My teaching philosophy: Setting the bar high enough that students have to jump

Following our end-of-the-semester project presentations this semester I had a student ask me what my teaching philosophy was. To be honest, I haven’t thought about this much since I created my philosophy during my doctoral studies (many, many moons ago). It was an assignment. Something we had to do to include in teaching portfolios and send out during job hunts. I think I may have included it in an award package at one time too…

Obviously, I haven’t thought about it or even looked at it for a while. Which is strange because it is supposed to guide my teaching. Have I been teaching on autopilot? Have I done my students a disservice? The answer to both questions is “NO.” And here’s why:

1. I read (in great detail) the comments from students, from colleagues and from professionals about what needs to be taught in public relations, advertising and strategic communication classes. I try to incorporate as much as possible from their comments into each lecture. I also find out where our students need the most improvement to succeed and make sure to focus on these items in assignments.

2. I have never taught the same material twice. This isn’t to say that I have not taught the same classes, but I never teach the classes the same way. I am always incorporating new technologies, new topics, new discussions, etc. Look at my syllabi from semester to semester and you will see that my classes constantly change to reflect industry trends, current events, etc.

3. I seek out opportunities to learn more. Recently, I spoke to a professional about job shadowing over the summer months. I haven’t been a PR/advertising professional since 2002. That’s 10 years since I have worked for a client. So, in addition to job shadowing I stay active in professional organizations, bring in guest speakers to my classes, and even take technology/skills classes to keep “up to speed.”

4. I set the bar high in my classes and keep it there. I know what is expected of them as professionals and I make sure they are doing professional-level work. I would be doing a disservice to students if I either: a) set the bar so low so that everyone got “As” and thus, no one who did spectacular work was recognized for it, or b) moved the bar for some people and kept it higher for others. In both cases I would be accepting non-professional work and telling students that was acceptable.

Which brings me to my personal teaching philosophy. I’m going to call it the “high jump philosophy.”

photo by dairytwirl on Flickr

photo by dairytwirl on Flickr

I was a track and field athlete from middle school through college (roughly 11 years), so this analogy is based on my time practicing, building strength and stamina, and focusing on my end goals… which is exactly what I try to get my students to do in my classes.

In high school track the starting height for girl’s high jump is 3’10.” Most high school girls can do this in their sleep — this is why it’s called the starting height. No one pulls out their best jump at the starting height. Some will pass until a “better” or “harder” height, some will practice their form at this height, others will simply mess around and do a goofy jump or scissor-leg over this height to show off. NO ONE tries to clear the bar by jumping 5’10” on the 3’10” starting height. NO ONE. Why? Because the bar isn’t set for their best jump. It’s set where everyone can accomplish something. 

This is a “C bar” in my class. Like I said, most high school girls can clear the starting height in their sleep (and so can high school boys since the height for the boy’s high hurdles is 39″ or 3’1/4″ — making the high jump bar just a mere 9 3/4 inches more than most boys can run and step over). This is average. Come to class, take part in discussions, turn in your assignments and you are guaranteed a “C” because you can basically do these things in your sleep.

In high jump, the bar increases 2 inches after everyone has jumped. That means the next heights are 4′, 4’2″, 4’4″, 4’6″ and so on. Each time the bar increases two more inches it gets harder for everyone to clear it. This is the same in my classes. If you want a “B” then you have to jump higher than you did for the “C”. If you want an “A” then you better pull out your best jump. You better work hard, practice, follow my training (and the grading rubrics) and show me your best work.

In the high jump the bar never goes back down in height. It just keeps going up. At some point you have your winners – gold, silver, bronze. In my classes these are all A’s — the students who distinguished themselves from their peers by pulling out their best jumps (i.e., their best work).

Not everyone will clear 5’10” in the high jump. Not everyone will have trained hard enough to earn that accomplishment. And guess what, not everyone should. There should be heights some people just can’t clear in their sleep. There should be some things that people must work hard at to earn. Just like in the high jump, grades in my classes are earned, NOT GIVEN.


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