Philosophy of Teaching

2016 Field Trip with Hollins Students to Colonial Williamsburg, VA

Who am I as a teacher and trainer?

I am a collaborative leader. What matters to my learners, matters to me. “My” class becomes “our” class. Our classroom will be active and cater to different learning styles. We will set individual and group goals. In order to achieve our goals, we will evaluate each other learning how to give and receive feedback and improve our performance outcomes. Ultimately, I hope employees and students learn as much from each other as they will from me. Together we will transform each other and if possible, our wider communities.

How I teach?

Goal 1: To instill the habits of a lifetime learner through self-reflection and a generosity of curiosity.

Process: “How do you learn best?” is the first question I ask adult learners. I have found that people are eager to describe the characteristics of a good learner, share favorite study methods, and evaluate the best and worst training strategies they have encountered. Some students are surprised to find out their peers love classroom activities they hate (lectures), while other students acknowledge there may be value to learning activities they dislike (group assignments).

As a learning specialist, instructional designer or trainer, I strive to design, develop and deliver material tailored to the needs of my learners and partners. For example, as a teacher students in my American History surveys signed up for small groups where they had a choice in topics to specialize in through assigned readings: environmental history, women’s history, African American history, history of sexuality, science & technology, history of medicine, etc. These small discussion groups introduced adult learners to topics they wished to examine in greater depth and empowered minority students, many of whom were exploring their racial backgrounds and the history of their sexual practices and gender identities for the first time. All students understand a core component of critical thinking as a result: subjects and methodologies reflect choices we make.

Outcome: In an evaluation, a student wrote in my U.S. Women’s History course that, “Professor Donnally did a great job adopting and getting to know her students’ academic interests. She was very creative in her assignments to break away from the traditional coursework.” Another student in my U.S. Social Movements course wrote, “There is a lot of room to experiment and study what interests us.” Former students have also noted  that I encouraged their experimentation through my support and enthusiasm. “She made me feel like the thoughts I was coming up with, even as a student, were important and meaningful,” one student wrote, “and always offered extra help and clarification and patience when needed.” 

Goal 2: To empower learners through active engagement.

Process: I am constantly trying out activities and assignments that will energize my students and stimulate new ways of thinking. My teacher toolbox – a lunchbox of markers, post-it notes, colored pencils, crayons, scissors, tape and anything but glitter – and my teacher tote – a bag with quiz buzzers, portable white boards, inflatable globes, and beach balls with writing prompts – were legendary at the various colleges at which I taught. Students knew they are in for a treat when I brought my toolbox to class or asked them to pull out their cell phones, whether it was playing jeopardy or using scientific scales to track which side won an argument.

Even without my toolbox or tote, I can re-energize a class in person and during a webinar. In face-to-face classes, I’ve been known to jump on tables, start a one-minute dance off with period music or on one occasion, complete a somersault to illustrate a gymnastics analogy. (I was emphasizing how important it was for the founding fathers to “stick the landing” of the American Revolution. I unfortunately did not stick the landing). During webinars, I use the chat box frequently and I design power points to be interactive, asking students to use pointer tools to vote, answer and ask questions.

Outcome: One student wrote in an evaluation of my U.S. History since 1865 survey that, “It was refreshing to leave class and think that we still have so much to do and much more to accomplish as a nation and as citizens of this nation.” Another student wrote, “This class has helped me be more open minded because I’ve seen both sides of a lot of different contemporary issues.” Finally, a student wrote that my oral history course “gave me a new respect for people’s stories. I think I forget how much people actually go through in their own lives.”

Goal 3: Identify and Develop talent by advancing critical thinking, communication and teamwork skills.

Process: To help learners to develop mastery, I break down critical thinking and communication skills into progressive activities. I try to tailor these activities to the needs of a specific group of adult learners through evaluations using the Kirkpatrick model. Sometimes I use diagnostic writing assignments and/or multiple-choice pre-tests that learners can use as a baseline to measure their improvement. I then deconstruct the skills at the heart of any training and learning module that vary in type and form. For each task, I state learning objectives and provide a study guide and/or rubric clarifying what I am assessing and how. I repeat assignments, rewarding improvement by more heavily weighing the later grades. Through this process adult learners begin to identify the purpose of tasks and how to complete those tasks well, to discover their weaknesses and how to improve them, and to understand their strengths and how to explain those strengths to people in authority. These skills are essential for career development. 

Outcome: Numerous students have written that “I am a much better writer as a result of this course” in evaluations while another student wrote, “My time management skills, writing style, and overall college work ethic improved tremendously.” But perhaps most important, students have used class projects to earn internships and as part of their job portfolios and graduate school applications. I help students produce some of their best work in college

I will conclude by noting that I try to model the behavior of a good learner when I teach.  I inform my audience of my failures that have been catalysts for amazing transformations in my career and life. When one of my learning experiments – whether it is a role playing exercise or a Kahoot quiz failure – we take time to evaluate why it failed and learn from it together. I want learners  to know that our best work comes from trying things and understanding what doesn’t work is as important as knowing what does work. Also, you have so much more fun when people are comfortable failing because they then stretch themselves beyond what they thought capable.

Hollins Students decorated my office door with this tribute in the fall of 2014.

Published by Jennifer

I am instructional designer and learning and development specialist.

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