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Geography Department of Central Connecticut State University, New Britain, Connecticut, USA.

A Statement of My Teaching Philosophy

 

Peter A. Kwaku Kyem, Ph.D.

Associate Professor

Department of Geography, CCSU, New Britain, CT.

 

Introduction.

 

My teaching philosophy and style have been shaped by my real life experiences, particularly during the period of my academic preparation that spanned across three continents -Africa, Europe and North America-. A family tragedy forced me to skip secondary school education at an early age. Undeterred by the mishap, I refused to give up the hope of fulfilling my goals in life and studied privately to gain admission into a 4-year teacher training college to be trained as an elementary school teacher. After teaching for three years, I passed required examinations and entered university where I studied for both a bachelor degree in Geography and a Professional Teachers' diploma in Education. I taught for seven more years, three of which was at my former university and then embarked on an academic pursuit that took me from Ghana in Africa, through Europe to North America.

 

My professional and academic preparation as a Geography Teacher has therefore occurred both within and outside the classroom. Even though I have been the instrument of my own development, my motivation and efforts were enriched by the actions of some dedicated teachers. These instructors showed me affection and care, challenged me to do my best, taught me problem-solving skills, and gave me the opportunity to be what I am today. My life experience is therefore the strategic filter through which I select and evaluate my teaching strategy and place my courses, advising and supervision. It is also my source of strength, inspiration and professional guidance.

 

My Views about Teaching and Learning

 

My philosophy of teaching is entailed in the following statements that provide the fundamental structure of my beliefs about teaching and learning.

 

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Learning is a process through which we adapt to the world around us. It is not the result of something done to us but something we do ourselves. The most crucial step in learning therefore is choosing to make the effort. It follows that although as teachers we cannot make our students learn, we can make it possible and easier for them to do so. We can either ignite or extinguish our students' curiosity and readiness to learn depending upon attitudes we project in and out of our classrooms.

 

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Teaching and learning for me are cooperative acts. The teacher not only imparts knowledge but also prepares and motivates students to accept and learn skills for future life. I believe from what I have gained from education that teachers do not transmit only academic information but social and personal life skills as well. University teaching is therefore about equipping students with the skills they will need to navigate the uncharted journey of adult life. It is more than teaching contents but also about teaching habits of thinking and habits of being. I therefore consider training in critical thinking as an important part of preparing students for the personal, occupational and political challenges they would soon come to experience in society.

 

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Students are human, unique and different. Experience with students from different backgrounds and grade levels have made me aware that students have some needs a teacher must necessarily fulfill to keep them wanting to learn. This common need apart, each student is unique and has a different motive for education. They enter the classroom with different experiences, backgrounds, learning capabilities and interests. In a classroom therefore effective learning occurs when the teacher understands the world of students, sees each student as unique and adjusts his/her teaching to meet the interests and expectations of the group.

 

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I find teaching and research to be inseparable components of  scholarship in higher education. Research contributes to my teaching by supplying up-to-date information and experiences to share with students. It also frees me from over-reliance on text books to explore varied concepts and teaching strategies. Teaching in turn provides contextual questions for my research. Research is therefore the means by which I attain renewal and growth.

Putting my Philosophy into Practice

 

During my progression from a novice to the more experienced Geography teacher I am today, I think of my teaching first in terms of what goes on in students' minds. I believe that effective teachers not only know their subject matter but also know the misconceptions their students bring to the classroom that might interfere with their learning. Some of my main principles in teaching therefore are: understanding the subject matter, understanding how it might be or is being represented in the minds of students and then being able to generate representations that will bridge the subject matter and students experiences. In the classroom, I deliver lectures in a systematic fashion and provide summaries of major points on the board to help students construct a hierarchical mapping of the concepts. Placing students at the center of the classroom learning situation helps me to quickly notice when students are motivated to learn and also when they get confused or bored so to prompt a change in strategy.

 

A major focus of my teaching is helping students learn how to think critically and to articulate orally and in writing. Consequently, I continually design problems in class and then guide students in resolving those problems. I devote early lessons in upper level courses I teach to training students to identify and distinguish facts from opinions and propaganda in materials they read. I try not to allow students accept superficial explanations for complex causes to environmental and spatial problems. I use the lecture method to provide facts students can assimilate, reflect upon and explore critically. I require students to apply the knowledge, conduct research and present results in class or do a lot of writing (essays and essay-type examinations).

 

I do not believe teaching begins and ends outside the classroom. Effective teaching is also effective mentoring and must occur as frequently outside the classroom as inside. I therefore routinely make time for conferences with students before and after classes, during office hours and at scheduled meetings to offer them valuable personal attention.

I know of the difference that can be made by working in an environment where a community spirit contributes to everyone's benefit. I try to instill a similar sense of community in my classes, where students work together both in and out of class to help each other learn. My sense of humor, often extracted from experiences I have gained living and studying in various countries, is an important part of my teaching arsenal. My experience with first year experience (FYE) students has revealed that freshmen students expect recognition and care from their professors. I believe that mutually respectful student-instructor relationship is essential to convincing students that what I offer them, and require of them, is of interest and merit. I therefore show genuine interest in my students and maintain a comfortable and non-threatening but orderly atmosphere in my classes.

 

My approach to teaching and learning is best summarized by the Chinese proverb: I hear I forget, I see I remember, I do I understand, with a new addition . . . I teach and I learn. Because student populations in classrooms are diverse in many forms, I try to adopt a variety of teaching and learning styles in my classes to meet the varied needs of the groups. I supplement traditional lectures and readings with films, video clips, computer-based presentations and overheads to emphasize issues and facilitate students understanding of complex topics. I also ensure that course readings reflect a wide variety of perspectives. I strive to understand the world of students, expect different ability levels, and treat each student with respect. Whilst challenging bright students to do more, I never discourage or embarrass weaker students when they make mistakes. Rather, I use gentle persuasion to stimulate their thinking and to help them correct their mistakes.

 

My approach to teaching Geography has an international focus. Increasing global interdependence and particularly, recent increase in America's role as a "world leader" requires that we use approaches to teaching that expose students to a diversity of cultures, viewpoints and practices. In my Introduction to Geography classes for example, I provide contextual information about environmental and social problems and relate natural processes such as earthquakes and volcanoes to the lives of the people all over the world who inhabit such places. Understanding the environmental worldview of people in different societies also forms an important aspect of class discussions in Issues in Environmental Protection and Resource Management Courses I teach at the Department.

 

Professional Challenges and Goals

 

I believe one of the most challenging demands of teaching is the ability to cultivate a delicate balance and peculiar relationship with students. It is a relationship in which I have to function simultaneously as admirer and critic, an advocate and a judge. I also find teaching Geography to be a stimulating job for which I am well suited and trained, and to which I have dedicated my life. This implies that I make a commitment to be actively involved in continuing scholarship in the discipline, make valuable contributions to the discipline, departmental and university communities, and help students acquire as much problem-solving and spatial analytical skills as they are able. My teaching philosophy therefore continues to evolve.