Take CHARGE Day 21: Reflection tools
Updated: Feb 3, 2020
(To read Day 20, click here. To listen to this post as a podcast, click here.)
Take CHARGE of the Classroom
There's an old saying that was once famously butchered by then president George W. Bush.
"Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me."
The point of the adage is that mistakes are natural, but not learning from them can be detrimental. As teachers, you make hundreds of decisions every day. Most of them come on the fly, as you shoot from the hip trying to create order from chaos. A natural part of that is failing. Like any skill, we get better with practice. The more we do it, the better we become. That is, of course, assuming we learn from our mistakes.
Every master was once a learner. Experts weren't birthed with all-knowing powers but instead developed them through a long and arduous process of trying, failing, and trying again. Implicit in that sequence is the art of reflection. With a little careful thought, however, you can take a few shortcuts through the long and arduous path toward mastery. Learning from the mistakes you've made and preparing for future pitfalls can make all the difference.
We've all had an experience or situation that still feels fresh to this day. We did something embarrassing, were caught completely unawares, or had something occur that emotionally scarred us. A tendency we have is to relive those memories over and over, thinking through what might have gone differently. It's that spirit of reflection that we can take from the small, day-to-day moments, to help us improve our ability to take charge of the classroom.
Plan for it
Nothing happens consistently if you don't plan for it. Thinking that you'll just magically have five uninterrupted minutes for deep contemplation is unrealistic. Things will happen, fires will pop up that you have to put out, and any number of other concerns will crowd out your time to think. There are many different levels and times for reflection. The key is to find the method and organizational pattern that works best for your schedule and has the greatest impact. Reflecting does no good if it isn't used as a planning tool for the future.
One method would be to leave a blank section labeled Reflection at the bottom of your lesson plans. At the end of each day, go back and look at the plans you created. Compare the ideal lesson with the one that actually happened. Note any discrepancies and quickly jot down a brief analysis of what could have been done better. This mini-reflection, done on a daily basis, should be short and sweet. If a problem popped up that you don't have a ready explanation for, simply note it and move on. There will be a later opportunity to look at larger trends and analyze big problems.
Another option that might work better for some would be an end-of-the-day reflection. When you're in bed at night, comfortable in your pajamas, hit the mute button on the TV remote (or put down your phone) and pull out a journal. Go back throughout the day and list high points and low points. This will consist of more general impressions rather than a blow-by-blow analysis since it'll be done without referencing your lesson plans. As with the previous suggestion, try to name causes for problems that seem obvious but don't stress too much about not being able to adequately describe the roots of every single failure.
This can also be done on a larger scale, namely week-by-week. Take a portion of Saturday or Sunday, at least 30 minutes, to go over the lessons you had planned and how they worked themselves out in reality. This would allow you to see larger themes that popped up over several days but also open yourself up to over-valuing what happened most recently (e.g., Thursday or Friday) over what happened at the beginning of the week.
So what do you do with these reflections? The very act of writing them down, however you choose to do them, will increase your future efficiency. For the simple problems that arose, such as a boring activity or being rushed for time, you would naturally keep those situations in mind when planning for the next day or week. Reviewing each day's or week's highlights and lowlights is a powerful tool that we can use to not be fooled twice.
Once a grading period, typically once every six weeks, take a look at all your reflections from the previous term. Dig out those pesky situations that weren't readily explainable and take some time to look for trends. If the problem only popped up once, it was most likely an anomaly you can ignore. If it occurred multiple times, however, a pattern is emerging that takes some deeper thinking. Spend time thinking through the root causes using a process like Five Whys and look for possible solutions among your colleagues, educational literature, or even the internet.
Sometimes it's hard to see your own blind spots. Another powerful tool for reflection is to ask a trusted colleague to observe part of your lesson. Notice the adjective I used - trusted. This is something that, if handled poorly, can be damaging and hurtful. Yet the potential for growth is extremely high as long as the following guidelines are attended to.
-- As said before, this colleague needs to be trusted. If you are going to open yourself in front of a peer, you want to be sure that your teaching errors won't become grist for the school rumor mill.
-- Find someone that's been there before. Make sure the colleague is someone with experience that has proven to be proficient in the past. It won't do you as much good if your peer observer is untried or struggles in the same areas you.
-- Narrow the focus. Unless the colleague has experience coaching or mentoring, she might not know what to pay attention to. Plan with her ahead of time exactly what you hope will happen with a certain strategy or technique so she can focus on that rather than the beauty of your anchor charts.
-- Use questions. Ask the observer to gather feedback in the form of reflective questions for you to answer. This ensures that the growth is still yours as you work through the answers with your colleague. What isn't helpful is feedback in the form of declarative statements explaining what you should have done differently because the mental load is shouldered by the observer rather than the teacher.
-- Debrief after the observation. Before your colleague's thoughts, first share your own reflections. This will help lessen the impact of any problems because you will have most likely already named them. After initial thoughts, work through the questions that your colleague has formed to probe deeper into your classroom instruction and/or management.
-- Brainstorm different options. You don't need someone to come in and show you where you are falling short because you are most likely already aware of it. What you need is a sounding board and a fresh set of ideas to try and solve the problem.
-- Decide if something needs to be learned. Just because you brainstormed about a new redirection technique doesn't mean that you know how to use it correctly. You might need to read more, observe a fellow teacher, or practice on your own with something new before testing it out in the classroom.
-- Plan a follow-up. Put an action plan in place, try it out yourself, then invite your colleague back to examine the evidence of growth.
Action: Choose one of the reflection tools (i.e., planned reflection or peer observation) and commit to trying it for two weeks. After using it, think about its effectiveness and how it can be shifted to better meet your needs.
Reflection questions: How often do you think over your day and try to think through what went well and what went wrong? When would be the best time for you to reflect? At the end of each school day? At night? On the weekend?
Paul, M. (2016, May 10). 3 ways to reflect with purpose [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/discussion/3-ways-reflect-purpose
To read Day 22, click here.