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Philosophy of Teaching
Spencer Robinson
Graduate Teaching Associate
Department of Slavic and East European Languages
Winner of the 2011 Graduate Associate Teaching Award

Mr. Austin was my seventh-grade history teacher. On my first day of his class, he announced that we would be having a test the next day. As you could probably guess, such a prospect was not well received by the students, especially me: A test? On the second day of class? Wasn’t there a middle-school mandate against such things? However, as Mr. Austin stood at the front of the classroom gazing at some 30 panic-stricken faces, he told us that he had looked in his classroom closet that morning and had found that he had enough As for everyone there. After hearing those words, I felt something inside me click. My teacher thought that I had the potential to get an A in the course. If he thought that, then I could too. I went home and studied harder than I had ever studied. I came back to class the next day and aced the test! I then found that the desire to succeed in school had suddenly sprouted inside me. I realized that I could learn! As it turned out, Mr. Austin was also the Russian teacher in my school. Since he made me feel like I could succeed in the classroom, I signed up for his course and successfully embarked on a path that gave me a love for Slavic languages, linguistics, and literatures.

Even though that experience occurred long ago, I share it because it illustrates my own teaching philosophy. When I walk into my classroom each day, I want my students to know that they can succeed. I then strive to turn that feeling of confidence into real knowledge. As I teach, I work to empower my students by creating an environment conducive to learning both in the classroom and in the real world.

Students typically enroll in a beginning Russian course because they know something of the culture and want to learn more. They are excited and engaged in the learning process, but the challenging nature of language courses sometimes makes them feel overwhelmed. This is especially true on the first day of Russian 101. I walk around the class while speaking only Russian and try to have the students listen to how I introduce myself and get them to introduce themselves to me. As I patiently persist and encourage them, they find that they can introduce themselves by the end of the first hour. My smile and thumbs-up signs let them know that they have succeeded and that such accomplishments will continue through the entire quarter. This is when smiles appear on their faces. As the quarter progresses, they laugh when I compare my (non-existent) art skills to Rembrandt’s while depicting the meaning of new vocabulary words on the board or acting out the definition instead of just giving an English equivalent. Being able to laugh in class helps them feel comfortable and lowers their anxiety about making mistakes. Instead of worrying about saying something incorrectly, they begin trying to communicate with their classmates and me in Russian.

Using multimedia in the classroom has also become a priority for me. I want my students to see that Russian does not just exist in their textbooks, but it is part of a living, vibrant culture. I also feel that having a variety of input methods assists them in actually retaining what they learn. I adopted this approach after having my students listen to a Russian TV music program and fill in worksheet blanks with missing lyrics. That evening, I received an email from a student. She wrote, “I haven’t mentioned it before, but I like playing games and listening to music in class. I feel like that is important, in that it allows for me to learn more actively” (LM, personal correspondence, May 11, 2009). If it helps my students learn, I want to use it in my teaching.

Despite my best efforts, students sometimes need a little more help in mastering concepts than can be provided in a classroom setting. When this is the case, I invite students to come to my office hours or to contact me at any point, even if they need to call me at home. The reason for doing this is to try to provide students with a way to get their questions answered as soon as possible. When they can find an answer to their questions quickly, they are much more likely to understand and thus enjoy what they are doing and not get discouraged and feel like they cannot learn. I have had students come to my office hours who feel confused about basic grammar, but leave with an understanding of the role that each part of speech plays because I explained the concepts to them, ensured that they understood, and then tested that comprehension by actually practicing with examples instead of just answering questions. The students had proved to me and to themselves that they understood these concepts. They left my office happy. The same feeling of student empowerment is thus created outside as well as inside the classroom.

In March 2009, students in the Russian class I was teaching were learning how to make dinner reservations. They asked if we could go on a field trip to a nearby Russian restaurant. The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea. The students called the restaurant and made a reservation in Russian. At the restaurant, they ordered and talked to each other in Russian. When it was time to go, the students all wanted to go to the small Russian grocery store behind the restaurant instead of going straight home: they had loved the experience. This trip gave them the chance to see the practical value of Russian firsthand. Suddenly Russian was about a lot more than just nouns and verbs. They had actually talked with the waitress in Russian, one of the approximately 150 million native Russian speakers. They realized that they could use Russian in the real world. It made them even more excited about learning the language.

Even with everything I try to do to teach my students both inside and outside the classroom, I cannot teach them everything. The time constraints are too great and I myself continue to learn new things from my own research. Thus, I teach my students to teach themselves. In order to be able to do this, students need to have the tools necessary to recognize patterns in the language and know where to look for answers when they need help. I help them learn to recognize patterns by searching for the roots of words. “What is the root of this word?” is a question that my students have come to expect. When my students ask me how to say something in Russian that I do not know, I use online dictionaries in class to look up the answer so students can become familiar with these tools. I also show them Russian websites to showcase the culture and pique their interest in it. I do these things so they will realize that they do not have to rely on me to have all their questions answered. They feel comfortable looking for answers themselves. They feel that they can successfully increase their knowledge.

Although I do not administer a test on the second day of class (Did you hear the sigh of relief from my students?), I still try to give my students the same enthusiasm and encouragement that I received from my seventh-grade history teacher by creating an environment that supports learning both inside the classroom and in the real world. I also endeavor to give them tools and strategies so they can continue their education on their own. As I teach, I find new ways of accomplishing these goals based on how the students are learning. Seeing my students learn is so exciting! Ultimately I want to teach because I want my students to know they can succeed just as Mr. Austin helped me realize that I could in his history and Russian classes many years ago.

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