Putting Philosophy First
By Carrie Hagen
I wasn’t sure how I would do it. After taking a two-year leave from teaching high school English, I would be returning to the classroom.
I had ushered students through the starts of twelve school years, but this year’s opening felt new to me. I walked through the inservice days with the usual to-do list: organize classroom, dust off posters and props, make seating charts, print class lists, assemble papers to photocopy, grab books from the bookroom, consider opening day activities. I had madly juggled these tasks in past years, but this time around, I hesitated.
I had taken a leave for a few different reasons, one being that I felt burned-out by multitasking. I was tired of complaining about state evaluations and increased professional responsibilities. I felt so rushed so often that I knew my teaching suffered. I jammed too many activities into class periods, paranoid that my students wouldn’t be prepared for evaluations. It affected my classroom culture. I had a good relationship with most of my students, but I didn’t feel good about what I emphasized in my teaching. I knew I could do a better job, but I didn’t let myself take the time to figure out how.
I promised myself that this school year would be different. So, instead of rushing through the first week of school, I let myself hesitate. I talked to teachers – some of whom had taught fewer years than I – and asked them about their teaching. I asked how they prioritized their instructional goals, and how they managed their time outside of the classroom. I knew that I hadn’t verbalized my own personal teaching philosophy since college. What did I want for my students? How did I want to lead them? I needed to answer these questions before I could photocopy a single paper.
I remembered a passage in Richard Ford’s 2012 novel Canada, a book that I read while on leave. In the last chapter, the protagonist, an English teacher, reflects on his teaching philosophy after narrating a harrowing story from his childhood.
I try to encourage them in the development of a ‘life concept’; to enlist their imaginations; to think of their existence on the planet not just as a catalog of random events endlessly unspooling, but as a life – both abstract and finite. This, as a way of taking account.
This passage articulated sentiments that were leading me back into the classroom. I copied it onto a piece of paper and stuffed it into my writer’s desk at home.
The night before I was to meet my students, I sat in my living room and stared at it. I needed to pen a teaching philosophy so that I could know who I wanted to be, and what I wanted my classroom to reflect, before I saw them.
The end result is messy and somewhat illegible, full of circled and crossed out words. But I have it thumbtacked to the bulletin board behind my desk. “I want my curriculum to prepare students to recognize their voices through the evaluation, selection, and placement of words. I want to teach them to better articulate their arguments and observations through authentic, cohesive speech so that they can more efficiently identify, represent, and defend their concerns in an increasingly uniform society.”
Is it idealistic? Of course. But it’s a statement that I trust in, and one that I want to guide my balance of curricular demands. Instead of incessantly planning future details, I want to trust that they will fall into their place within the bigger picture.
Carrie Hagen is a local writer and researcher who lives in Philadelphia. She teaches English at Council Rock North and serves as a Northwest Philadelphia community correspondent for Newsworks.org. In 2011, The Overlook Press published we is got him, her first work of narrative nonfiction.