7 Tips to a Better Teaching Statement (And One Thing to Do Right Now)

By Maria LaMonaca Wisdom

Teaching diaryThis summer, I have been working with graduate student mentors on Story+ research teams, and also advising a small group of advanced students who are preparing academic job search materials for the fall. All of these students have one thing in common: They want to know how best to showcase their teaching experiences for various job markets.

It is not unusual for me to work with grad students in years five and six, who only begin to reflect on their teaching when they see academic job postings that require statements of teaching philosophy. Or perhaps they wrote teaching statements as part of The Graduate School’s excellent Certificate for College Teaching—but that was two or three years ago, and they’ve since gotten wrapped up in the dissertation and haven’t reflected on teaching in a while.

Grad students in years one and two, please begin to reflect on your teaching experiences early and often. There is a lot of confusion and mystique surrounding the genre of the teaching statement (which I will address shortly), but remember that you don’t need to worry about that piece until later. What you can and should do is get a journal—one of those nice Moleskin ones, if you go for that sort of thing—and get in the habit of reflecting on your teaching challenges and accomplishments as they occur.

Not only will a teaching diary make it much easier for you to prepare teaching documentation later on, but it might help alleviate the stress of learning to teach. Pleased with how your team-based assignment turned out? Perplexed by how yesterday’s conversation on a sensitive topic went off the rails? Confronted with your first request for a letter of recommendation? Can’t figure out how to engage those two students who always want to sit in the back? Write about it.

And remember that teaching takes many forms. Search committees will be interested in learning about any form of teaching, including mentorship of collaborative research teams (Bass Connections, Story+, Data+), working as a writing consultant, or perhaps volunteering as a high school tutor.

The teaching diary ensures that your future statement of teaching philosophy will include two essential items: detailed, specific examples of your teaching, and evidence that you can reflect on—and learn from—your experiences in the classroom.

If your communication about your teaching philosophy contains those two things, you’re already about 66 percent of the way there. The other 33 percent relates to issues of format and genre—matters about which people have varying preferences. The ensuing confusion can send grad students scrambling through a rabbit warren of well-meaning internet resources, trying to find The Right Way to write a teaching statement.

There are some excellent resources out there, but since my goal is to enlighten rather than overwhelm, I’ll share only one here. “Writing a Statement of Teaching Philosophy for the Academic Job Search,” published by the Center for Research on Learning & Teaching at the University of Michigan, combines a big-picture view with research-based evidence on the shared attributes of what search committees across disciplines deem effective teaching statements.

Teaching Statement Tips

In addition to this essay, my top pieces of advice for late-stage grad students writing teaching statements (all stressed in several conversations with grad students this summer) are as follows:

Know what materials will be asked of you. As the UMI article mentions, committees rarely ask for full teaching portfolios. So while portfolios have value, for job applications I recommend focusing on your statement of teaching philosophy and a brief summary of your teaching evaluations. Do make clear that you can provide a more extensive portfolio on request.

Make it a quick read. A good teaching statement is like a synchronized swim performance. Lots of work go into a document that looks elegant and deceptively simple. Please, please, keep it to 1-2 pages. Avoid jargon. Remember that hiring committees may be reading hundreds of these, and some people may only skim.

Treat your page space like the most valuable real estate. If you only have 1-2 pages, only the most impressive, important things should go there. Avoid redundancies, digressions and extended examples. Or make sure these get edited out in later drafts.

Consider an opening hook. This point occasioned some lively debate in a recent conversation I had with grad students. One pointed out that this strategy smacked of an English 101 paper and seemed out of joint with the serious business of writing a teaching statement. Ultimately, your writing should be a reflection of you. If opening anecdotes or gambits aren’t your style, by all means do not use them. But consider other ways to engage your tired and overworked readers.

Construct an opening that provides coherence and structure to the overall teaching statement. I wish this point would get stressed more. My advice as a former writing teacher: You don’t exactly need a thesis statement, but try to avoid laying out four disconnected points. You can add coherence by writing a strong, thoughtful opening paragraph, paying attention to transitions within sections, and having a satisfying concluding statement.

Evidence, evidence, evidence. Here’s one place I diverge from the UMI article. Evidence of your teaching effectiveness is vital to weave through your statement. If there’s one or two outstanding quotes from teaching evaluations, consider incorporating them into your narrative. Did 95 percent of students say they’d recommend your course to other students? Throw that in.

Create a supplemental, one-page summary of teaching evaluation data. Please do not provide a full set of teaching evaluations—or even hyperlinks to any large data sets—to hiring committees, unless they specifically request it. Out of courtesy and empathy to your reader, create a one-page summary that incorporates both qualitative and quantitative data from your teaching evaluations, and use some simple graphic illustrations if possible. While some students express uneasiness about having the ability to conceal so much information this way (such as the student who complains about your lousy handwriting on the whiteboard, or the fact that your last class only enrolled five students), quit worrying about it. Committees know you are putting your best face forward. Seize all the control you can in what is otherwise a disempowering process.

Finally, although you may be tempted to see the writing of the teaching philosophy as yet another hoop to jump through, few experiences in your professional journey are (or need to be) wasted. If you find yourself teaching in a tenure-track position, you’ll need to go through this very exercise (at a more intense level) when you eventually go up for tenure and promotion. If you ever decide to pursue non-faculty positions beyond academia, you will be in a much better position to talk about your teaching experiences as transferable skills. Best of luck, and remember that I’m always happy to review drafts of teaching statements and all other job materials.