Another Teaching Statement Cliché: The Messiah- Narrative


Today we are launching a new semi-regular series, “Missives from the Editing Trenches” written by long-time TPII editors. They are the real MVPs, working in the trenches to catch you in all your job document pitfalls — from the self-deprecating to the self-aggrandizing. They’ve seen it all and are happy to share their knowledge and give you concrete tips on how to make your documents shine.

Today’s post is by Dr. Verena Hutter.

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I will say it loud and clear for everyone to hear: Teaching Statements are hard to write. For some clients they are hard to write because they barely have any teaching experience, and they are grasping for straws.

For other clients they are hard to write, because they have a lot of teaching experience, and they want to tell us everything they have ever done.

Others cannot help themselves and do go on about their love of teaching (don’t!).

Those are all common pitfalls, but today I want to focus on another one: The Messiah-narrative.

It goes along the lines of:

“Often, students don’t understand xxx. After I had them read yyy, and we discussed zzz, they were able to make sophisticated arguments on xxx, and contribute critical observations.”

Sounds good, no? No.

First off, if students understood x and had ready y already, they wouldn’t be in your class to begin with. So you have simply described your job. Only that you have done it in a painfully self-congratulatory manner.

Perhaps, this becomes clearer if I give an example using a nuts- and bolts- course that I have taught many times in many variations, Intro to German.

“Often, students are confused that German verbs require conjugation. After I explain to them that the verb will always indicate the subject of a main clause, and show them several example sentences, they understand the importance of conjugation and subject verb agreement, and subsequently apply it to their writing.”

Sounds basic? Indeed, it is (still, always conjugate your German verbs).

But aside from its basicness, there are more problems with the Messiah-narrative. It infantilizes students, while elevating yourself and as such articulates a deeply authoritative, top-down process. Of course, you need to show that you’re in control of your classroom, and you need to point at learning outcomes, but you need to do this without belittling students or commenting on their lack of knowledge or comprehension.  

This is not to say your teaching sucks. On the contrary, some of the most engaged and experienced teachers fall into the trap of the Messiah-narrative. Why? I blame the abysmal job market and/or training students get, and societal narratives of teachers changing lives etc. And of course, administrations love to point to outcomes. “When they entered my classroom, they didn’t understand algebra, now they do.”  

Resist the Messiah-narrative! Instead, give us specific, clear examples of how you teach. Want another German class example?

“I often visualize hard-to-grasp concepts. When teaching the accusative case for example, I bring a tennis ball to class. I throw it to a student, and after they’ve caught it, we write down what just happened. Who is the subject? Ich. What is the corresponding, conjugated verb? werfe. What is the target of the action of the verb (the accusative)? den Ball. Ich werfe den Ball.  I encourage students to color and mark up the various elements of the sentences with arrows, so they can visualize the transfer of energy and the trajectory of the ball. In the future, if they are struggling over a sentence, they can repeat this exercise to pull apart the various elements of the sentence.”

These are two vastly different paras, but they describe the same teaching unit. The difference is that in the first para, I focused on me, my role as a teacher, and my awesomeness of taking the students out of the darkness of not understanding German syntax. In the second para, I used a specific example, and in detail illustrated how I bring the beauty of German syntax to students and how exactly they can apply this knowledge in the future.

How to be specific in your teaching examples? Read here.

The only Messiah worth listening to is Georg Friedrich Handel (sorry, I couldn’t resist here)


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