While the idea of teaching a class as part of a campus interview may sound intimidating at first, remind yourself that the department is willing to invest this substantial amount of faculty and student time in you because they view you as a serious candidate. You are being given an opportunity to demonstrate what you can do, rather than discussing it second-hand.

Mary: Having your teaching evaluated will be an ongoing process. At all kinds of institutions, teaching matters greatly in hiring, in contract renewal, and in awarding tenure. Some candidates are now developing "teaching portfolios" to use as part of the evaluation process. A portfolio can include all the documents we've mentioned already, as well as examples of student work (be sure to get the students' permission), critiques of your own teaching, sample assignments, and other material. It can be presented as a notebook, or a Web site or both.

While portfolios are rarely required as part of the application process, if you have one, bring it along to your campus interview. Whether you're a few years away from the market, or a market veteran, hold on to teaching materials as you develop and collect them so that you can continue to develop your portfolio.

Mary Morris Heiberger and Julia Miller Vick are the authors of The Academic Job Search Handbook (University of Pennsylvania Press). They have provided career services for thousands of graduate and professional students since 1985. Ms.Heiberger is associate director and Ms. Vick is graduate career counselor at the Career Services office of the University of Pennsylvania.

You can order their book directly from the University of Pennsylvania Press or from either of the on-line booksellers below.  Barnes & Noble