Learning is hard work, often harder than we as teachers realize. It takes courage for students to step into classrooms where they might feel uneasy, under-prepared, or judged. Learning to have faith in our ideas and voice while deciding which other voices to trust is a task with which many of us may still struggle, and many learners wrestle with investigating new ideas or heading down exciting paths while also paying respect to their cultures, their families, and their communities. As teachers, we cannot ignore the contexts within which both thoughtful teaching and meaningful learning take place.
For most adult learners to succeed, they must have a belief in their own self-efficacy (Bandura, 1977 and Prat-Sala & Redford, 2012) and be motivated to persist in their studies (Ryan & Deci, 2000). To foster these beliefs and motivations, we as teachers must dedicate ourselves to creating inclusive, authentic, and challenging learning environments and tasks for all students who choose to enter a classroom. To these ends, I make the following commitments to my students, whoever they are and wherever in their lives they may be:
Students must have the opportunity to understand how the skills, knowledge, and experiences they already possess (their funds of knowledge, from Moll, 1992) can help them achieve the goals that bring them to the classroom. I must provide students with relevant and meaningful writing tasks (Ames, 1992; Vygotsky, 1978) built on those funds of knowledge and be as transparent as possible as to how those tasks translate to their academic and professional goals. This emphasis on authenticity and writing in context will give students the motivation to learn writing tasks, as they will better understand how these skills will be useful to them in their lives, rather than as just a grade on a transcript.
This transparency and communication may help alleviate the fear and anxiety that many adult learners experience upon entering the classroom (Navarre Cleary, 2012; Sullivan, 2011; Nicholls, 1984). Another way in which I can try to lessen anxiety and stress is to provide specific, relevant, honest, and encouraging feedback to my students (Lesgold & Welch-Ross, 2012; Navarre Cleary, 2012; Ryan & Deci, 2000). All these qualities of effective feedback are vital: encouraging but dishonest feedback will show my students that I do not care if they learn or are accomplishing their goals. Irrelevant or vague feedback, whether positive or critical, will leave students unsure of their progress and create additional stress. As part of providing this type of effective feedback, I ask students to co-create with me the rubrics that will be used to assess their work, which increases student investment in the projects and invites learners to exercise autonomy and choice in their education (Ryan and Powelson, 1991; Ames, 1992; Ryan & Deci, 2000).
In addition to drawing from students' funds of knowledge and asking learners to make choices about what is relevant to their lives, the projects I design must be perceived by learners as not only meaningful but as challenging. Drawing from Vygotsky's (1978) theory of the zone of proximal development, to be motivated to develop their skills and persist in their goals, adult learners must see a task as challenging enough to be worthy of their time and effort, but not so challenging that they believe they cannot achieve it. Encouraging students to collaborate with their peers and work through multiple revisions of writing projects can increase their sense of self-efficacy and create a learner-centered environment, within which experimentation and inquiry can flourish.
From both a pedagogical and administrative standpoint, I must be conscious of the sacrifices my students make every day to remain in our classroom and of the demands my students’ lives outside the classroom place on their work within the classroom. To not allow students to negotiate these demands would be ignoring the contexts of teaching and learning; therefore, I must be willing to work with and around these demands as my students do the same, keeping in mind that “flexibility does not mean letting students off the hook” (Navarre Cleary, 2008) or indeed, that my students do not want to be “let off the hook”. In fact, I must strive to expect greatness from all my students, and that by remaining true to these commitments, I can help all students find greatness within themselves.
Please see my annotated bibliography for references listed in this teaching philosophy.