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Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Ace the Interview: philosophy statement

It's job interview season and for a lot of people (myself included), the thought of trying to sell yourself and communicate your passion for the job in a one-page document and (hopefully) a short conversation with strangers is more than a little intimidating! Today I want to focus in on one question that is often presented in both written submissions and interviews for teaching jobs: your philosophy statement. This can be such a nebulous topic but I think it also has the potential to be one of the most effective ways to showcase who you are as a teacher and get a genuine sense of whether or not you are a good fit for the position. Here is my advice for crafting a response that will best showcase your knowledge and passion.

1. Find your focus

When you're trying to craft a philosophy statement, it can be overwhelming to try to encompass such a heavy topic in a few brief sentences. But as with every other part of the application and interview process, it is critical for you to narrow your focus to those one or two ideas that best express all of those thoughts swirling in your head- it will be impossible for another person to get a clear understanding of your views otherwise! If you, like me, feel like you have more than a couple of key aspects that are equally important to your approach, it's time to take a hard look at what is at the core of all of your ideas.

  1. Write down all of the issues/ ideas that matter to you and make you who you are as an educator. Maybe it's current issues in education that you're really passionate about, whether it's standardized testing or achievement gap. Maybe it's a particular approach/ teaching framework. When you're first asked to share your teaching philosophy, what comes to mind? Write down everything that comes to mind as ideas that shape the kind of teacher you are or hope to become- what drives you as an educator?
  2. Take a look at your list. What is the "why" behind the items on your list? This is going to take some serious thought, but it's the key to figuring out what is really at the core of all your thoughts and passions. If you listed some different issues in education that are important to you, why do those matter so much to you? If you listed some specific approaches to music teaching, why do you believe those are the best approaches? 
  3. Narrow your focus to one or two sentences. It won't feel like you've communicated everything you want to at first, but it's important to really and truly narrow your focus to just one or two thoughts- any more than that and your reader/ listener will lose track of everything you're trying to say.

2. Flesh out your statement

If you have a very limited word count or time limit, you may only get to share your short statement and nothing else. But I've learned the value of communicating how your philosophy plays out in your day-to-day classroom. Once you've narrowed your focus to a couple of key ideas, write down some examples that explain how that philosophy affects your actions as a teacher. If you are an experienced teacher, you can use actual examples from your teaching. If you are new to the field, you'll want to think about how your approach will affect your teaching practice, whether it's your lesson planning, your behavior management strategy, or your relationships with students and/or colleagues.

This is also where you'll want to make sure your philosophy statement is tailored to the specific job for which you're applying. Most of us are certified to teach K-12, but if you're applying for a high school band job you won't want to give examples of how your philosophy plays out in a classroom of elementary students. Make sure that you communicate your passion for the specific area of music and age group that this job will focus on.

Remember this is not a chance for you to go back to your long list of "issues" or thoughts- you need to avoid confusing your audience with too many different ideas. These are concrete, specific examples that help the reader/ listener visualize you as a teacher.

3. Test it on an outsider

Unfortunately, there's a very good chance that if you're applying for a music teaching position, the person reading your application or interviewing you will not have a background in music education. Once you think you've got a handle on your philosophy statement, share it with a friend or family member who doesn't know much about music education. See if they can understand the key points of your explanation- if they can explain back to you the main idea(s) after you've shared your statement with them, you'll know that it's clear enough for your application. If they can't, talk to them to find out what is confusing them and then go back to the drawing board.

Still feeling lost? Here's mine.

There are two key components to my teaching philosophy: 1) I am a teacher first and a musician second, and 2) my primary goal as a music teacher is to help each and every student discover their strengths and weaknesses in the world of music and foster both.

There is often a debate among music teachers over which part of our job title is more important: music or teaching. For me the answer is clear- I am a teacher first, and music is my tool for teaching. I have wanted to be a teacher since childhood, but it was not until I had to select a major for my undergraduate program that I decided to be a music teacher. The idea that drives every decision I make is this: I am in the business of growing human beings. One of the most important ways this plays out in my teaching practice is my commitment to identifying musical strengths and weaknesses in every child. I incorporate a broad spectrum of music-making (singing, playing instruments, moving, listening, writing, etc), musical genres and sources, and modes of learning in my classroom because I want every student to experience both success and failure. Students will be motivated to learn and gain a sense of pride and belonging through their musical strengths. Those strengths are also important entry points for new learning. But it is equally important to me to create a classroom environment where every student experiences failure. The most significant learning comes from stepping out of our comfort zones, and by consciously crafting a classroom environment and lesson content that pushes every student into those areas of weakness, I am more accountable to making sure I am not placing greater importance on a particular musical skill, genre, learning style, personality, or cultural background.

I have some specific examples of individual students who discovered their strengths/ weaknesses in my class, how I adjusted my teaching methods and lesson content for different student populations in different buildings, etc that I use to flesh out my philosophy statement further.

I hope this helps you to think through and clarify your teaching philosophy. This is actually a great practice for all teachers, whether you're new or experienced, applying for jobs or staying in your current one. I'd love to hear your own philosophy statements! Leave them in the comments, send me an email, or come share them on social media. This is a great conversation to have with colleagues!

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