How to write a terrible teaching statement

Over the last 20 years I’ve served on at least a dozen faculty search committees, and that means I’ve seen approximately six wheelbarrowloads of job applications.  I’ve seen some terrific applications and some terrible ones (and I now understand that my own applications, at least early in my career, shared some features with the terrible ones).  But one standard piece of the faculty job application almost always makes me roll my eyes: the teaching statement.

Most faculty job ads request a “statement of teaching philosophy”; some search committees even pay attention to it*.  I’ve seen them anywhere from a couple of sentences to several pages long.  And actually, there’s no need for a post titled “How to write a terrible teaching statement”, because believe me, this skill is already widespread.  So instead, let me suggest an important way in which you can write one that isn’t terrible.  To be clear: what follows is my opinion and nothing more.  If you differ, please tell us about it in the Replies.

You might think from the image above that my main beef is with teaching buzzwords – but only sort of.  In fact, a good teaching statement will probably use a number of those words (well, maybe not “blah blah”, and hopefully not “intelligences”).  But bad teaching statements do too.  The difference is this: a bad teaching statement just uses the buzzwords.  A mediocre one uses the buzzwords and cites quantitative teaching-scholarship literature to show that the candidate understands what they mean and what credible research backs them up.  A good teaching statement supplements this with specific, concrete examples of practices drawn from the candidate’s own direct experience.

For me at least, that last bit is absolutely critical.  Anyone can write a statement laden with buzzwords. Here: “I value respect for and from my students, and I work to engage them by relating the classroom to the issues in their lives”.  But the fact that I can write that statement doesn’t make it true, and doesn’t make me a good teacher.  With just a little more work, anyone can write a statement connecting the buzzwords to the literature – maybe citing a paper or two from the education literature about how respect and classroom-life connections enhance learning outcomes**.  That still doesn’t make the statement true and it still doesn’t make its writer a good teacher.  But imagine that I’d written “I value respect for and from my students.  I communicate my respect for my students by taking action X.  I began doing X when I taught course Y, and compared to my previous courses I noticed response Z from my students.”  Now we’re talking.

“But wait”, you’re thinking, “he’s just trapped me in a totally unfair Catch-22!”  Surely it’s hard to write a teaching statement rich in concrete examples from personal experience when you’re on the job market?  After all, if you had lots of classroom experience, it’d be because you have a job.

Well, there’s no arguing with the proposition that some teaching experience helps solidify a job application (and I don’t mean only TA experience, and I certainly don’t mean those frequent but always obvious attempts to disguise TA experience as more than it is***). But even if your teaching experience is limited – even if it’s zero – you can still write a teaching statement with concrete examples drawn from your experience.  If you can’t draw on your lecturing experience, draw on what you’ve done as a TA. Perhaps you made an innovation, or perhaps you were able to observe the effects of something designed or implemented by someone else.  If you can’t draw on TA experience, draw on what you saw as a student.  Did you have a professor or a TA who was especially effective? What made them so?  What specific things do you plan to emulate, and why?  Can you compare two courses you took, and suggest that some concrete difference between them made one more effective than the other?  What courses have stuck with you, years later, and why?

You see, I’ll cheerfully vote to hire someone without teaching experience; many great applicants simply haven’t had their chance yet.  But I won’t vote to hire someone who hasn’t thought carefully about teaching.  And to my mind, buzzwordy boilerplate isn’t evidence of that careful thought.  Concrete examples are.  And the fraction of job applications I see that go beyond buzzwordy boilerplate?  Oh, maybe 10 or 15%, and to me, that’s shocking. It’s also a major opportunity for anyone looking to jump up a few notches in search committee rankings.

Oh, and perhaps I should point out one other reason I know a lot about terrible teaching statements.  I’ve written them.  Here’s an old one of mine (ouch).

© Stephen Heard ( December 15, 2016


*^Sorry if that sounded snarky, but I’ve been on searches where teaching (either experience or philosophy) got exactly zero minutes of discussion time.  I guess if that’s your institutional viewpoint, that’s OK; but it seems like the kind of thing prospective students might like to know.  I’m happy now to belong to a department that takes teaching seriously.

**^Darn it, I wrote that last buzzword by accident.  I’m leaving it in just to show how pervasive this stuff is.

***^Which is not to dismiss TA experience as worthless.  It isn’t. But it isn’t the same thing as having primary responsibility for a course, and although you should certainly list it, don’t expect it to distinguish your job application from the rest of the pile.

4 thoughts on “How to write a terrible teaching statement

  1. Pingback: This is what a terrible teaching statement looks like | Scientist Sees Squirrel

  2. Pingback: Universities that did not hire me (a chronicle of absolutely normal rejection) | Scientist Sees Squirrel

  3. Mark

    I am giving a presentation soon on writing a teaching statement for science and engineering students at ivy league schools (the vast majority of which only have experience TAing) and I found this post extremely useful and will give them a lot of hope! Thanks very much.


  4. Pingback: Sharing the unwritten lore: “Being a Scientist”, by Michael Schmidt | Scientist Sees Squirrel

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