Using Teacher Reflection To Improve Professional Practice

04/23/2015
BETTER TEACHING
By Wynn Godbold

Great teachers develop and engage in a regular practice of reflection. Don’t have one yet? Need to help a struggling teacher develop one? Feel too bogged down to engage in reflection? Take a moment to read on and discover what’s missing in typical teacher-reflection articles. I’ll show you the way to develop a sustainable, meaningful reflection practice.

Hint: Just like painting a room successfully, the outcome depends on the prep-work.

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Google teacher reflection and you’ll find countless articles telling you how important reflection is, listing various questions you can use for reflection, and examples of others’ practices. If you want to develop a reflective practice, or help someone else do so, you don’t need regurgitation of that information.

What you do need is the foundation that makes inventing your practice, answering the questions, and improving through your reflections possible and sustainable.

There are three essential truths you need to recognize and come to grips with before any of the questions, journals, team talks ... will ever help. These three truths are:

1. Teaching is emotional.

2. Shame will keep you stuck.

3.Fear will say you can’t afford to slow down.

Truth number one:
Teaching is emotional.

How much more clearly can I state this fact? Teaching is an act of the heart. When things don’t go well at school we get upset. When things go well at school we are on top of the world. There is no middle line for teachers.

As we teach we monitor, we adjust. If we’re being evaluated we critique.

I’ve sat in numerous evaluation and observation conferences with teachers around the country. Some have been related to great lessons. Some have related to horrible lessons. Either way, there is an emotional component involved in teacher evaluation that is not regularly observed in other occupations.

So, why would we expect self-reflection to be any less emotional?

That’s the point. Before you begin your reflection practice you need to understand that teaching is emotional. You care deeply about your students. You want to excel. You want to make a difference in the lives of young people. You believe in your students’ ability to learn. You don’t want to let anyone down. Before you can begin a sustainable reflection practice come to grips with this fact. Give yourself permission to be mad, happy, sad, frustrated, disappointed. Feel it all.

Don’t approach reflection with a mindset that you’ll analyze your lessons, make professional decisions based on what you find, and go about your merry way. Do tell yourself this reflection thing is going to be highly charged and you can let it all out. Why do I recommend this? When you hold your emotions in it blocks issues and progress. I do teacher coaching live and via the web and the first thing that happens with every teacher is an explosion of emotion. I don’t bat an eye at it. I know it has to come out. We have to take a look at the feelings behind the problem, because my friend, that’s where the problem lies — in the feelings. The sooner you acknowledge and embrace this fact, the sooner your reflective practice will take on the role of helping you improve your practice.

Truth number two:
Shame will keep you stuck.

Have you been embarrassed lately? Do you feel as though you should know more? Is there a task you are afraid to ask for help with because you believe you shouldn’t
have to ask?

Don’t look now, but shame is lurking and it will keep you stuck right where you are. Shame is the feeling that keeps you from asking for help, from sharing your authentic self, and from moving deeper or forward in your life. Dr. Brene’ Brown from the University of Houston has spent the last decade studying shame. In one of her Ted Talks she says, “Shame is the most powerful, master emotion. It’s the fear that we’re not good enough.” In order for your reflective practice to take shape and become sustainable, you need to look shame in the eye. You have to realize you are not perfect and that being less than perfect is 100 percent OK.

As you begin a reflective practice you will undoubtedly come to realize that you need help, that you don’t have all the answers, or that someone on your hallway/pod/grade level may do something better than you. You may find that you aren’t reaching some of the children in your room. In previous times, these realizations would have screamed failure, but not anymore. Teachers have to let go of the paradigm that says they control all knowledge, can meet all needs, and will sacrifice their whole beings for
their students.

Today, information is more accessible than ever and it continues to inundate our lives at a pace no one single soul can keep up with. In one instance our ability to Google any imaginable question and find page after page of information regarding said question changes the game for today’s teachers. Information you commanded and which you were the authority 10 years ago can now be challenged by your students with a few strokes on their phones. Now more than ever, the ability to be open and authentic with our students, administrators, parents and communities is a necessity. Yet it is also requires a paradigm shift.

Teachers are changing from the owners and dispensers of all knowledge to facilitators of how to acquire knowledge.

As you begin your reflective practice you must acknowledge these changes in order to escape the trap of shame. Shame will tell you that you should know, that you are not good enough and that you are flawed because you need help. No matter how many times teachers help their students understand these things are not true, they hold themselves hostage with the same mental chatter that students have.

Shame wants to keep you isolated and full of fear. To reap the benefits of a reflective practice, recognize shame for what it is and refuse to let it keep you stuck. It is OK to ask for help. It is OK to admit you don’t know something. It is OK to be authentically you. You are enough.

Truth number three:
Fear will say you can’t afford to slow down.

Have you been in a rush lately and things kept getting worse? You know the feeling. You’re going to be late. You grab for your keys only to spill your coffee because you’re rushing. You don’t think you have time to mop up the spill until you slip on that coffee on the floor and end up having to change your outfit. Now you hobble to the car and realize you are so late there’s no way to avoid calling the office to say you’re late and you need help. If only you had slowed down when making the grab for your keys; then you may not have spilled your coffee.

You must slow down to speed up. It sounds counterproductive, but it is true.

This truth is the final one you need to realize when it comes to beginning a reflective practice.

For some reason, teachers are consumed with doing. In my experience in the classroom, as well as in working with countless numbers of teachers, I witnessed a feeling that borders on guilt if a teacher is reading or simply thinking. If a teacher is not up “doing” something there’s a fear that creeps into her psyche that says, “You do not look active enough.” In professional development sessions I often allow teachers time to read an article and reflect on the information. At the end of a workshop I’ll give teachers time to assimilate the new information and plan how to implement it in their classrooms. The relief expressed by teachers is assuring and distressing at the same time. I know teachers need time to reflect and plan, but it saddens me at the novelty of the idea. As professional development leaders we unknowingly perpetuate the belief that reflection is not needed — just “fill ‘em up” and expect folks to implement in the morning.

How sad. The truth is that to have a productive and sustainable reflective practice we must slow down to speed up. Slowing down to reflect and improve your practice can feel scary when your colleagues are forging ahead at break-neck speed. Recognize this, but don’t be deterred by it. Celebrate the successes of your reflection. The more you celebrate, the easier it will be to stand firm in your practice while those around you proceed with more speed, but less wisdom. Reflection is a powerful process that can propel your teaching to new heights, but without recognizing the three truths outlined here, your attempts may be short lived. I want you to have success that is impactful and sustainable. Acknowledge your emotions; understand the unrealistic and controlling aspects of shame and work to alleviate them from your life. Finally, celebrate the success you have due to your reflections. Empower yourself to slow down so you can speed up.

Wynn Godbold is an author, speaker, and founder of the International Academy of Bee Sharp Teachers. Her book, “How to Be a Great Teacher: Create the Flow of Joy and Success in Your Classroom” is quickly becoming a favorite of passionate teachers seeking true joy in teaching. To learn more about Wynn, the academy, or joyful teaching visit: www.HowtoBeaGreatTeacher.com.
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