seagull landing tentatively on spikes atop a fence

Peeking Under the Rug: Build a “Candid” Teaching Portfolio

Reviewed by Gregory Zobel and Rebecca Halpern
Balancing Act” by Dirk Duckhorn; CC BY-SA 2.0

Teaching is hard. Teaching well is really hard. This paraphrase of Jeff Daniels’ reflection on the difficulties of writing is not an adage, but it should be. Teachers are often conflicted by this not-so-glamorous truth about our craft and everyday experience, and this unease may turn into caution/dread at the time of putting together our teaching portfolio (whether for a job application or for a promotion). As standard feature in academia’s employment and promotion practices in undergraduate institutions, particularly within the humanities and social sciences, the teaching portfolio is meant to comprehensively showcase how good we are at what we do. It surely seems the least place to confess how hard we find it to do it well. But that’s exactly what applicants should do.

Portfolio Ingredients

Committees assessing applicants are usually comprised of fellow experienced faculty from the department or the university at large, administrators, and often students. The scope of the teaching portfolio will vary significantly, whether for an entry-level position or for full professor, but the components are relatively well agreed upon:

  1. A statement of teaching philosophy (check this excellent article by the CETL at University of Michigan);
  2. Some form of student evaluation, preferably comprising standardized qualitative and quantitative course surveys;
  3. A sample of teaching materials, including course syllabi, handouts, assignments, and tests;
  4. A list of courses developed and/or taught over a number of years with a description of what the courses are and perhaps some information about the institutional context in which they were offered;
  5. Testimonials.

What’s Missing?

As someone who has sat on many such committees, I have come to the conclusion that the list above is indeed incomplete because it omits a candid account of pedagogical challenges and even, yes, failures. Without this discussion the teaching portfolio is not as persuasive as it could be.

I realize this sounds like shooting ourselves in the foot. Common sense says there is no place for admitting blunders in applications of any kind (not in academia, much less in the corporate world). Like a good doctor, we must know our medicine and be able to cure (teach) our patients (students). This is why the teaching portfolio must project positivity and enthusiasm — no hesitation at all. In a competitive context, portfolios are naturally expected to underline successes: high course evaluations, accolades from students and colleagues, descriptions of innovative techniques, awards.

But beware: The resulting picture may be too shiny, perhaps to the point of blinding its readers, perhaps boring them to death, perhaps making them suspicious. As Rachel Narehood Austin writes, “I dread reading teaching statements.” Or, as stated by James M. Lang, “the same basic ideas and buzzwords appear in just about every teaching statement I have ever read.” He provides practical advice so that others do not write a statement of teaching philosophy that sounds “exactly like everybody else’s.” Ideological conformity is not the goal; presenting your individual voice is. What applicants often don’t realize is that committee members may be reading tens or hundreds of applications. The least thing they want to bump into is the same litany of politically-correct commonplaces. (And, rest assured, they know them all.) This is why playing it safe — writing what the applicants believe that the committee members supposedly want to read — is actually not in the applicants’ best interests because it may turn their portfolios into lifeless collections of clichés, prematurely sealing the fate of the applicants.

The Purpose of the Portfolio: Show Who you Really Are

What’s missing in a spotless and undifferentiated portfolio is a personal voice acknowledging challenges and mistakes alongside the successes, and this omission ends up weighing in, sooner or later, to the application process. How did applicants learn to be the teachers they are today? Why did they even care to become a better teacher? Or were they born this way, just naturally wise, energetic, empathetic, and charismatic…?

What’s lost in many applications is what the teaching portfolio is really about: neither just a formality or a dresser full or medals with which to brag about, nor a definitive document, but rather an honest living record of a professional trajectory, sprinkled with highlights and shadows. Its purpose is to showcase the candidate as a fellow practitioner and to help assess how compatible he or she could be in the — potentially very — long run as a colleague, over the years and even decades.

Kintsugi, not Superheroes

Is it risky to be honest? You bet it is. The committee may be wowed by a spotless application and weary of the reflective and nuanced one. But, the way I see it, the key is to be open about one’s necessarily diverse journey as a teacher. I assume that teachers are not superheroes but normal people who, like everybody else, learn gradually as we go through careers and life, not only suffering but also causing some suffering, too. (In fact, even superheros fail from time to time.) George David Clark advises applicants to “chart your development and maturation as a teacher.” This makes perfect sense, because no amount of natural or acquired prowess can save us from all blunders; they can occur at any point in a teaching career. If the portfolio is a list of successes only, it remains unclear, or less credible, how we got from there to here. Kintsugi (金継ぎ) is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery; it “treats breakage and repair,” and the resulting imperfection, as part of the intrinsic “history of an object.” Rather than cosmetically hiding the crevasses that are left between rejoined pieces, the ceramist fills them with gold. Analogously, charting one’s development, as opposed to singing one’s own praises, denotes a systematic focus on improving one’s craft. It denotes cherishing our past experiences, good and bad, as golden, because they are inherent to life itself and because they have molded who we are today — hopefully older and wiser.

Along these lines, Sean Michael Morris asks: “Do we practice critical pedagogy when talking about pedagogy?” Far from a bland formality, the portfolio can be a vigorous platform for pedagogical activism and an actual learning tool for its readers. Because it happens so seldom, I find it engaging and moving when a portfolio writer says, “These are the problems that made me scratch my head. These are the mistakes I made, and this is what I learned from them. This is how I had to challenge my expectations. This is why I think it happened; this is how it has changed me.” Maybe even, “This is something that I am still trying to understand.” That’s when I must keep reading because it sounds real, and I feel that I can truly learn something from this person as a colleague. Anecdotes illustrating challenges and mistakes illuminate the usually missing reasons for pedagogic choices: why we went from one teaching modality to another, why we came to prefer one material or pacing or sequencing. By speaking about the total range of teaching experiences, the portfolio becomes a moving and engaging document, one that potentially creates empathy with its readers and that more transparently allows others to replicate modules and refine best practices. A candid discussion of some of the most representative failures in one’s career as a teacher turns the portfolio into a powerful teaching tool, enlightening, in the first place, even the members of the committee who are assessing it. As well, making this deeper context explicit from the get-go encourages a more sophisticated understanding of what might transpire later in the application process, be it the personal interview or the teaching demonstration. There is a value to disclosure: offering the fuller picture increases the chances of communicating who we are as candidates and what our long-term prospects might be in the institution. The sooner all the parties involved know about this, the better.

Don’t Sweep the Dirt Under the Rug

The perfect place to lift the rug and expose the dirt below, embedding a few reasoned introspective paragraphs, would be in the statement of teaching philosophy. Dirt could then turn into soil, fertile ground where new insights could be shared with others. But such constructive mea culpas are generally missing because embarrassing blunders may seem to detract from the “excellence in teaching” that is required in the first place. I believe that this perception is wrong, and that the absence of mea culpas is an even redder flag: A teaching portfolio which does not acknowledge the universal challenges of teaching and learning may come across as dangerously unrealistic, naive and superficial, grossly lacking of self-awareness; even worse, it may leave a trace of deceit. On the other hand a self-censorship impulse from portfolio writers, compelling them to smooth over (or out) the wrinkles, is nonetheless understandable, because we live in a culture that does not reward those who admit errors. Nobody is more aware of this than politicians, who are generally hard-pressed to admit any mistake (remember “I did not inhale,” or WMDs in Iraq?). That’s how euphemisms are born (“I misspoke”).

So it’s natural that one’s first instinct would be not to sound too apologetic. Project confidence instead. Put on your best suit. Use positive language. Showcase yourself as a knowledgeable leader. Depending on the teaching style and context (e.g., maestro in the performing arts), such image can assume mythical proportions. If we enact a soft doctrine of admitting failure or not knowing all the answers, students, parents (or colleagues) might perceive us as overly self-conscious if not downright incompetent. Students and parents, particularly, would rather prefer to imagine that teachers know it all, in the same way patients prefer to see their doctors as God-like and infallible.

Uncle Ben’s Dixit: “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility”

Of course, trust and confidence are necessary in the doctor-patient relationship, and therefore medical doctors generally do not broadcast their difficulties. But there is one place — at least in large institutions such as teaching hospitals — where mistakes are methodically scrutinized: when the patient dies. Morbidity and mortality conferences, where pains are taken until full causality is established, allow doctors to learn from one another’s mistakes, precisely to avoid the same mistakes in the future. Could such a significantly sobering analysis become a standard component of the teaching portfolio? I propose that it should. Even Spiderman eventually learns that his power comes with a social responsibility. Compared to the challenge of identifying the reasons for a death, the stakes of admitting one’s teaching blunders seem modest. Or maybe not so modest: words can hurt, and every one of our teaching choices, the encouragement that we give (or we don’t), the way we grade, how closely (or not so closely) we listen, how open (or not) we are to suggestions, all have an impact in the lives of our students.

To the extent that my teaching portfolio speaks of challenges and failures alongside successes, all woven into a narrative organically establishing who I am and why I do what I do, I am humanized, my discourse is more accessible, my pedagogic premises and methods more falsifiable. Showing my cards — even if it a scarier and riskier prospect, because it makes me more vulnerable — gives my readers a chance to learn something new, teach me something new, or both.

A candid portfolio, one that describes a representative sample of one’s full range of teaching experiences, the good and the bad, says that I take my mistakes seriously because I realize that they have consequences for my students. It says that I am a hard worker but also an active, full-time learner, and most especially when I am teaching. It says that pedagogy is a de facto component of my research profile. It says that I see myself and my craft as a work in progress rather than a finished masterpiece, and that, as a colleague, I will be open to sharing and revising my teaching in the face of appropriate evidence.

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