I came to my first teaching job in 1999, and my daily work included instructing high school students in the art of black-and-white photography at the on-site school of a residential treatment center in Yonkers, New York. I spent my first week there observing and absorbing the actions of other teachers. This self-guided crash-course in teaching methods taught me that the old chalk-and-talk routine is not effective, and remembering people’s names earns respect, but it also planted a seed: instruction that had a doing component seemed to be the most effective. It was in that first week of my work as an educator that my teaching philosophy began to develop.
One of my first courses for my teacher education program met in an elementary school classroom. A sign on the wall displayed the following words in a vertical column:
Largely based on John Dewey’s theory that experience is education, to-with-by is a method of teaching and learning that allows students to absorb, engage with, and put into practice new knowledge. The teacher teaches a skill to a student, practices the new skill with them, and lets them try it out by themselves. This multi-faceted approach to teaching and learning rejects the idea that rote memorization and passive intake of information alone can effectively impart new knowledge, and allows students—who naturally experience learning in a variety of different ways—multiple opportunities to learn what is being taught. To-with-by undergirds my philosophy of teaching.
As a brand-new teacher at a school in New York City in 2001, I felt torn between contradictory expectations regarding teaching methods. My administrators required that I teach to the test, while my certification program urged me to create my own curricula. In both, the act of teaching boiled down to the same actions (planning and executing lesson plans), but derived from somewhat different philosophies. Trying to achieve both was like mixing oil and water; that is, until New York City implemented standardized curricula in English and Math in 2003. That year, Balanced Literacy and Everyday Math—two instructional models based on child-centered instruction at the elementary and middle school levels—brought the to-with-by method to all classrooms around the city (at least in theory). I was in my third year of teaching, and it was the first time I saw my students consistently get excited about books and numbers.
There were plenty of issues with implementation of the new curricula, but for the most part I was relieved to finally have the opportunity to practice what I’d learned in my teacher education program: an approach that is tailored to both the needs of the individual and those of the whole group. As a literacy coach, I applied the same framework—to-with-by—to my professional development workshops and model lesson learning sessions. Participants would occasionally poke fun at how “cute” or “teacherly” my approach to being a coach was, but they would also acknowledge that they were engaged and learned something in the process. When I entered a higher education classroom for the first time as an instructor, to-with-by guided my lessons, and the same held true when I assisted professors as a CUNY Writing Fellow and Instructional Technology Fellow. In these fellowships, I supported professors and students in writing and instructional technology endeavors. Whether it was teaching a workshop on expository essay, offering tips on annotated bibliographies, or troubleshooting how to architect a course website, to-with-by has guided my approach in the classroom.
Having taught learners at most levels, and in content areas ranging from composition and literacy skills to photography and instructional technology, I have come to realize that no one approach to teaching fits all learners. By varying instruction, and offering students the opportunity to practice what they are learning, to-with-by acknowledges that no instructional approach fits all students, and only by experiencing, or trying out, a new skill can students truly turn knowledge into understanding. Although I imagine my teaching philosophy shifting with the needs of my students over the years of my career as an educator, it is my hope that by anchoring my pedagogical ideas, approach, and methods in to-with-by, I will, along with my students, create an effective teaching and learning environment no matter the content or level of learning.