A Case for Educational Philosophy: On Mirrors, Windows, and North Stars

I admit it. I used to assign those teaching philosophy statements to my poor undergraduates. I can’t quite count the number of times I talked students through how problematic “gardening” metaphors were, as in: “I believe that children are like seeds and my job is to nourish and water them so that they grow into beautiful flowers.” 

I shouldn’t have blamed them.  They were 19 years old and had never taught a day in their lives.  

Philosophy comes in handy, in my experience, only insofar as there is practice to shape it up.  In other words, teach a week or a month or a year and let’s revisit that statement.  Some of it will hold true.  Some of it won’t.  The blessing of articulating an identity comes in the mandate to confront a whole bunch of elusive “whys” that surround every teeny tiny and big teaching decision you/we make.  As in, Why did I start class that way? Why did I set up that particular procedure? Why did I pace things in that particular order?  Why do I talk to students that way? Why do I grade that way? Why are we reading/writing that text? 

I believe the more we examine the whys, the more we can (1) shift our practices to better align with our values and beliefs and (2) consider how our practices and real experiences with actual youth in classroom spaces might convince us that our beliefs need shifting. 

I want to be clear here: there are better and worse ways to help youth access content.  There is an entire body of learning science, brain science, sociocultural studies, etc. that we owe it to ourselves and our children to learn about, internalize, and acknowledge.. . . . (link to fields of education)  We are not merely islands trying things out and guessing and picking what we like. We are growing together to do this impossible thing we do better, more efficiently, and more appropriately.  So let me add a third reason why ed philosophy matters: It can function as aspirational.  By naming who we want to be, and not merely who we are, we can better support every member of a school to reach those goals.

After all, you put together all of our individual micro-teaching decisions and look across the corpus of all of our classrooms across every program at St. Andrew’s, you make a school culture.  It’s important to be honest with our students (prospective/current), parents, alumni, admin, staff, and fellow faculty about who we are trying to be. 

Different schools offer different flavors and cultures of education. I recall in my first meeting in my first day at St. Andrew’s, I asked the group I was with “what do we mean by innovation?” There was a natural resistance to unpacking that term, because the moment we operationalize something we might limit freedom or possibilities.  Besides, how could we possibly account for the wide variation of best practice that accompanies every field of discipline at every age level?  We are an independent school, after all. Teachers need independence.

Yes, AND sometimes the number of choices and ways of being can become a form of exhausting torture.  Sometimes I want the comfort of knowing the practices and norms that my incoming class will have internalized.  We have all been new to the community.  The lack of already-established structures and practices can be terrifying.  

That is why I believe the most important initiative I can help forward this year at St. Andrew’s is ensuring we articulate a philosophy of education. (Footnote: That, and also because Kevin Lewis put it as my top professional goal in my role this year during our end of year review this summer.  But mostly, I really do believe in it.)

The Faculty and Administration Advisory Council began the work in earnest last school year in subcommittees examining the areas above.

In case you were wondering, it just takes one SAIS or NAIS publication or conference to see we are not alone.  Everybody and their brother is attempting to find their ed philosophy, which is now often popularly called “finding your school’s north star.”  Cool, right?

But just now I did a little googling and I discovered something amazing.  Sure, the north star is a guidepost that marks the sky’s north pole.  But (brace yourself for a shock), guess what?


Not a lot, of course.  The star can still help us find the direction north.  But apparently it makes a small little circle around the exact point of the north celestial pole every day.  

As we engage in trying to pin down who we are, we should perhaps find solace in knowing why this work is so dang slippery.  The point is not in locating the exact spot: “hurray! I found it!” The point is in the pursuit, the maddening, glorious conversation.  The constellation of all of our individual north stars coming together to form a school that is going places with students who are, perhaps most importantly, in their own furious pursuit of their personal north stars.  

Will you join us in this work?

One thought on “A Case for Educational Philosophy: On Mirrors, Windows, and North Stars

Leave a Reply