My teaching philosophy can be summed up, as “caring, clarifying and connecting.” Caring is neither trite nor self-serving. I have spent the last few months seriously reflecting on the dramatic growth in our undergraduate program, and my role in it. In less than three years we have gone from 15 to over 80 undergraduate physics majors.
With specific regards to my teaching, caring is what makes me continually revise my PowerPoint slides and activities. Caring is why I hold more office hours than required. Caring is why I grade my own quizzes and exams and also why I teach my own laboratory section. Caring is why I am willing to put aside a traditional textbook with which I am very familiar with and use a Physics Education Research (PER) supported package called “smartPhysics,” which involves a streamlined book and sophisticated online components.
Clarifying is how I see my role teaching the abstract and often difficult concepts of physics. Clarifying requires breaking complex ideas into manageable pieces using careful analogies, using the wonderful technological tools at our current disposal to help with visualization, building on students’ current conceptions, and relating abstract ideas to the real world. Very little is as satisfying to me after 20+ years teaching (and tutoring before that) as a student understanding a concept they have struggled with.
“Connecting” is the other aspect of my philosophy, and refers to both my making a personal connection with each of my students and facilitating the students connecting with each other and the broader department. Connecting with students is certainly enhanced by caring, but concretely involves getting to know the students. On the first day of class, I have students make “name tents” out of folded cardstock. This combined with a roster with student ID photos, helps me learn students’ names within a week or so. During introductions, I ask where students went to high school and who their physics teacher was if they had physics. Since most of our students are from the El Paso area and I have worked with many of the local physics teachers (in Master’s program, doing professional development for the districts, etc.), this gives me the opportunity to say things like “Wasn’t Mr. Casao outstanding? I tailgate with him every football season.” This makes a connection, and however small, I believe it makes a difference. Similarly, during either an early morning class or evening laboratory, food inevitably comes up. As the majority of my students are Mexican-American, my sincerely expressed appreciation of very traditional local cuisine makes another connection. While I accept late work from everyone, I often say “If your work is late, I will accept it if your abuelita (grandmother) makes me chilaquiles (a wonderful breakfast side-dish).”