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Virginia Journal of Education


Reflecting on Teaching

Examining your practice is one of the best ways to improve it.


by Jennifer L. Hindman and James H. Stronge

How is my class going? How are my students doing? What am I doing well in the classroom? What could have gone better today? How can I make a positive learning experience for students even better? What do I want to be doing professionally in 10 years, five years or even next year?

Teaching is a high-pressure, fast-paced and highly responsive vocation. What other profession requires intimate knowledge of up to 150 clients with upwards of six unique presentations, demonstrations and facilitations, and continual assessments with feedback on a daily basis? Taken in that context, it is remarkable that over 3.3 million people choose to teach full-time in the United States.

One reason many do it so well is that they take the time to examine their practice regularly. A critical element to professional growth may well be the ability to identify what you did well, what you could do better, and how to make that improvement – in other words, reflection.


What is reflective practice?
Reflection is about critically examining oneself, and it is a facet of effective teachers. Depending on a teacher’s thoughts, the practice may involve:

• analyzing a prior experience (the idea that hindsight may be 20/20)

• defining or questioning an issue

• seeking an explanation to how students are learning (i.e., problem-solving)

• changing course as an event unfolds such that the outcome is altered

• responding to a higher set of expectations set internally.

Reflection may be prescribed, such as a required meeting for a pre-service or early career teacher with an experienced teacher. Such reflection tends to be focused on aspects related to the first three bullets above. Systematic reflection, such as the intense process that candidates for certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards engage in as part of their application, is a more comprehensive form of professional development and enhanced awareness.

What can reflection do for me as a teacher?
Reflective practice has the potential to make you uncomfortable: You’re going to be looking at some areas that need growth and, in other instances, identifying strengths, which may feel a little boastful. Reflection may be both formal (such as required by regular conferences in which teachers discuss their instructional practices) or informal (such as driving home from school and thinking about the day’s lessons and student learning); in both instances, there is a growing body of evidence that teacher reflection results in improved teacher quality.

The context of teacher reflection varies greatly from visceral responses to systematic, thoughtful practice. Consider, for example, Kathleen Sharp, a teacher with 28 years of teaching experience, who wrote in the journal Theory Into Practice, “Thinking deeply about my work has increased my effectiveness and allowed me to assist my students in learning. My constant reflection facilitates my thinking as I consider instructional materials, activities and lessons I prepare and assign.”


So why reflect?
So what might motivate you to reflect on what you do when you’re not required to do by an outside influence such as a principal, cooperating teacher or certification process? The short answer is yourself. You may feel compelled to do it based on your ethical obligation to students as both a teacher and a fellow human. Related to this idea, the table below identifies three reflective states. For each reflective state the desired outcome at the base level is the same – positive growth in the profession. Simply put, teacher reflection is a tool for professional growth and change.

Just as teaching is complex, so is reflection. In essence, reflection is your collective musings, resulting in a mental process that creates disequilibrium and a desire to understand and act. To teach requires a great deal of thinking. A common teacher reflection is one like Carmen’s experience in which her response and reflection hit multiple states:

Carmen (not her real name) has been teaching for 13 years mostly in earth science and biology, and this year her principal assigned her one preparation of chemistry. One day, her colleague George noticed that she was all smiles after both her first and second period classes and she shared that she had “rocked” the geology-related lesson in earth science with her students. So he was surprised when Carmen seemed agitated after third period. She was a little better after fourth (earth science), and better still after fifth (biology), but at the end of the day when the sixth period biology students were gone Carmen was agitated and fretting again. George asked what was up. Carmen replied that the chemistry lesson (third period) that she’d really worked on was a flop as some students got it and others did not. She was really beating herself up about it. He asked her if she did her best, to which Carmen replied that she had, and offered some specific examples related to preparation and knowledge.

Carmen later shared that the one simple question, “Did you do your best?” made all the difference; consequently, she was able to release the tension from the botched class. She could focus on how to address the lesson objective with her students the next day so that they would acquire the knowledge and skills needed. Her initial reflective state was emotional as it moved towards acknowledging, and before she questioned she returned to emotion. The question asked by her colleague in essence gave Carmen “permission” to organize the “baggage” of a lesson gone astray so that she could refocus and move forward. So what should one focus upon in reflecting? Some have observed that the most effective teachers focus on students first and professional practice/content second. Constantly reflecting upon what occurred in the classroom as compared with what was planned, and upon how learners responded, helps the best teachers consider how to adjust their professional practice to boost learning. In reality, most teachers want to strive for excellence.

 
How can I develop a reflective practice?
A simple way to begin reflecting would be to make a point each day as you leave the school parking lot to ask yourself three questions:

1. What went well today and why?

2. What could have gone better and why?

3. What do I want to remember for the future?

By regularly reflecting on these questions, you are processing the day’s events and thus transferring information from short-term memory to a mental folder within your long-term memory. In this simple way, synaptic connections to prior experiences are made. In considering what should be remembered for the future, the day is prioritized and sometimes an “action plan” is created for the next day to address a concern or share a good experience. This streamlined reflective approach allows one to decompress and release the highs and lows from the workday.

More structured reflection processes could come from using tools to guide the reflective process. For example, adding a section (or actually filling out the section) on the bottom of a lesson plan by writing down responses to questions such as following can be a beneficial reflective practice:

• “How do I know that students achieved the intended learning outcomes for the lesson?”
• “What else do I need to teach to convey this content?”
• “What would I do differently the next time I teach this lesson?”

If there is a particular area of concern - such as questioning strategies, student engagement, student misbehavior or student-teacher interaction - using an observation tool or a teacher portfolio to gather ongoing data is helpful. For example, teacher questioning could be monitored by carrying a micro-tape recorder in a pocket and as one listens to the recording, categorizing each question according to Bloom’s taxonomy. Another data-gathering technique would be reviewing a videotape of a class or inviting a colleague to use an observation form while visiting your classroom.
 
How can I support my colleagues’ reflective practice?
Support for reflection may come in the form of active listening, such as the case with two early career teachers who would walk a five-mile trail after work and share their workday experiences, as well as concerns and anticipations related to their teaching and upcoming lessons. As in Carmen’s example, support also may be provided by asking a question. While support is often given face-to-face, increasing use of computer-mediated communication has resulted in blogs, postings on computer bulletin boards, and e-mails in which issues are shared and discussed.

When supporting a colleague’s reflective practices, remember to focus your feedback. If a fellow teacher inquires about “X” then answer that inquiry even if “Y” is a bigger factor in your mind. You can always work in “Y.” Being able to contribute or facilitate another’s professional growth is a gift and a hallmark of an exemplary teacher.

Some relationships are formally established, such as pre-service and cooperating teacher, or mentor and mentee teacher; others are built within the educational context, such as trusted school colleagues or fellow teachers within the department or grade. One study of pre-service teachers in the U.S. and Northern Ireland, reported in the Journal of Teacher Education, found that they needed support and guidance in the form of probing questions from cooperating teachers in order to reflect because developing teachers often do not yet know the questions they need to ask. One example given in the study was when students were asked to order historical pictures by time and provide their reasons for doing so. When the picture order was incorrect, the pre-service teachers attributed the inaccuracies to a lack of student interest in history. When guided by questions about students’ conceptual understandings, the pre-service teachers refocused from looking at shortcomings to considering how they could capitalize on students’ prior knowledge and background and then using appropriate instructional techniques.

Reflect your best
Regardless of the level of structure or formality with which reflection is undertaken, reflective teachers audit their professional behavior, knowledge, skills and abilities. There is no one “right” way to reflect. Just as students have multiple learning styles, so do we when it comes to reflecting. Reflection should not be a chore; if the approach seems burdensome then regroup and try another way. In the final analysis, the ability to critically examine one’s professional practice in a constructive manner is a healthy and rewarding component of effective teachers.
 
Hindman ( jhindman@teacherqualityresources.com) is an education consultant and managing partner of Teacher Quality Resources, LLC. Stronge ( jhstro@wm.edu) is Heritage Professor in the School of Education at The College of William and Mary.

 


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