Teaching & Education Philosophy

” I especially am appreciative of the enthusiasm you model as is the welcoming space you create in class and on field trips, encouraging collaboration and exploration…”


“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever”. ~ Gandhi

“Good students mean nothing unless excellence is sustained and nurtured.” ~ Indian scholar (New Delhi)

Why Experiential Learning Matters

In 2008 San Francisco State University (SFSU) lost a remarkable young man.  A student who I advised, Ryan Jones, was tragically killed in a motorcycle accident.  He had just graduated with his Bachelor’s degree and was about to celebrate his 30th birthday. I had Ryan in two of my classes and will never forget his incredible desire to learn and always strive to do more and improve his performance.  Ryan arrived early to every class and stayed late to talk with me.  Ryan had an intellectual curiosity like no other student I’ve ever taught thus far.  He was also a mentor for his peers and taught me many valuable life lessons that words can’t even convey how much he’ll be missed. In so many ways, Ryan raised the bar for students here at SFSU – My teaching has been enriched for having known Ryan and having the true joy of advising and teaching him through his program here at SFSU as well as teaching him in class.  That’s why it matters.

As a professor for over 12 yrs now, my teaching philosophy and style has evolved over time. While teaching is the priority pillar here at SFSU our responsibilities are enormous. Despite a depth and breadth of commitments, teaching is at the heart and soul of my work. In this statement, I need to give a shout out to the College of Health & Social Science and our Task Force on Teaching – The work is extraordinary and vital.

I have been an educator in some capacity for over 30 years.  Whether as program director, youth coach, experiential education instructor, part time lecturer, and now professor, I have established a philosophy that relates to education and teaching in ways that are intertwined.  And, this is all rooted in avoiding making assumptions about the background, knowledge, or even experiences of the students I may teach or constituents I may work with.

This essay is a manifestation of my teaching philosophy, I first provide insight into how a selection of scholars has filled a great deal of my character and value as a teacher.  Second, I highlight my key convictions about education and instruction, third I share how my teaching works in harmony with my research.  Fourth, I offer a succinct narrative of the connection to community followed by an intersection of all these expressions.  Within each slice, elements of diversity provide a common denominator.  For example, diversity is supported through discussions, readings, guest speakers, as well as through a valued range of thought, experience, and point of view.  I promote a diversity of opinion and assorted perspectives based on both experience and learning.  Last, recreation involves the human dimension; part of being an effective teacher is to foster a greater understanding of relationships and motivation, develop communication skills, and strive to cultivate new leaders. At the heart of recreation–to me–relates to encouragement of each student to take responsibility for their own actions and to understand their commitment to personal growth as well as community awareness.

Philosophical Role Models

I have found the extraordinary passion of others’ viewpoint to be significant in challenging and shaping my own philosophy.  For example, I appreciate the theoretical frameworks, infinite wisdom and core influences of people like John Dewey, Kurt Hahn, Carol Gilligan, Paulo Freire, Angela Davis and bell hooks.

Some of the individuals listed are well-known in global circles, others known in feminist circles, even the lesser known names I mention are distinguished scholars in experiential education.  That fact notwithstanding, my philosophy therefore has been carved by my own unique experiences in addition to the profound effects the work of those listed have had upon my personal life, professional career, and path to becoming a more effective teacher.  John Dewey is perhaps the most significant educational philosopher of the 20th century.  What captures me is his ability to weave his moral compass into the science and art of education.  Second, Kurt Hahn believed education calls for development of the deepest qualities of character and compassion.  Hahn understood the need for real, hands-on, practical challenges for the development of this character.  He was an “innovative educator who championed adventure, peace & community”.  Carol Gilligan is a professor of education at Harvard University.  I am most drawn to her psychological theories and research based on her numerous studies of girls’ and women’s development.  Her groundbreaking work provides women and girls with the means of having a voice, harkening to the voices of girlhood into womanhood, and sustaining their self-affirmation. 

Paulo Freire was a Brazilian educator and theorist who emphasized social justice and education “for the liberation of the oppressed.”  His passing in 1997 left a legacy, in my mind, preaching the simple fact that any constructive dialogue involves (and demands) respect.  The inspiration of both Angela Davis and bell hooks helps me to rethink teaching practices in a multicultural environment and create a space where students of all backgrounds can become independent thinkers in the face of a dominant European culture of decision-makers.  There are certainly many others who have had significant effects on my growth and evolution of my philosophy of teaching.  These are a few I’ve chosen to highlight.

Ranger Shelton Johnson with Student Sevilla Soto in Yosemite
Ranger Shelton Johnson with student Sevilla Soto in Yosemite

Education and Instruction

“I’ll be graduating from high school in May and from there go on to double major in Environmental Sciences/Natural Resources and Anthropology at the University of Wyoming. Much thanks goes to you for my decision to actually go to college. You inspired me to follow my dreams, but get an education first. I’ve always wanted to be a Park Ranger ….and now I know that it is definitely something I can achieve. Thank you for everything, you (and Mr. Johnson as well) truly were one of the driving forces and inspirations responsible for what I will be doing the rest of my life! I still value all the advice you gave me. My hope is one day you and maybe some other minorities will come to the National Park where I am working – and maybe, just maybe, I’ll be able to inspire them too…..” ~ Sevilla Soto

At the beginning of each semester, I tell my students that I expect them to take responsibility for the quality of their own education; the reason is that education should be obtained through their participation that focuses on both personal development and academic achievement.  The emphasis here is on the process of learning rather than the product (e.g., exam results, written paper).  I am not saying the “product” is unimportant.  The fundamental principles of one’s process is comprised, in part, by an individual’s psychological structure as well as social conditioning (e.g., as advocated by Dewey).  These facets underlying a students’ maturity level, coupled with their study habits, will likely be reflected in their ability to perform in the classroom and show progression of their learning by achieving desired course outcomes.  Hence, my philosophy is reflected in a continuum where the process of experiential education regarding how a student learns, is given equal footing with the content of any given program in order for the student to yield the best product they possibly can. 

While my preferred style of classroom teaching is based on the experiential learning cycle (models for understanding the active process of learning and reflection), I find the best pedagogy for me embraces a variety of approaches from hands-on activities, lectures, video presentations, guest speakers, role play, etc. Subsequently, assessment occurs in a multitude of ways from critiquing their level of participation, ability to exhibit learning, peer-to-peer evaluations, provision of examinations to test content learning of materials, written papers and essays, discussion groups, student facilitated classes, and basic oral presentations, to name a few.  I will strive to constantly keep my material fresh and lessons alive with discovery. I encourage students to question what they read, question what they hear, challenge me as appropriate, and challenge each other as they are most comfortable.  I support these undertakings systematically in a way hat instills discipline that they can then use to secure mastery over whatever talents they possess.  

In Harmony with Research and Scholarship

I suppose my students should know how I make sense of the world.  I therefore make numerous attempts during any given semester to also present them with my interpretation of the knowledge I have gleaned from my research studies.  I also do my best to make it evident to them that one’s inherent belief system also informs scholarship and that values give meaning to the facts.

Teaching must be in harmony with research not just because university standard says it should.  These are essential in the cause of both social advancement and expanding personal intelligence.  Therefore, I also ask my students to commit themselves to the pursuit of excellence however they choose to define it.  Teaching is balanced with my studies in the field as, together, information gained allows material being brought into the class to include the latest advances from the field.

By unifying my research with erudition in the class, this also provides an added opportunity for students to practice critical thinking.  Building scholarship into the classroom engages individuals as active participants in the pursuit of knowledge, allowing them to confront a problem or ambiguous situation, and to possibly follow their own lead towards a solution.


Link to Community Connections

I view teaching as complementary to both my research and public service.  I like to bring examples from my numerous jobs in the field of recreation and parks into the classroom.  I also need to bring experiences and findings from my research into the classroom.  Furthermore, I provide educational opportunities to some students through my scholarship and the organizations and agencies with which I collaborate by hiring them to supplement their skills.

A few examples extend from my work with the Pacific Leadership Institute and GirlVentures to the US Forest Service cultural diversity efforts and consulting with senior leaders of the National Park Service.  Each of these entities feeds my spirit, challenges my intellect, and provides me with new experiences as well as ideas to integrate into my curriculum.  That’s why it matters.

And now my role as Director of the Institute for Civic & Community Engagement allows me to co-create with others towards change in new ways. And, our community provides a springboard for embracing change; just as nothing stays the same in our surrounding environment, nothing should remain dormant in the classroom either.  My involvement in the community through my own recreational experiences, work with advisory boards, or attending social events makes a lot of resources available to me that I’m able to share with my students.  This is part of the essence of both teaching and learning. This section would not be complete without kudos to my colleagues on the College of Health & Social Science Task Force on Contributions to Campus and Community (Service). Amazing and crucial work! Our world would not be complete without these efforts – I’m proud to be a member of this committee.


Weaving it All Together

To accomplish my goals and dreams to be an exceptional teacher, I know I still have to learn as much about myself as I can.  I must constantly evaluate and re-evaluate my own beliefs, attitudes, values, my way of thinking about specific material being examined and taught, my interpretation of the facts gathered, my assessment of the ideas and information to which I have been exposed and my new level of knowledge which is constantly being enhanced. It is my conviction that by the time I retire, I will still be learning something new about teaching. 

Teaching is indisputably about sharing.  Sharing what I provide to my students while inviting them to share their knowledge and experiences with me is essential.  Ultimately, through my style of teaching, dynamic approach, and enthusiasm for my work, I hope to help students realize that self-empowerment is necessary for them to take responsibility for the content and quality of their own education.  The reality is the skills they may gain, and knowledge they will hopefully learn, from their time at SFSU will be transferred from the university setting to a series of “real-world” encounters that will amplify their life chances and their capacity to flourish in a sometimes hostile environment.  I have only just begun to figure it all out.  SFSU has provided a fruitful environment to advance my teaching skills, to participate in valuable research and share my expertise with local communities.

In closing, one of the most amazing, and powerful women teachers for me has been the late great Maya Angelou (rest in peace):  “One isn’t necessarily born with courage, but one is born with potential. Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We can’t be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest.”  Experiential learning matters as long as students embrace the opportunities presented to them individually and, subsequently, they discover just how much they can accomplish when they work well together as a team.  Learning that might occur on one day will inevitably evolve as time progresses. This all takes courage, and that’s what matters.