Statement of Teaching Philosophy
Though I was unaware at the time, my teaching philosophy began to form when I hit what felt like rock bottom in my youth. I was in the first year of my undergrad, had a below-average GPA, and had been told by two program counsellors that I would not succeed. It was a terrible feeling being told that I would not achieve my goal of completing a Bachelor of Science. Fortunately, in a few months my Honours program switched colleges and I received a new program counsellor. I will always remember the moment this counsellor looked at my grades, and then looked me in the eyes and said,
This is what we are going to do to help you succeed and get your degree.
Her advice and encouragement set me on path of continued progress, which spanned four years and resulted in a Bachelor of Science with Honours in Toxicology. Along the way, I met wonderful teachers and mentors who used teaching styles and techniques conducive to a learning environment that I carry with me today. But it was not until the beginning of my journey as a graduate student that I realized what gave me such a sour experience during my first-year of undergrad: as students, we were treated as receptacles designed to receive information. Conversely, my approach to teaching science has been to mentor students to be critical thinkers. Rather than simply absorbing facts and concepts, I help students understand that science is learning in action, an ongoing process where sound scientific results are obtained through the employment of sound scientific methods. To do so, there are three aspects that I believe are critical to this type of teaching environment.
First, active learning approaches allow students to talk and listen, read, write, and reflect as they approach the course content. I was afforded the opportunity to hone several active learning approaches from 2013–2016 where I led Canada’s first pilot project implementing the Junior Youth Empowerment Program in several small-sized (20-30 students) classrooms that engaged over 150 seventh and eighth grade students. These active learning approaches include: class discussions —both altogether and in smaller groups— to think critically on the subject matter in an environment that allows the students to express themselves, explore a diversity of perspectives, show respect for each other’s experiences, and develop the habit of collaborative learning; think-pair-share activities, where students can identify and relate what they already know to others; short written exercises that give students time to independently reflect on the material being studied; reactions to videos that are guided with questions to focus the students on specific pieces of information they will discuss afterwards; class games to generate enthusiasm and consolidate learning in the students towards the topic; and, learning by teaching to others —whether it be the teacher, their peers, or another audience.
Second, case studies give an opportunity for students to apply what they learn in class to real-life experiences. I experimented with this approach in 2018 when I organized a guest lecture called Principles of Sound Ecotoxicology for graduate and undergraduate students in the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of Guelph. In order to prepare the students for the case study, I began the lecture with a critique and reflection on a video related to the topic. This got the students comfortable with speaking to the teacher and each other. Next, I introduced a few principles of ecotoxicology that were lacking in the video and that are necessary for proper experimental design when conducting a scientific experiment. Finally, I introduced the case study and asked the students to form groups and consider how they could apply the principles of ecotoxicology they have just learned to design an experiment that could develop a solution to the problem. The students enjoyed brainstorming ideas together and, when the time came, suggested excellent approaches to addressing the problem in the case study. A major advantage of teaching with case studies is that the students are actively engaged in figuring out the principles by abstracting from the examples. This develops their skills in: problem solving; understanding qualitative and quantitative analytical tools; decision making in complex situations; and, coping with ambiguities.
Finally, cooperative learning through labs, fieldwork, and group projects reinforces lecture materials while developing students’ interpersonal, time management, and problem-solving skills. Cooperative learning is my favourite teaching strategy because students learn to work together for the achievement of a common goal. In this regard, during the 2017–2018 calendar year, I served as a teaching assistant for a medium-sized (50-100 students) fourth-year environmental sciences course at the University of Guelph. The purpose of this course was to give an opportunity for students to integrate the skills and knowledge acquired in earlier courses through application to current environmental problems and issues for an external client. From the start, the course instructors entrusted me with the responsibilities of developing the assignment rubrics, grading, and handling all correspondence with students, which were responsibilities above and beyond my contract. I took this job seriously because it gave me the opportunity to facilitate a meaningful experience for the students. As denoted in my teaching evaluation forms, the students strongly agreed that they had experienced a cooperative learning environment. For this reason, the course instructor requested I serve as teaching assistant again, which I accepted in the 2018-2019 calendar year.
In all these years, I have come to realize the shared characteristics in elementary and university classrooms: students are in need of teachers who believe in their capacity to make a meaningful contribution to the generation and application of knowledge. This belief extends far beyond encouraging words and finds practical expression through the three aspects of the teaching environment mentioned above. I have found repeated success in applying these teaching strategies; often the results are that students feel encouraged to be critical thinkers and capable to succeed.
At the outset of my journey as an undergraduate student, I never dreamed of becoming a professor because I was told —twice— that I would not succeed. By surrounding myself with teachers, mentors, colleagues, and classmates who created positive teaching environments that focused on strengths, accepted failures, and encouraged critical thinking, now the road to professorship is achievable. My goal —and source of deep joy— is to equip the next generation of youth with the knowledge, skills and experiences to help them rise up and contribute to the betterment of this planet and all its constituents. In the words of one teacher,
Man is organic with the world. His inner life moulds the environment and is itself also deeply affected by it. The one acts upon the other and every abiding change in the life of man is the result of these mutual reactions.