The cornerstone of my teaching philosophy has always been the advice that Gilbert Highet gives aspiring teachers in his The Art of Teaching:
Know your subject; love your subject.
Know your students; love your students.
Whenever I enter the learning arena—whether it is a university or college campus, a federal agency, or a corporate training facility—I share that philosophy as part of my introduction. To be certain, I want my students to know my own level of competency to teach English and to lead them in their educational pursuits, and I want them to know that I am passionate about English. More important, I like to make a commitment to them upfront that I will come to know them collectively and individually and that I teach for the sheer joy of teaching, of sharing my knowledge with them, of watching them grow personally and socially and intellectually and professionally. I want them to know that I am committed to ensuring their full success. The approach is a simple one but it is honest and sincere, and my students respond affirmatively.
Early in my career I could do little more than espouse Highet’s advice. My own pedagogical skills were more theoretical than practical. I was short not only in classroom experience but also in life experience. My students were often just a few years younger than I. But I was long in having had mentors whose lives had embodied the essence of what Highet had captured so eloquently. As early as the third grade when I fell in love with English, my parents encouraged me to dedicate my energies to that subject, reassuring me that mastering English was a skill that could be developed and perfected through hard work and effort. As I progressed through grade school into high school and ultimately into college and graduate school, my teachers and professors were among those I admired most. In many instances, I admired them because they possessed vast storehouses of knowledge and they worked untiringly to share it. At other times, I admired them for the sheer strength of their personalities. They were commanding in their enthusiasm, and entering their classrooms was to experience, day after day, a succession of mini-dramas that held me spellbound. And, at times, I admired them because they were so human. They may have enjoyed tenured status in the ivory tower, but they made a point of coming across as real blood and flesh people who never hesitated to show their students that they cared.
I will always remember the day when, at the end of my freshman semester in college, I was waiting for the bus to take me four hours home. I had worked hard all semester in my Honors English class, but when it was over I was uneasy about the outcome and my professor was well aware of my angst. As I waited for the bus, she drove by in her station wagon and stopped fast when she saw me there. She hopped out, gave me a hug, and told me that I had earned an “A” in the class. She did not care at all that she had been cleaning house and was at her disheveled worst. Her only concern was to share the good news with a more-than-anxious student.
From these and many other mentors I garnered and tucked away for future use those and other traits that I believed effective educators should embody. I came to realize ultimately that although these mentors had never spoken to me of Highet they had impressed me because of their knowledge and love, both of subject and student. I wanted to be like them. It is little wonder that Highet struck a chord in me.
As I pursued my career as an educator, moving from the university classroom to the federal workplace and ultimately back to academe, I grappled with the task of developing my own teaching philosophy, grounded in Highet but personalized and made practical. It is an ongoing process that continues redefinition with every classroom of new students, but I believe I am enjoying some small measure of success.
What Does It Mean For Me to Know My Subject and to Love My Subject?
For me, my subject is English; words, the tools of my trade. Knowing my subject means mastering it, theoretically and practically. At the undergraduate level,
I took all available classes in the history of the language, grammar, composition, and linguistics. And I extended my subject area into the realm of literature, both American and English. Again, I took all available classes. And I extended my pursuit still further into the realm of the humanities as I studied philosophy and religion and speech. Those efforts developed core competencies that served me well as I started my career. However, within three years as an editor/trainer at the Library of Congress, I discovered the joy of research. I realized that I had a long way to go before I could claim mastery of my field. I became especially interested in American Literature and textual bibliography, and I had the good fortune of being accepted into the doctoral program at the University of South Carolina. There I developed my new area of interest while I continued to fine-tune my interest in grammar, composition, and writing, particularly through teaching College Composition I and II.
Within two years of completing my doctoral degree, I succeeded in practical applications of what I had learned. I published a major book-length study of New England short story writer Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, and I was appointed to a position at the Library of Congress as an editor of a mammoth 900 volume bibliographic project. As my career developed at the Library of Congress,
I continued to have the good fortune to develop my expertise. Aside from teaching in the Library’s Staff Training and Development Office, I directed the Library’s Intern Program, and I developed and conducted a comprehensive training and development program for the Copyright Office’s staff of 600 employees. Central to that initiative was the use of a document that I developed to identify training needs and to measure training effectiveness. Additionally,
I developed the conceptual, organizational and staffing plan for the Library’s Internal University. Throughout these endeavors I seized opportunities to grow in new directions. For example, when the Library asked me to become a certified Ergonomic Dataspan Skills Trainer through the Joyce Institute,
I responded affirmatively. Not only did I become a certified trainer, helping employees with ergonomic issues, I also extended the training in the direction of helping employees develop techniques for greater reading comprehension and proofreading. The Joyce Institute Newsletter profiled my use of Dataspan at the Library of Congress, noting:
Dr. Kendrick’s enthusiasm for the teaching process is catching, and his skill for creative and flexible teaching is evident. His priority when planning or teaching is considering the individuality of each group and the unique dynamics of each day. Because of his belief that “any class without humor is dull,” Dr. Kendrick takes any spontaneous opportunity to liven and loosen things up. His goal is to create a dialogue in which participants indicate needs and verbalize improvements.
Along with seizing new opportunities, I continued to explore my own special areas of interest in American Literature, and I continued to publish and to share my work through ongoing speaking engagements.
Now that I am back in academe, my approach remains the same though my focus is even sharper. Wordsmith that I am, I continue to relish the teaching of College Composition. Additionally, I consider it a luxury to teach in my own areas of specialization–American Literature, Technical Writing, and Creative Writing—and I am always on the alert for new information and approaches in those areas to expand my knowledge and to share it with my students.
How do I demonstrate my love of subject? I live it. I practice it. I talk it. It consumes. It is a passion.
How Do I Help My Students Know and Love English?
Throughout my years of teaching, student evaluations of my classes point out many things that I do and do well from their shared perspectives. But the one repeated comment that pleases me most is this: “Dr. Kendrick made me forget that this was an English class. I actually had fun in this class, and I learned a lot.” On reflection, I am convinced that the statement delights me because I am ever aware that most of my students are not English majors and yet I have helped them succeed in a class that to most students, especially non-English majors, is painful drudgery at best.
How do I do it? Candidly, I am not certain. I do know that learning is contagious, and whenever I enter a classroom I take with me a natural and knowledge-based enthusiasm that serves as a foundation for the learning that follows. And, for many students, simply being in the presence of such steadfast enthusiasm serves as sufficient stimulus and motivator to encourage them to reassess their attitudes and approaches toward English. Such, at any rate, is my belief.
Beyond that my approach is to focus on the ideas that my students wish to communicate. What is it that they want to say? What is their passion? I am direct with them, even at the risk of being politely painful: “If you have nothing to say, then don’t.” I want them to realize that writing is crucial to all disciplines. I want them to see writing as something practical that is an integral part of the world that they aspire to know and to be a part of.
Obviously that directness requires flexibility. Whenever possible, I design writing assignments that are open ended and allow students to indeed focus on ideas they want to share, hopefully with passion and conviction. Oftentimes this approach requires a willingness on my part to allow students to write within their own fields. Whenever possible, I not only encourage such an approach, I also insist upon it.
This is not to say that core competencies are downplayed. Decidedly, they are not. Within the framework of encouraging my students to find and communicate their own ideas, I help them acquire and develop the tools—the core competencies—that are critical to effective communication: in-depth knowledge of the subject, thorough understanding of audience and audience needs, purpose and desired outcomes, organizational strategies, writing style, grammar and mechanics, layout and document design, and documentation. Interspersed with the preceding is a heavy emphasis on the fact that excellence in writing does not just happen. It is achieved with practice and, more often than not, it is achieved through multiple revisions. And, yes, I tell my students up front that mine is a writing class and that I make no apologies for assigning numerous writing assignments and for requiring numerous revisions. In writing, as in all things, practice makes perfect.
Additionally, I embrace existing and emerging technologies, and I encourage my students to do the same. For example, some students prefer developing web sites instead of traditional hardcopy papers. I salute their capabilities and send them forth with full gusto. Whenever possible, I also utilize Internet resources and find that many students who, for example, dislike poetry thrill at the opportunity to visit the American Academy of Poets online and hear poets read their works. Other students who have inadequate local libraries often get “turned on” and “tuned in” when they discover the wealth of scholarly material available to them through online resources. As a final example, my students learn, early on, the importance of submitting products by agreed-upon due dates. Nonetheless, I recognize that occasionally face-to-face delivery is not possible, and in those instances I allow and encourage email submissions so that deadlines can be met and professional behavior achieved.
Students who have completed my classes successfully have an established track record for subsequent success in other classes involving writing. Across the curriculum, my colleagues note the solid writing skills that my students bring to their classes. This holds true not only at Lord Fairfax Community College but also at other four-year institutions that have become transfer homes for many of my students (e.g. George Mason University, Georgetown University, James Madison University, Radford University, Shenandoah University, University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, and William and Mary).
And, such a wide smile as it brings: more than one of my non-English major each semester decides–to major in English.
Such are my thoughts (this day and still emerging) about how I help my students know and love English.
What Does It Mean to Know Your Students and Love Your Students?
Simply put, my students come first. I teach, for them. For their good, I am demanding. I want to stretch them intellectually, and I do so without apology. For their good, I want them to feel comfortable expressing themselves, and I accept them. My goal is to help them succeed–personally, professionally, and spiritually. I want them to enjoy success in their own lives and in their professional worlds. I share with them their joys, and I stand as their heartiest cheerleader, helping them appreciate joy’s height and brevity. I share with them their sorrows and disappointments, and I like to feel that I am one of their most sincere consolers, helping them realize that even in the face of sorrow and disappointment can come growth.
Starting with the first day of class, I make a conscious effort to get to know them. I learn their names so that I can provide the classroom and hallway name-recognition they deserve. More important, though, I want to know where they are in their lives and where they are going and how I can help them get there. And I want to know this for each student. This is achieved not through requiring my students to enter the door but rather through letting them know that the door is open and that I am there, for them. My students complete, on a voluntary basis, general surveys (e.g. What is your field of study? What are your goals for this class? How can I help you achieve your goals? How do you learn best? What are your academic strengths? What are your academic weaknesses?). Additionally, I make myself accessible to my students before and after class, during regularly scheduled (or arranged) office hours, by telephone (at college and home), and by email (also at college and at home).
I do my best to let my students know that I am in tune with the exciting times they are experiencing in their lives. I find their enthusiasm to be as contagious as my own, and it gives me personal and professional strength. I start and finish my semesters by thanking my students for letting me be a part of their learning adventure. Such a privilege is mine. When the semester is finished, I let my students know that I will still be there for them. Just as I cared throughout the semester, afterwards I will continue to care because as a professor I am committed to their success and that is the heart of my teaching philosophy.