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I have a friend who is applying for teaching positions in biochemistry with no teaching experience. She has a strong research background, with several publications as a grad student and post doc, but is interested in transitioning into teaching (partially to gain employment and solve a two body problem, but also out of genuine interest). The position she is applying for asks for a "Statement of teaching interest". While, I think I can give good advice for someone who has taught before, what should someone write about if they have never taught or TAed a class. She does have some background tutoring and showing faculty, grad students, and undergrads how to use various machines in the lab. But that is about it. So

(1) What is a "statement of teaching interest?" How does it differ from a "teaching philosophy" or a "teaching statement"?

and

(2) How does one write this statement without any classroom teaching experience?

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She could try writing such a statement, but should not expect a high probability of success on the job market in applying for full-time, tenure-track jobs. I would advise her to start by applying for part-time community college jobs. This will give her valuable experience, help her to know whether teaching is really for her (which she presently has no way of knowing), and make her resume more viable. The difficulties with writing the teaching statement are not the main problem, they're a symptom of the main problem. –  Ben Crowell Jun 15 at 18:27
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@BenCrowell I generally agree with this comment, but it should be noted that at many of these so called "teaching schools" a person with say 2 publications and extensive quality teaching may be looked upon worse than someone with 10 publications with no teaching experience. It even says on the website, we highly encourage our professors to continue doing research (despite this being a "teaching school"). Unfortunately, the way things are headed, many teaching schools are starting to view the research as a first priority and the teaching as a second priority. –  MHH Jun 15 at 18:45

3 Answers 3

up vote 7 down vote accepted

About your first question, I don't really know if there is a difference, or if those are just different terms referring to the same document.

In context of a training program done at my university, one of our assignments was to write a personal teaching statement. We had several inputs to help us in doing this task, and one I found particularly useful was the following list of questions (credit to the Staff Development Unit of Newcastle University):

  1. What Higher Education is for: what are students supposed to learn or how are they supposed to develop whilst studying?
  2. How do you think students learn in your discipline, or in aspects of it? (You may of course be part of an inter-disciplinary area)
  3. So, based on (1.) and (2.) what teaching methods do you use that reflect this position (with examples)?
  4. What has informed your thinking here (experience, literature, colleagues, students)?

You can note that 1, 2 and 4 do not require strictly speaking to have teaching experience (although it's clearly helpful). For the point 3, you can replace the "do you use" by "could you use", and that should work.

Two aspects of this assignment that were really important for us were to use pedagogy literature (as Dave Clarke pointed out) and to be reflective. Of course, such an assignment is not necessarily evaluated as would be a teaching statement by a recruiting committee, but I think the point was that, as a young academic, you cannot really be expected to be an expert in teaching. But you are expected to learn how to become one, and to reflect on your past experiences, interactions, discussions, etc, in order to improve your practice.

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(1) What is a "statement of teaching interest?" How does it differ from a "teaching philosophy" or a "teaching statement"?

I would guess that all three quoted phrases mean the same thing. The "teaching statement" is not as formalized a genre as the sonnet: there is a range of reasonable responses, and to my ear all three things are asking for the same range.

Of course, if one is especially interested in a specific teaching position it would be better not to guess but to inquire what they mean. I don't see any reason to be shy about that: just ask politely.

(2) How does one write this statement without any classroom teaching experience?

Others have given some advice on this. It is certainly possible to literally write a teaching statement without any teaching experience -- one talks about one's teaching philosophy, teaching goals, and so forth, while not mentioning the experiences that one hasn't had. It's not like they're asking for the secret masonic handshake: anyone who has gotten a PhD has certainly experienced enough teaching to be able to write about it intelligibly (let me assume that someone who has gotten a PhD has learned to write intelligibly on academic matters!).

However, isn't there another key question here? Namely:

(3) What are the chances that someone who has absolutely no teaching or TAing experience whatsoever will be seriously considered for a faculty position with emphasis on teaching?

I can answer this question from the perspective of a math department at a research university: it is very likely that I would not seriously consider any such candidate. Let me explain. "Even" at a research university, teaching is a big part of the job -- roughly half, according to university directives -- and someone who is a truly unsatisfactory teacher is going to be an eternal liability and problem. Well, you say, what if they are a truly outstanding researcher -- can't they learn to teach? It doesn't really work for me. If by "truly outstanding researcher" you mean that they've proven the Weil Conjectures, then they deserve to be at a truly top place which can afford to have faculty who literally never teach, or who only teach graduate seminars to their own brilliant students. Any candidate like that is not going to come to my public research university, and if anything still less is she going to go to a teaching college. If someone is simply a strong enough researcher that I would otherwise be very pleased to hire her, then her complete lack of teaching experience creates an insurmountable fairness issue when one compares her to other candidates with similar or moderately worse research profiles but who have devoted a substantial amount of time and energy over the years to teaching. Even serious research mathematicians work hard to be competent teachers: it takes time and energy. Sometimes people have less than stellar teaching, and it really can ding them a bit even at a "serious research university". Someone with no teaching has to get a zero averaged in to her total grade, so to speak.

I explained how it goes for mathematics at a research university. The OP's candidate is changed twice: from mathematics to biochemistry, and from a research university to a teaching college. From what I've heard on this site, teaching experience is valued significantly less in the non-mathematical sciences than in mathematics. On the other hand, I happen to know that teaching experience and credentials are valued way more highly in teaching colleges than at research universities: though I think of myself as a "serious teaching guy", when I visit a colleague at such a place I feel like I am hiding in a foxhole doing math all day compared to them. Moreover smaller places are smaller, so the "ethos of the college" is something which is more strongly felt by all, whereas being a scientist at a research university is almost a different job from being a humanities professor at a research university. My best guess: there is little chance that someone without any teaching experience will get any real consideration at a reputable teaching college.

So I would say to the OP: if your friend wants this job, it's not about how to write the teaching statement, it's about how she can acquire some actual teaching experience. One semester of good evaluations in any reputable post high school academic institution would make a world of difference. If she's not willing to acquire that, is she really that serious about a teaching career? Compared to the other candidates, I mean?

Two final points:

I. I do not want to leave the impression that one should write a "teaching statement" that hides the fact that someone has no teaching experience. Although this should come out elsewhere in the application -- e.g. on the CV -- in my view it would be dishonest not to at least remark on this in the statement itself.

II. Others have counseled that a teaching statement should "[l]ook at what the professionals say about teaching" and "use pedagogy literature". This is good advice, but it can be misapplied. Namely, you need to have real understanding and ideally mastery of anything you talk about in these job applications. Most people know not to talk about locally ringed topoi in their research statements if they do not want to get asked what a locally ringed topos is in an interview. However, at least in my line of work, it is something of a cliche that young people "use pedagogy literature" to the extent of absorbing some trendy buzzwords, which they then misuse. If you talk about flipped classrooms, IBL and so forth and reveal that you don't fully understand what these terms mean, that is so much worse than not using them at all.

In fact at my research university (it is a bit different at teaching colleges, I happen to know) most of the faculty are not familiar with the pedagogy literature, and if I'm honest, some people pride themselves on the conjunction of that ignorance and their superior teaching. I don't think pedagogical literature is BS (or not all BS, anyway; every branch of academic literature has some BS), and I do believe that if you actually learn these ideas and articulate them properly and well it will be to your credit. But be careful. Also be aware that the trendy technique that one committee member might like might make another one roll her eyes. So a good teaching statement succeeds independently of its use of this kind of terminology and ideas.

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It should be noted that chemistry is very different from math. For example one college has a position open in both math and chemistry. The math job posting is much more teaching centric than the chemistry one. In fact the chemistry one explicitly says "Postdoctoral and/or teaching experience is preferred", while the math one says "Experience teaching courses in undergraduate mathematics with evidence of strong teaching/pedagogical skills, required." –  MHH Jun 15 at 20:06
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@MHH: I agree that chemistry is very different from math (I included that in my answer). Is your friend really only applying to one school? (Yikes.) If so, it might be helpful to name a cognate school in a different part of the country. When you said "teaching position" I assumed you meant "teaching college" or "liberal arts college". I just checked that the Chemistry department at Willamette University (a good, small liberal arts college that I visited) has about the same number of faculty as the math department and the faculty there teach a wide range of courses. –  Pete L. Clark Jun 15 at 20:16
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If by "teaching position" you just mean "position at a research university that has some teaching obligations" then some of what I said certainly doesn't apply in this case. –  Pete L. Clark Jun 15 at 20:18
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Well, as I said this is outside of my direct experience. I have to say that "Postdoctoral and/or teaching experience is preferred" sounds almost vacuous to me: will there really be any applicants who have neither postdoctoral nor teaching experience?? Well, if it's an adjunct-type position where liasons to industry could be directly helpful, perhaps...Anyway, I've tried to be clear about what I know and what I don't. That's all I can really do here. –  Pete L. Clark Jun 15 at 20:32
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will there really be any applicants who have neither postdoctoral nor teaching experience? — I see that you've never run a faculty search. Yes, there will be utterly unqualified applicants. –  JeffE Jun 15 at 22:31

Answering 2 (though perhaps this is more relevant for a teaching philosophy statement): there are a number of resources you could use, but the key challenge is writing something that feels right for you. I would do the following:

1) Write your own version of a teaching statement. What do you feel about teaching? How would you approach it? What does it mean to you? What teaching experiences (as a student, for instance) have really influenced you?

2) Find out what other teaching statements say. You can readily find teaching statements by googling. Lots of people looking for jobs have theirs online. Highlight phrases that appeal to you. (Avoid copying at all cost.)

3) Look what the professionals say about teaching. For example, a book like Teaching for Quality Learning at University by John Biggs and Catherine Tang gives one very modern view on how it should be done. The approach differed significantly from how my lecturers approached teaching. Perhaps even consult latest research. I always get surprised and get ideas when I read the teaching research literature.

4) Revisit the teaching statement you wrote in 1).

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