By Melanie Maher
I’m pretty sure we have all looked in the mirror at one time or another and have thought, “Wow, I look dreadful.” And sometimes we may think, “Ok, I look pretty good, not bad.” Either way, we are processing what we see and thinking about what we would like to change or what we hope doesn’t change. So, if we do this regularly with the way we look, why do we not do this regularly with the way we teach? Why is it so hard to think about our teaching? Is it because we don’t have the time? Is it our egos? Is it because we aren’t sure of what or how to change even if we could identify what we would like to do better? I am sure it is a combination of all of these. BUT…what if reflection could be our best tool to help our students improve and excel? Would we make it a priority each day?
John Dewey stated, “We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.” To me, this means that my 24 years of teaching experience really means nothing unless I am thinking about what I have done in those 24 years and how I can change it and make it better. Reflection is essential to improving for ourselves and our students. So what stands in the way? I believe that there are three main barriers to consistent, meaningful reflection in the field of education.
Reflection is hard. As teachers, we do not like to admit we don't know everything about the way we teach and what we teach. After all, we are experts. We are teaching future citizens everything they need in order to be successful in life. We spent many years and a lot of money to do what we do. Admitting we could do it better is hard on the ego. When a lesson flops, we don’t like to think that it is because of something we did. That would be admitting that we have a weakness, that we are not experts.
Education is changing all of the time. Each year brings with it a new curriculum, set of standards, new “buzzwords”, new professional development. So is it really possible to be a true expert in a field that is continually changing? I say no. Teachers have to be willing to admit they are still learning no matter how many years they have been in the field. They have to constantly adjust and adapt to new ideas and stipulations. They are asked to add an enormous amount of extra activities into their days that they may not have learned about in their career path like interventions, social-emotional learning, data analysis, culturally responsiveness, etc.
To make reflection easier on teachers, leaders have to tell teachers that it is ok to not be perfect. It is ok to not know something. It is ok to give ourselves graces and be a learner, just like your students. Our leaders have to let us know that it's ok to be vulnerable. Only then, can we truly reflect on improving our craft. We have to be able to say, “My lesson didn’t go well. What can I do to be better? What did I do wrong? How can I make it better for my students?” These questions can not be answered, or asked in the first place for that matter, if we are not able to come to work feeling that we are respected even if we do not know everything.
Reflection takes time. A teacher’s day is structured with one goal in mind: get the information to the students. Here is what needs to be learned today and this is how it will be learned. I know this sounds pretty simple. However, we all know what a struggle it can be. There are so many options for delivery and there are so many obstacles that prevent it. We need to think about engagement, cooperative groups, differentiation, classroom management, building relationships, etc. At the same time we are being bombarded with constant interruptions, behavior issues, learning deficits, etc. As educators, our time is already stretched to the limit. We are already bringing work home with us on a daily basis. At the end of the day we are planning for the next, making phone calls home, attending meetings. The last thing we think about is the quality of the day’s lessons. We need to train ourselves to do this. We have to designate a time for this.
Reflection takes practice and knowledge. So, let’s say we do take the time to reflect at the end of each day, week, or semester. And we can identify areas in which we need to improve. It’s a step in the right direction. BUT, what if we don’t know how to improve? What if we lack the knowledge of the best practices for student achievement. How do we adjust our teaching? Who do we go to for help?
Here are some tips on how to incorporate more reflection more often:
Start small- try starting with writing in a journal at the end of each week or each unit in order to identify things that went well and things that didn’t go so well.
Look for patterns- are you noticing that your students consistently have the same struggles in the same areas?
Contact your building leader or coach or another colleague to help you identify ways to help your students improve in the areas they are struggling.