Teaching Philosophy

I open this statement with a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King when he said, “If you are called to be a street sweeper, sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’” This quote embodies my philosophy for education and my life—excellence in all I do. Excellence in all I do; in teaching, discovery, and serving others. I strive for excellence in each area.

I do my best to transfer the concept of excellence into the minds of my students. Excellence forms the foundation of my teaching philosophy. The teacher acts to stimulate the student’s mind to gain greater understanding in a specific body of knowledge. In the teaching of engineering, the teacher must be able to understand the mathematics, science, and its application in such a way that he/she can break down complex concepts, observations and analysis into a simpler form that facilitates the ability of students to not only understand it, but to question it. Teaching is not merely regurgitating knowledge from a text but being able to manipulate and personalize that knowledge and to transfer it in a way that facilitates discussion and individual understanding within each student. In order to accomplish such a feat the teacher must be open minded, be able to empathize with students, available for discussion, and humble enough to consider new ideas and question existing knowledge.

Furthermore, I have observed that two of the greatest mechanisms for facilitating understanding of complex concepts or theories are the use of visualization tools and the asking of well-framed yet provocative questions. Visualization tools, such as a drawing, a physical model, a simulation, an equation, or a demonstration can deliver a concept much more effectively than words alone. If the students can see it, they are much more responsive and quicker to understand. This does not mean using PowerPoint slides for an entire lecture. I have found that PowerPoint can be counterproductive to the engagement of students; because it makes it very easy for students not to take notes as the material being taught can be easily printed out for later reference. Also, often times visualization tools are not readily available, and the development and implementation of an effective visualization tool can prove to be extremely difficult. I believe this is what can separate an excellent teacher from a poor one. An excellent teacher will find a way to get students to visualize what he/she is teaching.

In addition, a wisely chosen question presented to students can profoundly increase their motivation to learn. A question inherently solicits an answer. It is thought provoking and gets students to thinking about possibilities and often times spawns more questions.

A teacher should also set goals for their students. In engineering, students should always come away from the class with a clear understanding of how the subject matter relates to practical problems and applications. This should be continuously reinforced throughout the class as students are much more motivated to learn about practical concepts and problems rather than abstract mathematical or specialized theories. Students should also develop a general process or framework of how to solve problems encountered in the specific subject being taught. This allows students to build upon the knowledge they have learned when encountering new problems or applications in other fields of study.

Furthermore, teaching and research should complement each other. Many ideas for research and the generation of intriguing research questions are often spawned from the classroom. For example, Dr. Richard Feynman, a professor of physics who won the Nobel Prize for his research in quantum physics, took tremendous pride in integrating teaching with research. There are written accounts from his former students that he often went to great lengths, even to the extent of theatrics, to communicate an idea or complex concept. One of the highlights of his career was the publishing of QED, a book on the theory of quantum electrodynamics, which in his words was written so his grandmother could understand it. It was through interactions with students and the process of reducing complicated phenomena and observations to simple terms, illustrations, and equations for his students, that he was able to refine his own theories to the point of Nobel Laureate quality. Dr. Feynman’s approach to teaching and research and his gift of transferring complex concepts to students and laypersons embodies one of the primary roles of a teacher.

Also, the teacher is constantly learning about teaching throughout his/her career. Teachers should make it a goal to continuously improve their abilities and skills. They should solicit student feedback periodically and reevaluate their teaching styles when appropriate.

Finally, the professorship involves a constant cacophony of responsibilities; I hope that I never lose sight of what I am ultimately doing. I hope to invest a part of my life into the lives of my students that inspires excellence.
Dr. Curtis R. Taylor, Ph.D.