Teaching Philosophy Aphorism

A frequently asked question on teaching applications and in teacher interviews is, “What is your philosophy of education?” Well, I wrote a 50+ page paper on it in college, but let me see if I can sum it up for you in 300 words or less… Another place I often see a similar question is in social media posts, usually from education majors, who want to know, “What do I need to know as a new teacher?” Well, I have been doing this for over two decades now, and every year I learn more, but let me see if I can sum it up for you in a quick Facebook comment…

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines aphorism as: “a concise statement of a principle; a terse formulation of a truth or sentiment.” Since I am not naïve enough to believe these questions are going away or that people are ready to hear everything I think on the subject, I have tried to boil my thoughts down into a single sentence, my teaching philosophy aphorism.

Do what you can, for who you can,
when you can, and let the rest go.

Do What You Can

People seem to think schools and teachers are the answer to (and cause of) most, if not all, of society’s problems, but it’s just not true. Also, as much as we may wish we could, we can’t do everything. Teachers are human beings, and there are limits to our abilities to do and help. The important thing isn’t whether or not you solved every problem, completed every task, and taught every lesson. The important thing is, did you do the things you were able to do to the best of your abilities?

For Who You Can

Just as we can’t do it all, we can’t help them all. I would love to be able to help every student who comes through my door, but I can’t. Sometimes I can’t help because I don’t know how. Sometimes I can’t help because I don’t have the resources. Sometimes I can’t help simply because I’m not the one the student needs. I’d also love to help every other teacher who asks me, but I can’t. While I may not be able to help everyone, I can help some, or at least one. That’s where I need to focus, on those I can help.

When You Can

Saying yes to one thing or person means saying no to something or someone else. Sometimes there is something I theoretically could do for a person I theoretically could help, but I don’t have the time. I have to make choices and prioritize the use of my time. The good news is many things can wait. People and opportunities often seem to demand immediate attention and/or action, but when you take a step back and consider the whole picture, you often find they can actually wait for another day. And what about the things that truly can’t wait? Well, if you can, do them. If you can’t, then don’t, and remember the last part of the aphorism.

Let the Rest Go

I spent a decade and a half teaching in inner-city schools. The biggest lesson I learned? Learn to let things go. If you don’t, you’ll never survive. If you’ve indeed done all you can, for who you can, when you can, the rest will take care of itself. My heart broke for my student who was living in a car with her mother because they were afraid to go to a shelter due to past bad experiences. Could I give them a better place to live? No, but I could listen to her, hug her, and help her communicate with our school’s social worker (who was able to find them a place in a shelter for women and children only). It was beyond the scope of my abilities to provide three meals a day for my student, who had no food at home and regularly missed the breakfast provided at school due to having to get younger siblings ready for school each day. What I could do was make sure one drawer of my desk was stocked with healthy breakfast bars and not get upset when he quietly slipped in after my class had already started and helped himself.

What is important to remember is letting the rest go doesn’t mean you don’t care. It simply means you are choosing to use your emotional, mental, and physical energy to do what you can, for who you can, when you can, and not to worry about things you can’t do, people you can’t help, and times you aren’t available. The hard truth is the work of a teacher is never done. You could work twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year, and still not do all there is to do, for all the people who ask, at the time requested. At the end of the day, don’t ask yourself if you finished everything. Instead, ask yourself if you honestly did what you could, for who you could, when you could. If the answer is yes, let the rest go. Happy teaching, everyone.