Clancy Ratliff's Opinion About What Makes a Good Teaching Portfolio

The following remarks constitute my personal opinion about what a teaching portfolio, a.k.a. “evidence of excellence in teaching,” should look like and contain. Not everyone may agree with me, but I have seen a lot of teaching portfolios, not only in my training of new teachers as part of my role as Director of First-Year Writing, but also as the chair of a hiring committee.

Questions to Answer

A reader should have the answers to these three basic questions after reading your teaching portfolio. Ideally, they'll be addressed toward the beginning:

1.How long has this person been teaching?
2.How many (and which) courses has this person taught?
3.How many (and what kinds of) student populations has this person taught?

You can provide an “Overview” page that answers these questions. Your curriculum vita should have a “Teaching Experience” section, and you can use that if you like. You can expand that section slightly to give a short blurb about each course. I first put a page like that in my teaching portfolio after one of my professors suggested it to me when I griped to her that the curriculum in our department was so rigid that my teaching materials didn't represent my ideas about designing writing assignments, etc. Those blurbs were a way for me to explain a bit about the departmental curriculum for each course.

Materials in a Teaching Portfolio

A teaching portfolio may contain some or all of these materials:

Teaching philosophy statement
Sample syllabi
Assignment handouts
Student evaluations
Teaching observation reports
DVD of a class meeting
Student work with teacher comments
Statement about how your research is connected to your teaching
List of courses you have planned and would like to teach in the future (a "Courses in Development) page

Your portfolio certainly DOES NOT have to have all of these. In fact, the only item on this list that is de rigueur is the teaching philosophy statement.

The Teaching Philosophy Statement

When I read a teaching philosophy statement, I want to get answers to these two questions:

1.What specific skill, more than any other, do you want students to get out of your class? For writing classes, what kind of writing do you think it's most important for students to know how to do? For literature courses, what kind of reading or literary analysis do you want them to be able to do by semester's end? Of course we want students to enjoy writing and to appreciate literature. For a teaching philosophy statement, though, saying that is a little too easy and obvious. I'm interested in seeing something more thoughtful and specific.

2.How do you teach the skill or content you most want students to learn? This part needs to be a detailed description of an assignment you give students or a classroom activity you do with students. If it works best to use an anecdote about a particular student to illustrate your philosophy in practice, give the anecdote with the student's identifiers changed.

I know I said two questions, but if your primary research area is rhetoric and composition, I expect to see an answer to one more question: with what rhetorical or pedagogical theorists do you align your teaching practice? In other words, situate your teaching in the field of rhetoric and composition studies.

Alignment and Consistency

I want to see a certain coherence throughout the portfolio. Let's say you have a portfolio containing the following:

Assignment handout for an annotated bibliography
Assignment handout for a rhetorical analysis paper
Two sample student papers, both personal narratives that got grades of A

It would be more coherent to provide an assignment handout followed immediately by a student's response to that same assignment. Then, if you include two papers, include two papers that got different grades, to be sure the reader sees that you recognize a range of achievement, and to see how you comment on stronger and weaker papers. It doesn't have to be a pair of opposites (A paper, F paper); A paper/B paper or B paper/C paper pairings are fine.

Also related to alignment and consistency: be mindful of contradictions between what you say in your teaching philosophy statement and/or assignment handouts and what you say to students in your comments on their work (or in class, if you provide a DVD of a class meeting). Let's say that in your teaching philosophy statement, you say that what you most want students to learn is the importance of writing for an audience: being aware of the audience's diversity in both their backgrounds and their opinions about the subject of the paper. If you don't say anything about audience in your assignment handouts, and if your comments on student work are along the lines of “no first person,” “no contractions,” “incorrect MLA format,” you lack that alignment and consistency. If audience is your priority, I'd expect to see some remarks about audience in your assignment handouts and comments on papers such as: “you may alienate your audience due to the use of the term ____ here” or “you need to address opposing views X, Y, and Z because not everyone in your audience agrees with your position on this issue,” and so on.

A side note regarding comments on papers: again, this is just my opinion, like everything else here, but when I look at sample student work with teacher comments, what I do first is look ONLY at the comments without reading the student's writing. If I can't tell from the teacher's comments what the subject matter of the paper is, I find the comments to be insufficient. I do this in my own teaching too before I return a set of papers. If I see that I haven't made comments on, asked questions about, or otherwise engaged the subject of the paper in some way, I write more comments.

Other Advice

Keep the portfolio brief. Don't load it up with years' worth of teaching evaluations, multiple student papers, syllabi and assignment sheets for every class you've ever taught. Be very selective when it comes to deciding what to include. The portfolio should represent the best of your teaching. That said, if you include a set of comments from your student evaluations, don't cherry-pick them. Include comments from all the students in the class who wrote them, even if some of the comments are critical.

Earlier I mentioned a “Courses in Development” page, which you can put in your portfolio. I recommend having a page like this especially if you are a graduate student without teaching experience besides first-year writing. That page is an opportunity for you to show hiring committees that you have thought about and planned for teaching a variety of courses and are prepared to do so. You don't need to have complete syllabi for these classes, only course descriptions of about a paragraph each with reading lists and brief descriptions of assignments. It's also good to mention the level of each course you're planning. Is it a sophomore-level course? Graduate-level? A class for juniors and seniors?