A Look in the Mirror: Reflecting on Teaching

A Look in the Mirror: Reflecting on Teaching

Now that the chalk dust has settled and grades have been submitted, it’s time to reflect on the past year.

Friends who aren't teachers often envy what they imagine to be long, relaxing summer vacations. They might assume that college instructors only work 12 hours each week during the semester, or that the workday ends at 3 PM for K-12 teachers. What they don't realize is that those hours of class time are the show, and the show requires hours and hours (and hours!) of careful preparation and subsequent reflection before the next session. If you've ever taught a class, you know that even the most scrupulously planned lesson can easily go awry, leaving you to scratch your head in consternation: What went wrong?

Veteran teachers know that reflection is a crucial component of excellent teaching; it's precisely the moments when we don't succeed that we stand to learn the most. Daily self-assessment is good practice, but the breakneck pace of the school year presents so many pressures, so many fires that demand be put out immediately, that there often isn’t enough time for sustained reflection. That’s why summer presents an excellent opportunity to celebrate your accomplishments for the year, as well as consider ways to make your next class even better.

Turning a critical eye towards your own teaching can feel daunting. I suggest being as kind to yourself as you would to your students. It probably wouldn’t be productive to start a meeting with a student by enumerating every grammatical misstep in her paper. It would surely be more effective to begin with some positive observations about a particular lesson, assignment, or interaction with a student that you find memorable. Try the 3 steps I describe below to get started. 

1. What went well?

Recognize your achievements! Too often, we forget to give ourselves a pat on the back for a job well done. Even moments that may appear disastrous have something good in them. Be as specific as possible as you reflect on why a particular activity was effective so that you can replicate it in the future and apply the principle to new situations. Keeping a teaching journal in which I reflect on my craft helps me stay focused and positive, and it is a wonderful way to review my progress as a teacher. My first year of full-time teaching was a challenge, not least because I simultaneously attended graduate school part-time. The journal was a treasured survival tool in which I wrote down three things that went well each day, no matter how small. On my second day of teaching, the first item on that list read: “I kept my fly zipped.” (Yes, that was an accomplishment on the second day.) By the end of the academic year, my victories felt enormous.

My more recent successes are more instruction-oriented, such as my method for matching students for peer review. I pair students so that one's area of strength complements another’s area for improvement, and I provide structured support for the review process. I take every opportunity to point out to my students that they can learn as much from each other as they can from me, so that they see learning as a broad endeavor that goes far beyond the classroom. Students take their responsibility as peer reviewers seriously, and their comments almost always address the same issues I note. This strategy has worked well for teaching revision and for building our classroom writing community, and reflecting on its efficacy has affirmed my commitment to structuring peer reviews this way.

2. What didn’t go so well?

What did you find challenging? Try to identify precisely what didn’t work as well as you had hoped and why. What exactly caused the issue? Discern what was within your control, and what was not. It’s easy to say that what went wrong was beyond your control, and that may well be true, but some responses are more appropriate than others. Be honest with yourself about how well you responded to the situation. Cultivating a strong internal locus of control—a sense that your attitude and preparation are primary factors in how events unfold—can go a long way towards helping you manage unexpected problems, or even prevent them. Keep in mind that your students take their cues about the situation from you: if they see you are distressed, it sends the message that they should feel the same way, and it may compromise their trust in your control of the classroom.

When I set up partnerships for peer review, I also take temperament and communication styles into account. During one session, what I hadn’t expected were the sparks that flew between a pair of students who had been subtly (and maybe not-so-subtly) making eyes at each other all semester. Apparently, my intense focus on teaching writing had distracted me from what those two thought was the real purpose of our class. It was too late to change partners without disrupting other students, so I checked in on the lovebirds often to keep them on task, and periodically gave them the “teacher look” from across the room.

3. What do you plan to do differently next time?

As you contemplate what didn’t work so well, ask yourself what you would do differently if that situation came up again. How might you prevent it from happening at all? The next time I match students for peer review, for example, I’ll know to be more sensitive to social dynamics and avoid pairing students who might distract each other. If your lesson went over the allotted time, you may consider cutting down on the number of activities you plan, or setting a timer on your watch, depending on why the timing didn’t work out. If you had a problem with plagiarism, you might teach a brief lesson on what constitutes plagiarism before students submit any assignments. Whatever challenge you encountered, there are often multiple solutions or preventive measures you might take. After you’ve reflected on the situation, ask colleagues for advice. Chances are, they have had similar experiences and can offer new perspectives and insights.

Every teacher who has high standards will fall short of them now and then, and that’s ok. Part of the fun of teaching is experimenting with new methods and strategies. Teaching is a craft, and every day comes with an opportunity to try something new and learn from it.
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