I feel that reflection is something that an effective educator does instinctively for themselves. Take this blog for example and the fact the you are reading this blog post. We are going through the reflective process together without having to be taught in a credential course or in-service day. I see reflection as one of those things hard-wired into a teacher. If you are not the type of individual who automatically spends time considering the how and why success or failure of your time with students in your classroom then perhaps teaching is not for you. Reflection is also a highly individual process as unique as the teacher. Some teachers take notes, some record themselves teaching, others pass out surveys to their students (I’ve done all of these). Others simply pause from time to time, even while teaching, to ask themselves, “Is this working?” If you as a teacher don’t take time to post-mortem your day, your week, your quarter, or your year in the classroom, then you simply will not improve as a teacher.
I write my own lab manual. (You can read more about it here.) A student copy sits at every workstation in my classroom. I also keep a copy in a 3-ring binder open on my desk at all times. As the need arises I make notes to myself in the margin or on the blank backs of pages. Notes include highlights of lectures and assignments that worked well, errors that need to be adjusted, and stuff that simply bombed and needs to be reworked or cutout completely. Every summer I update the lab manual from these notes taken throughout the year. 36 copies each year cost about $100 total and I reuse the binders. So each fall the students get a freshly updated curriculum and the improvements build upon themselves year after year. I got the original idea from one of my instructors in grad school. His suggestion was to take notes in the margin of your lecture materials and to review your notes just prior to giving the lesson again.
Setting up a video camera in the corner of your classroom to occasionally record yourself teaching can be an awesome tool. Many teacher ed programs now require some recorded teaching time as part of the student teacher or internship process. Just as athletes use video of themselves to help improve their athletic performance, teachers can use this type of footage to see themselves through the eyes of their students. Sure, it can be uncomfortable to watch yourself on tv, but it can also be a quick and accurate way for you to identify your weaknesses and begin the process of improvement. An even better idea is to invite a veteran teacher to sit down and watch the video of your teaching with you. The more experienced teacher can use the pause button to stop at critical moments and offer you tips and pointers in a way that could never be done while the students are sitting at their desks in your classroom staring expectantly at you. And just think, if it goes really bad, maybe you could win $10k on the funniest video show.
Survey the Students:
Another very effective tool to use is a survey of specific questions that you write and give to your students for their response. Kids will tell you point blank how you’re doing. Obviously you need to consider your audience very carefully when you write the questions for you students. Ask your high school students questions like: “What was the most interesting part of this weeks lesson to you?” or “Please rate the difficulty of the assignment this week on a scale of 1-10.” or “What can I do as your teacher to improve your interest and participation in this course.” For younger aged children you would need to make appropriate adjustments. I’m always caught by how honest students will be if you ask them, and how useful their comments become if you take them to heart. Sure there will be some responses that you’ll simply have to dismiss, and you’ll always get a few who simply state, “I don’t know.” But this type of direct inquiry can be the most effective tool for personal professional reflection. After all, the students are your focus group and finding out exactly what they think of you might hurt sometimes, but it’s the best place to start making improvements.
Data teams, yuck! Our core teachers are spending a lot of time these days analyzing data in the form of test scores from common assessments and standardized tests. This type of box-score analysis is very useful in identifying the standards addressed in test items that may not be covered well in classrooms. But is there anything more uncomfortable or that makes a teacher more defensive among his or her colleagues then sharing the entire departments’ scores on an overhead so that results can be compared? Of course it’s important to teach accurately and specifically, but when this information is shared in a group setting I’m just not sure that it’s the most effective form of reflection.
Quarter and semester grades are another good indicator. If 50% or more of your students are failing your class then perhaps the problem is not the students. Think about it. The teacher is there to teach the students. If the students are attending class regularly, completing the assignments, and still not passing its probably not the students’ fault.
Peer observation is another great way to learn how well you are doing. Try inviting a colleague to come in on a conference hour to observe you in action in your classroom. Then set aside some time to discuss your performance with them over lunch or some other casual meeting. This type of informal reflection can yield the greatest benefits of all as together you flush out what works and what needs to be improved upon in your efforts to educate your students.