My approach to teaching
I have always loved school. When I was younger, it was the place I could relax and push myself like no other place afforded me. When I started community college, that love was renewed, and it fully blossomed the first time I stepped onto a university campus. There is an energy on campus that is invigorating to me. It is this love that has undergirded my drive for a career in academia. Research is a different story. Initially I had no desire to be a researcher, but in my first semester at the university level, I took a social psychology class that changed my mind. The experience of learning what research is capable of and seeing my professor’s passion for research served as the spark to ignite my own love of research. When I step into the classroom, I bring with me a love of learning and research, as well as lessons learned from my most memorable professors and mentors.
In addition to my love for academia, I draw on previous life experience to guide me in the classroom. In every job I held, I have always considered myself to be a customer service representative regardless of my assigned duties or title. In other words, every encounter was an opportunity to meet the needs of the client. This corresponds to my view of teaching on two different levels. Students are my direct clients and my goal is to meet their needs in the classroom and help them grow both generally and through the course content. Second, the future clients of each student are to whom I ultimately feel accountable. I am training social workers to meet the needs of their clients in the most ethical and equitable way possible. For this reason, I am intentional about incorporating power, privilege, and oppression content into every aspect of my classes. For instance, I help students think critically about research articles and Evidence Based Practice so they can choose the best tools for their clinical toolbox. It is imperative that students can recognize and apply these concepts in their daily lives, especially within their field placements since those are representative of their future careers.
As a first-generation college student and person of color, I bring with me the experience of navigating academia, a place that was not designed for people of color. Despite being a quick learner and having been in school for over a decade, it was encounters with folx in my doctoral program who were not first-generation college students that helped me realize just how much I did not know about academia. The realization of the smooth and seamless way some people are able to navigate and succeed in this space, also helped me see things I didn’t know, I didn’t know. I thought I had figured out the academic world, but I was wrong and that understanding will help me as I mentor students.
Another set of experiences that inform my teaching philosophy are my involvement as a client and close relative to family members involved with the child welfare system. Having these experiences enables me to help students approach clinical skills from a very personal space that goes beyond the textbook. For example, there are important and sometimes overlooked reasons for the many ways child welfare clients respond to the professionals involved in their case. I work to help students understand this, which can dramatically improve their ability to help the people they will serve throughout their career. Thus, I ground my approach to practice in the interaction between client and social worker from the client perspective.
I see my classes as communities of learning where each person, including myself, is part of the learning process. I begin establishing community during the first class with introductions that build throughout the quarter into weekly check-ins. I love watching the way students begin to feel more comfortable sharing throughout our time together. I also have students respond to a few short answer questions that I can refer to as I am getting to know them, such as why they chose a career in social work and what type of field placement they have. We then establish guidelines for when those inevitable discussions come up that many people shy away from. I have found that letting the students take the lead in establishing these guidelines gives them some agency, which helps set the tone when difficult conversations occur. I experienced this in my very first class. One of my students emailed me to express concern about some comments or gestures made regarding a student of color’s research project. First, I reminded them of the first class and the guidelines the students agreed to. With that reminder, I was able to lead a discussion about the student of color’s experience in the class without any backlash from any of the students. The student who brought it to my attention immediately emailed the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and let her know they felt I heard and addressed the issue well. Finally, I establish small groups that I use throughout the term for regular discussions, and when the course is amenable to it, as a place for students to support each other through their projects.
A cornerstone of my approach to teaching is fostering growth in students’ learning. This is particularly true in the way I grade assignments. I provide rubrics, thorough instructions, and examples when possible to be sure they have the necessary tools to complete the assignment. I make myself available to answer questions, including via text messaging for those last-minute concerns. Once they turn in the assignment, I am a strict but fair grader; however, I allow students to resubmit their assignment for full credit provided they utilize the feedback I gave them. In my experience, when students receive a good grade initially, they are less likely to look at and incorporate the feedback. I find giving an honest grade increases the likelihood students will put in that extra effort, which can help them in future assignments and in their careers.
Finally, through my academic journey over the last thirteen years, I have had dedicated mentors and numerous professors, which have provided me with many examples to draw from as I begin my career in academia. The best mentors have shown me how to truly show up for students, to encourage them, and that mentors who are available and supportive help students truly be their amazing selves. They have also helped me recognize when I need something else, how to better articulate that need, and to be more cognizant of those questions I should have asked much sooner. All of this helped shape me as a student and now informs the mentor and professor I strive to be. In fact, as much as I love teaching, it is the promise of mentoring students that I look forward to the most.