contributed by Madhu Narayanan and Jill Ordynans
This is a time of troubling uncertainty.
What does this demand of us as teachers? We are facing stark realities that connect to the core work of teachers: systemic violence, a global pandemic, horrendous inequalities. In such a context, how do we empower teachers to create authentic moments of learning?
These are questions we have been asking in our work at Relay Graduate School of Education with new teachers, and it has led us to investigate the power of a humble yet profound skill: reflection.
As teachers of teachers, we know from our experience that an educator’s work is infinitely complex. It requires many different facets of teaching, learning, thinking, feeling, and doing. Every day, teachers are tasked with bringing these aspects together seamlessly in order to orchestrate meaningful experiences. Without deep thinking about their work, teachers can fall back on rigid policies, mechanical routines, and scripted curricula. To truly challenge this, teachers need to investigate their own values, beliefs, and biases as they work to create transformative and emancipatory learning experiences. That is where reflection comes in.
Reflection has deep philosophical and pedagogical roots, reaching from the works of John Dewey to the field of culturally responsive pedagogy. Reflection is a rigorous and systematic way of thinking that generates new knowledge by helping us create meaning from our experiences. It forces us to ask difficult questions of ourselves and to have the courage to find meaningful answers.
Making Reflection Part Of Your Teaching Practice
Through a series of ongoing research studies, we’ve worked with teachers to make deep reflection a part of their practice. Both in writing and verbally, we’ve asked teachers to respond to repeated reflection prompts for teachers such as “What did you learn about your students?”, “How will you use this information in your work with students to support and empower them?” and “What did you learn about your teaching? What changed?” By using the same prompts, teachers see how their thinking is changing. By using open-ended questions, teachers have begun asking themselves increasingly critical questions and seeking to find honest answers. And by doing this work in community, we worked to create a space where teachers are safe to take risks in their reflection.
At one level, teachers are connecting their experience in the classroom to larger learnings about themselves as educators. For Devin Rice, a second-grade teacher, his reflections led him to shift his focus from how he viewed himself as a teacher to how his students viewed him. He wrote: “How did my teaching make them [my students] feel? This small change helped me see my purpose in this profession much clearer.” Devin’s classroom became a place where the student experience supplanted his needs as a teacher. “I was able to form more meaningful relationships with students and families,” he wrote, “I stopped thinking about the teacher I wanted to be and was able to reflect on the teacher I needed to be.” Far from being simple, reflection can reframe how we view our surroundings and our role in them.
On another level, teachers are honestly confronting their biases and values in a way that strengthens their belief in an ability to create positive change in the lives of their students. According to Malcolm, a high school teacher, “Reflecting teaches us the importance of respect, and reflecting on your biases.” For Sky Hobbs, a high school teacher, “Reflection has allowed me to re-examine my ‘Why’ and reconnect with my students especially during this remote learning process.”
We are finding that through reflection teachers build a sense of agency. As Devin said in one of our discussions, “I feel like we’re in the driver’s seat as to what education should and will look like, something I didn’t think about until right now.” He spoke of how he sensed he could wield more decision making power in his teaching and bring his ideas to reality, “I truly feel like we’re living in a moment where how students learn is going to be molded and it’s going to look different than before.” Amalia Vazquez, a kindergarten teacher, continued, “I feel like teacher leadership is important now more than it’s ever been before…Teachers should really be taking the reins now more than ever.”
Reflection As A Strategy To Improve Social Equity
Even in normal times, teaching is hard. But now we are riding an invigorated fight for racial justice and confronting daunting economic, environmental, and public health hardships. The decisions teachers make in their education spaces are no less momentous, but the stakes are higher than they’ve ever been before. We can’t afford to mindlessly implement out-dated and unjust policies, or rely on the same curricula and methods that created our current world. To change we need to be willing to ask difficult questions of ourselves and each other.
Ultimately, rigorous reflection is about empowerment and liberation. It is about meaning-making and personal and intellectual growth. Reflection demands that we collectively measure our actions alongside the values that we believe in. As educators, we can build communities that value justice, equity, and empowering our students; we can normalize struggle, and we can pick each other up when the answers don’t match our ideals.
After all, as educators, it is our responsibility to build the spaces where people have the courage to walk inside their perspective and emerge with answers that they can live with.
Four Strategies For Reflective Teaching
Reflection can be individual, but there is great power when done in community. It allows teachers to share key learnings, hear other perspectives, and make commitments with people they trust.
Create a cycle of reflection
Set aside a regular time and routine for teachers to reflect. In this routine, ask similar questions repeatedly over time, identify possible actions, and reflect on implementation.
Choose a Purpose
Reflection yields more concrete actions when the purpose is clear. Some purposes include building class culture, empowering students, increasing student learning and engagement, or identifying biases.
Use Open-Ended Probing Questions
Use questions that seek to learn more, to uncover underlying processes and values, and which encourage multiple possible perspectives or answers.
Madhu Narayanan and Jill Ordynans are assistant professors at Relay Graduate School of Education.