Before I ever taught in a college classroom, I was developing my teaching philosophy through life experience. After college, I taught English as a Second Language (ESL) in South Korea through the Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship program. Teaching ESL to middle school students in an economically disadvantaged school district and to children who had wide-ranging English speaking skills was challenging and, at times, frustrating. However, to accommodate my students’ needs, I found ways to devise lesson plans that could appeal broadly to the entire class, while tailoring individual assignments to the varying skill levels of students. When I returned to the US after a year in Korea, I wanted to continue working with youth from economically and educationally disadvantaged backgrounds. I found a job as a case manager in a juvenile prison on the West Side of Chicago where I facilitated life skills classes to sometimes reluctant youth from diverse backgrounds. I tried to approach facilitating the groups by being humble and reminding the youth that I did not have all of the answers. This approach helped build trust and generate discussion about their decision-making processes. It also empowered them to think critically about the kinds of choices they had made to end up in prison and to reflect on the sorts of changes they would need to make in their lives to successfully reintegrate back into their communities. These two work experiences profoundly guide my teaching philosophy as a sociology instructor today. My teaching philosophy emphasizes the importance of learning alongside my students by remaining humble and facilitating their intellectual growth through engaging class lectures and tailored assignments.
Drawing in a non-engaged student is a challenge I take seriously. I seek to engage students as a facilitator and to generate discussion by helping students apply course material through discussions, hands-on activities, and lectures filled with practical examples. I view my primary role in the classroom as a facilitator engaging students in an interactive dialogue. Viewing my position from this standpoint enables me to create an egalitarian dynamic between my students and I. It also allows me to guide students to think critically about the subject matter. Student engagement and fostering critical thinking skills are my primary goals as an instructor.
One of the challenges to teaching is that students come to my classes with different career goals, skill levels, majors, and levels of interest in the course content, so trying to engage all of my students can be difficult at times. From the teaching standpoint of ‘facilitator’, I learn alongside and from students. This helps students feel comfortable speaking in class because they recognize that I will not harshly judge their idea. They see that I am looking to build from their ideas and relate them back to the lecture and readings. Further, this standpoint makes students feel comfortable approaching me after class and during office hours for more discussion.
Another challenge to teaching is to be clear that the knowledge and skills learned have practical applications. Students learn material better when they think they will be able to apply it. For example, when we cover policing in my introductory course “Sociological Perspectives on the American Criminal Justice System,” I begin by sharing excerpts from my dissertation research on grassroots responses to police misconduct in Minneapolis. This highlights for the students the complexity of police interactions and provides a vivid example to return to as we cover course concepts with lectures and thought-provoking readings. Students get their own vivid experience if they choose as their outside-class assignment to do a “ride-along” with a police agency (alternatively, they can attend a court proceeding or visit a correctional facility). To reinforce connections between on-the-ground experience and course concepts, they write a three to five-page field report on their experience and relate it to concepts and theories in the readings. In keeping with the dialogical nature of the class, students share their field experiences in pairs and may, if they choose, discuss their experiences with the whole class. The field experience is a powerful way to encourage students to personalize and reinforce course concepts and criminology and punishment theories, and to see how they are relevant to real-world experiences.
It is a challenge to move students toward a critical perspective, but this is one of my aims. In developing a critical perspective, it is crucial to see dilemmas and disagreements within a field. I introduce distinct views on each topic using films and guest speakers so that our general classroom conversations, and my students’ individual writing assignments, have the fodder for a critical lens. For example, I show the PBS Frontline documentary Law & Disorder, which explores the questionable police shootings in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina by New Orleans Police Department, to explore community policing, police accountability, and police misconduct. Using in-class writing, students answer questions about the documentary that tie in with the course readings and related theoretical perspectives covered in lectures. Leaning on what students wrote, we discuss key concepts as they relate to the documentary, lectures, readings, and students’ real life experiences with police. To take another example, I also invite guest speakers to class—including activists in Black Lives Matter, police officers, and advocates for police transparency—so students can engage firsthand with experts who have differing perspectives.
A sociology undergraduate class may not be as obviously practical as life skills training or learning English, but it can equip students to pursue diverse career paths within the criminal legal system, the non-profit sector, or academia by helping them form a nuanced and critical understanding of the social world. In approaching teaching from the standpoint of facilitator, I am able to foster these critical and analytical skills of students just like it was fostered in me when I was an undergraduate student, before I even realized the desire to study and teach Sociology as a vocation.