Andrew Herman

Philosophy of Teaching

When I began my Ph.D. program, there was another student, Colleen, who was in her second year in the program. I often think of Colleen because I have a number of Ansel Adams prints on my walls – prints she left in our graduate office after silently slipping into the vast professional landscape of Chicago. Despite suggestions and guidance from faculty, Colleen was unable to finish her master’s degree after five years of trying.

After more than a decade of reflecting on my own goals as a teacher, I realize how observing Colleen’s experience has influenced my own teaching philosophy and style. I often describe myself as a “coach” – as a person who desires to guide, sharpen and motivate his students. At the end of the day, regardless of how much I want to be “in the game” of each student’s life, I must stand on the sidelines and let the student actually play the game. Because of this, I have developed a philosophy of teaching that tries to move students from being highly dependent learners (as they come out of high school) to being much more independent learners by the time they graduate from college. By coaching students through this transitional phase of their lives, they will leave college better equipped for the realities of professional or graduate school life. Based on conversations I had with Colleen, this is not what she received from her undergraduate mentor, so she finished her productive undergraduate days unprepared for the relative independence of a graduate school program. Thus, sadly, she floundered for a few years and then simply failed.

My philosophy of teacher as coach is supported by both a cognitive and humanistic approach to teaching. I believe that most students, though busy and distracted by many things outside of the classroom, still desire to be active participants in their learning and hope to achieve their highest potential at school. To that end, I work to come alongside students and coach them toward being life-long learners. From a cognitive standpoint, I work to provide opportunities for students to use their problem-solving instincts and develop decision-making skills. This allows them to connect both old and new knowledge to a variety of situations that will inevitably arise, in class and in the future. For example, in one class we use different theories to analyze a persuasive advertisement for effectiveness. We also discuss, based on those same theories, how the ad might be improved and how people could better resist these messages.

From a humanistic approach, I treat each student as a unique individual with his or her own weaknesses and strengths, struggles and successes, and fears and goals. Sometimes, this means that every student will not connect to the course material the same way I do simply because they just have different experiences and expectations. In these cases, I help that student find personal value in the course content in and of itself, as well as value in the class as it relates to broader life issues. For example, discussing the role and purpose of “theory” in our lives often generates this type of disconnected response from some students. This is when I walk them through situations they experience in their own lives where they rely on “theory” in a real and personal way in order to make important decisions. Suddenly, they all realize what complex theories they have regarding what classes to take, how to get a date and when and how to ask their parents for extra money. Now their life experiences are connecting to my class goals.

As I think about my chosen metaphor of teacher as coach, I am struck with one glaring problem: what if you as the reader conjure up memories of Bobby Knight, the (in)famous basketball coach of Indiana University who had a reputation for verbally (and even physically) assaulting his players? My hope is that, instead, you will think of Tony Dungy, another coach from Indiana who quietly yet effectively coached the Super Bowl-winning Colts from 2002 to 2008. Comments from students and faculty who know me closely associate me with this image. Hopefully, there is substance behind the image and my students are leaving college prepared to face successfully the next step in their lives.

For additional information on my work in the Fellows Program, please see my action research report The Impact of Advising on Student Success:  Does Early Concentrated Advising Make a Difference.