Teaching (philosophy)

My teaching philosophy is embedded in stories of who I am and where I come from; so to explain why and how I teach I have to explain these stories too. Events in these stories led me to believe that teaching involves developing a passion for learning and critical thinking, connecting knowledge to everyday events, engaging students in dialogue and relationship, and supporting students.

Developing a passion for learning & critical thinking
I did not do well in school—in fact I did quite poorly—my teachers said this was because I was a daydreamer who needed to work harder. They were right, in class rather than focus on lessons I looked out of the window and dreamed of adventure and imagined far off places. So I left school at sixteen to join the British Royal Marine Commandos to search for such adventure.

Unlike school, I did well in the Marines, but I decided it was not for me, so I left and worked in construction for several years. During these years I spent much of my time in museums and reading books on topics such as physics, anthropology and history. I found that many of my co-workers on construction sites understood a great deal about these topics and were keen to debate them. These work-time discussions and the further reading they stimulated gave me a thirst for knowledge and I daydreamed about someday learning more. I got that opportunity when the University of the South Bank in London (England) developed a program that enabled university entry for former “working class children” who had not done well in their school years (and I was one). I applied to take a degree in social science and I was accepted.

I left the construction site for university where my instructors did not simply ask me to absorb information, but wanted me to think “outside the box,” ask critical questions, and imagine (daydream about) different ways of conceptualizing issues and approaching debates. Such learning was an adventure! Because of this experience, stimulating student's passion for critical thinking and learning is important to me I try to create this same sense of excitement about learning for my students that I was given. I see my role as an educator to go beyond teaching what is known to teach how things are understood, to help students connect information to theory, to strip theory down to its epistemological and paradigmatic foundations, to discover the boundaries of what is known and not known, and to stimulate the imagination and motivation to discover what lies beyond.

Connecting knowledge to everyday events
Disrupting traditional boundaries between the academic and non-academic is also important to me. I believe that knowledge from the academy is at its best when it intersects with and helps make sense of everyday events in the “outside world.” This is especially so in social work, where the entire point of the profession is to make a difference in the world. Consequently, I believe that the knowledge social workers learn in the academy must make sense in conversations held in the outside world; in the busy social work office, on the street corner, in the neighborhood café, and on the construction site etc. Having worked in those outside places I understand that academic knowledge does not have to be over simplified to be relevant in those settings, it only has to be made accessible by framing it in the language and ways of knowing that exist in these places.

Dialogue and relationship
I also consider dialogue and learning relationships important. The deepest things I have ever learnt come from dialogue rather than lectures and I believe this is often so for others too. Consequently, even in my largest classes, I invite questions and debate from students in a mix of Socratic and Aristotelian methods. At the same time, however, I also learn alongside students, I do not adopt a “sage on the stage” or “banking” approach to education, because I believe I cannot be a teacher unless I am also a fellow learner with students. I believe that the educational journey is one of discovery in which teachers and students travel together.

Supporting students
Finally, supporting students and encouraging growth is important to me. I struggled during my first months at university, but a few key faculty members mentored and tutored me so that I soon produced academic work at the highest level. This support was not simply professors being kind to me, it involved them taking the time to personally challenge and stimulate my academic and conceptual growth. In each degree program I have taken, there have always been a few faculty members who have “gone the extra mile” to nurture and stimulate my learning in this manner. I now repeat this tradition and attempt to do the same for students I work with. When students thank me for this support, I point out that I am only doing something that others once did for me, and something I hope that they will one day do for others too.