The Life of Bon: My Teaching Philosophy

Sunday, October 13, 2013

My Teaching Philosophy

Three and a half years ago I graduated from college.  I couldn't wait to get a teaching job, take on the world, and make a difference in those young kids' lives. I interviewed like crazy.  I researched schools, applied for jobs, filled out resumes, showed up at schools unannounced telling them I wanted to teach there.  It was a weird time.

Several of the applications that I submitted asked me in some form or another to submit my teaching philosophy.  I had no idea what that was supposed to mean, and so I did the thing I learned to do best in college- I B.S.ed it.  Let's see, My "teaching philosophy"?  Children are our future.  They are vessels and I must fill them with knowledge.  Teach them facts.  We have to keep them engaged by having high powered, extremely structured lessons.  These kids will some day be the president of the United States.  Less time watching TV and more time reading books.  I will get all kids to love reading or die trying.

Or something like that.  Pure B.S.

One interview I went to the principal asked me, "If there could be a sign above your door that had one word that encompassed everything you believe about teaching what would it be?"

"Uh...."   I drew a complete blank.  One word?  ONE WORD?

He stared at me in silence.

"Learn."  I finally said.


"Because kids need to learn."

The principal raised his eyebrows and stared at me a little longer as if probing for more information, but I sat mute in my chair.  He moved on to the next question.  I didn't get the job.

I have thought a lot about those two different questions since I have been teaching.  After 3+ years of teaching do I know my personal teaching philosophy?  Do I know what one word I base my entire teaching practice on?

No.  But I have a couple of ideas.


1.  Teenagers only care if you care about them first.  This is the absolute most important part of teaching and there will be no real successes in the classroom until students know that their teacher genuinely loves and cares about them.  The difficulty of the curriculum you teach them, the poignancy of the works you read, the strategies you employ are all completely moot if they don't think you care.  As soon as they can feel that you care about them, the game is completely different.  They do their work, the discipline problems stop, they come to class not because they have to, but because they don't want to let you down.  I believe this, more than anything else, creates a successful classroom.

2.  Teenagers need a voice.  This could go a couple of ways.  For starters it means that kids need to feel comfortable speaking out in your class.  They have to feel safe to explore ideas or add to a discussion or say something they would never dare tell their parents, or even their friends.

Secondly, it means that kids need to know that you will listen to "their side".  A teacher can't be a dictator.  This year I had an experience where Mark was constantly causing problems.  I moved his seat about four times and he was still constantly talking, disrupting, yapping.  The last time I moved him he stood up, shouted out a curse word and then slammed into his desk.

"Mark.  Do you need to take a minute outside and calm down before you can come into class?"  I asked.

 "Yah, actually, I do!" And he stormed out of the classroom.  He didn't come back.

The next time in class I asked him if we could talk for a minute.  We went out in the hall and I said, "I could tell you were upset last class period- I'm not mad, I just want to know why you didn't come back to class."

Mark looked really taken back, like he had just been expecting me to chew him out.  "I just felt like it was unfair that you kept moving me."

"Why did you feel that was unfair?"

"Because the first two times you moved me it was Kade who was talking to me and then the next two times it was always the girl next to me who started it up, and I was the only one who got in trouble every time."

I thought about this for a second and realized I probably had been too harsh on him.  There always was someone else involved and that person had gotten off scott free.  "I'm sorry, Mark.  I didn't realize I was doing that, but I understand how frustrating that would be for you.  I like you and I'm glad you're in this class, it is just difficult for me to teach when there are constant side conversations going on and I probably took that out on you too much.  I will try to discipline more fairly from here on out if you promise me to do your best to stop chatting when I'm lecturing.  Fair enough?"  The look on Mark's face was one of total relief.  I wasn't mad at him, he had been able to speak his opinion, and he wasn't in trouble. His attitude since that chat has done a complete 180 and now he's the one yelling to the class when they get rowdy, "Guys!  Shut up!  Teacher needs to say something!"   To be on my side all he needed to know was that I was willing to listen to his side.

3.  Teenagers will do anything for you if they know you love them.  The problem with most teenagers is they feel like their teachers hate them.  We don't hate them.  We're just frustrated/tired/ornery and teenagers are teenagers.  They hand their stuff in late all the time, they think they should be talking when we're talking and their parents call in begging us to let them take a test that was due two months ago.  So we get frustrated.  I can't tell you how many students have told me, "That teacher hates me."  I know that's not true, we just might sometimes act like it.  I try to tell collectively and individually to my students how much I like them.  On their papers I often try to write something that has nothing to do with their actual writing, but just their personality, "You're funny!" or "I'm so glad you're in this class!" or "Third period wouldn't be the same without you."  When they head out the door I yell to them, "Have a good weekend, I love you guys, don't do anything stupiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiid!"  It always throws them back the first few times I tell them I love them, but they get used to is pretty quick and they'd never admit it, but goshdarnit I know they like it.

4.  Kids need to know they are smart.  Or nice. Or funny. Or witty. One of my students, Able (as talked about here) is like a walking encyclopedia.  He will one day win Jeopardy, I have no doubt.  The problem is he can be a tad annoying, he never knows exactly when to shut up, and he can't stay on one topic to save his life.  On a recent essay on Lord of the Flies he was supposed to write whether or not he agreed with the author's implication that man is naturally evil.  Instead Able started writing on Lord of the Flies and finished off with a deep explanation of Norse Mythology.   I gave him a C and wrote at the top of his paper, "Able, you are beyond brilliant but you MUST STAY ON TOPIC."  That was it.

At parent teacher conference last week, I met Able's mom.  "I just want to thank you for what you wrote on Able's paper?"  I searched my brain.  What did I write, what did I write, what did I write?

"That he needs to stay on topic?"  I asked.

"No- that he's beyond brilliant."  She was almost getting choked up about it.  "Able has had such a tough times this year and he has been so hard on himself.  It means so much to me and him that you would say he's brilliant."  It surprised me how much this comment had meant to them mainly because it was pretty obvious that Able was brilliant.  Everyone in the school knew it.  That was kind of Able's claim to fame.  He worked hard to be smart and to show that he was smart.  So why did me telling him that so obviously help him out?  It occurred to me that sometimes we just like to hear it.  My funny kids need me to tell them they are funny, my dependable kids need me to tell them they are dependable, my thoughtful students need me to tell them they are thoughtful.

5.  Mercy is stronger than Justice.  Probably the toughest calls I make in teaching have to deal with mercy vs. justice. (see this post and this post.)  Do I let the kid re do a plagiarized paper?  Do I let the girl hand in a two week late project without which she will fail?  I finally came to the conclusion last year that it is not my call to make on who deserves my mercy.  I will show mercy to all and let some higher power take care of the rest.  My first year of teaching Neil was at a 45% with one week left in the quarter.  There was no way he should have passed.  His mom wrote me an email that was just straight up begging. In order for him to pass the class I would have to let him hand in SEVERAL assignments that were weeks and months past their due date.  Against my better judgment, I told him he could.  I explained to him that I was doing him a huge favor and I would not be making such concessions ever again.  He and his mom thanked me profusely.  He got his grade up to a D-.

The next three quarters he had no problem passing my class.  He was pleasant and usually handed in his work.

He took my class his junior year and passed all four quarters.  He was a great student, constantly adding to the discussion and participating fully.  Anytime I passed out an "anonymous" survey I could make out his messy scribble, "This teacher helped me out so much.  Did me a huge favor.  My favorite teacher.  She will do anything to help you pass.  I owe her big time."

His senior year he took my class again.  He not only passed the class, he got As and Bs.  He asked if he could be my teacher aide during another period.  I said sure.  He brought me diet coke for no reason.  His mom wrote me one of the nicest letters of recommendations I have ever received.  She never stopped thanking me for showing mercy to him.  He is one of my all time favorite students.  Now he occasionally tweets me and updates me on his life.  I miss him like crazy and count this as one of my sweetest teaching experiences.

I know this isn't how it always works.  I know some kids take advantage, and some kids never learn to try, but like I said, that's not my job to decide who deserves it and who doesn't deserve it.  I was able to reach out to Neil and build a relationship with him because of mercy, not justice.

And the one word I would have hanging over my door that encompasses everything I believe about teaching?


And also "Teachers need to get paid more."  But then, that's not one word, is it?


  1. Everything you write about teaching is phenomenal! I love your "what we learned this week" posts, as well as your "what should I have done" posts (the ones you linked to here). I think your approach and style in teaching (dare I say...philosophy!?) are wonderful and I wish I had someone like you working in my school system when I plundered through. These are all spot on. Bookmarking!

  2. I am an early childhood special education major at BYU-I, and you are one of my favorite blogs to read. You are so inspiring to me. I LOVE your teaching philosophy!

  3. Yes! If there isn't a relationship (between teacher and student) there is no way they are going to learn/pay attention/etc. Kids need to know that they matter

  4. I'm in a Master's program, Early Childhood Special Ed, and we have had to write our teaching philosophies. I think it's a great thing, but they have to be formal and follow a specific format. I love this- it's so honest and straight from the heart- and so true! And it's funny how all of these things that apply to your high schoolers also apply just as well to my preschoolers. It speaks to a greater human need to be loved and heard, just like you said :)

  5. Jesus's first miracle was when Mary implored him to turn water into wine. He told her "Not now, my time has not yet come." But Mary told Him that she had faith in Him and His abilities and He ended up doing just what Mary had asked him to do.

    That's what I was thinking about when I was reading the last story about showing your students mercy. You had no way of knowing that that boy would react so well and step up to the challenge of doing better. He never let you down again. I think he did that because you showed faith in him and he wanted to show you that he was worth it.

    You sound like a wonderful teacher, I wish the world had more like you :)

  6. Wow, I sure wish I had teachers like you! Would have made a huge difference, those kids don't know how lucky they are to have you!

  7. I have been reading your blog for over a year and truly believe this is my favorite! Thanks for being so genuine! :)

  8. I have been reading your blog for over a year and truly believe this is my favorite! Thanks for being so genuine! :)

  9. Gave me chills! You are a great teacher!

  10. I love this and I agree with my students as well! Such personalities! I love my kids and know that this is where I am meant to be.
    Our Fairy Tale

  11. I wish I had more teachers throughout my grade school years! It's so to tell which teachers care about their students and which are only doing it because the money. Some of my favorite teachers I've ever had were the ones who had outside of school study sessions to prepare for AP exams and bought us lunch when they could've done so many other things with their times.

  12. Maybe I'm just extra emotional right now or maybe I'm just missing some of my favorite teachers but this post almost made me cry! You're such a good teacher, your students are lucky to have you!

  13. Aw, love this. Being able to articulate what you believe works, and then show that it works - high five, you! :)

  14. I wish I had more teachers like you in school, especially in the English department!

  15. So.. I started to write this HUGE LONG COMMENT about how I agree with you and went on a thing about love and acceptance and grace.... etc. Basically just repeating everything you just said. So I deleted it and... just... YES. Everything YES.

    ::standing ovation::

  16. This is AMAZING! It should be sent to every parent of a school-aged child, and every school board member. Thank you for sharing. I don't have teenagers (yet), but I do have school-aged kids, and reading how much care and effort you out into your kids made me teary.

  17. I don't think there are words to describe how much I needed to read this. I haven't had a chance to find my first teaching job because I've moved around too much. I have been subbing since I graduated and I was starting to feel like I wasn't supposed to teach. I hated being in the classroom. But this post, it gives me some hope. Someday I'll have my own class and it'll be worth it. Maybe I shouldn't give up just yet.

  18. Thank you for sharing!! I don't really have the words to express how much this advice can help me in a future teaching position!

  19. I had some great teachers in high school, and they did a lot of these things! That must be why I loved them.

  20. I love what you write about teaching! My husband is in his second year of teaching high school math, and I see how hard he works. I also have a few friends who are English teachers, music teachers, and history teachers... and my dad is a science teacher. I always loved school and my teachers were such a big part of that. I love reading about what you're doing with your kids and how you feel about education in general. Keep sharing!

  21. Wow. I realized when reading this that we could apply this not just to teenagers, but probably to everyone we know.

  22. i loved this post!!!!!

  23. Anonymous3:01 PM

    What a great post Bonnie. I'm happy to meet you. I would sum up your conversation with Mark as "respect." Like humans of all ages, teens want to be respected and they want to be treated fairly. I have worked with teens for many years and now that I am semi-retired, I train adults who work with teens to teach them to become entrepreneurs. It's awesome to be able to provide hope and a sense of ownership of their future.

  24. Thanks for this wonderful post, Bonnie! I'm always amazed abuot how you find words to describe your attitude to kids and teaching. I'm in my first year teaching Business English course to 17- and 18-year-olds (1st and 2nd year students at the Uni in Belarus) and I crave to get their feedback but I often get dissappointed when I don't get as much as I counted on, you know like when you've been preparing an activity for like 6 hours, cutting things, printing like darned and you get a whatever-response. And this the Good Teacher, the Bad Teacher balancing scale is yet to be practiced by me. So much to do, luckily I have the Life of Bon! Thanks again, Bonny!

  25. My husband is in his second year of teaching and really struggling to find a balance. I often send him links to your posts, but this one - i walked right up to him and made him read it. Thank you! You are clearly an awesome teacher.

  26. I so wish I had you as a teacher when I was in school! Great post! Gave me chills!

  27. Yes yes yes to all of this! I was happy to show mercy most of the time, but there were just times when I didn't feel right about giving a grade that wasn't deserved. I guess going from an F to a D isn't a big deal but when kids feel entitled to get an A with out giving me "A" effort, well that doesn't sit right with me. So that's probably not what you were talking about! Ha!

    Man you're making me miss teaching. Someday maybe I'll go back. I just don't know how I would teach if my biggest asset (my young age) was taken away. We'll see how I do in 20 years :)

  28. Well said! Teaching is one of the most beautiful things. You're wonderful Bonnie! Absolutely wonderful!

  29. As a teacher, this was truly inspiring. I am in my first year as a teacher, with 8th graders. I absolutely love it, but am definitely still finding my own teaching philosophy as well. I have to say I agree with every single thing you said. Absolutely love this post.

  30. My mother is a teacher, so I know a little bit about what makes a good teacher, and I can tell that YOU, Bonnie, are a good teacher.
    I only wish that some of my teachers in high school had realized some of the things you just pointed out. Heck, I wish my professors in college knew it now! I think that, if you're going to be in the business of education, you should really care if your students understand the information, if they're learning what you are there to teach them, and above all, like you said, students (of any age) need to know that their teachers/instructors/professors give a crap.
    This was wonderfully written and I love your philosophy. Keep up the great work!

  31. I might have to stop reading your blog for fear of wanting to change my major from Elementary Ed to Secondary Ed. Just kidding. I'm addicted, I could never stop. But seriously, I love your philosophies and I constantly find myself wanting to sit in on your class and just soak up some of those philosophies myself.

  32. As a former student (in this case, a high school student), I 100% agree with you!
    After reading some of your posts, I kinda wish you had been my teacher back in the day, we would've gotten along well :)

    Best of luck, sending good vibes your way!

  33. What a great story about Neil. Thank you so much for sharing about your teaching experiences. They are really fun to read!

  34. you make me miss teaching so much! it's seriously the best. glad those kids have a great teacher like you!

  35. It seems it has only taken you a few years to learn and understand what so many teachers never learn in their entire careers. You sound like an amazing teacher that any student would be grateful to have. Thank you.

  36. I really got into this article. I found it to be interesting and loaded with unique points of interest. I like to read material that makes me think. Thank you for writing this great content.

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