Teachers As Learners...
by Hal Portner

With a Little Help From Your Friends
(Putting Reflection to Work)

One way or another, formally or informally, most teachers look back on their teaching and relive the events that went well and those that did not.

Just because I taught, did the students learn? I think Shawna did ... the smile on her face when she got the correct answer ... Wow, that made my day! But why didn't Johnny grasp the concept of the lesson? Perhaps if I move Johnny's seat closer to the front ...

In last month's Gazette article "Be Your Own Mentor: REFLECT," teachers.net/gazette/JUN03/portner.html I recommended you keep a Professional Learning Journal in which to write such thoughts. I went on to suggest how you might organize your entries into sections describing what happened, the actions you took, why you took them, and what resulted from those actions. I went on to emphasize the importance of considering the reason why things happened the way they did, remembering what you did or did not do that contributed to the outcome, and contemplating how you might adjust or modify your approach in order to do better the next time.

All well and good. You can learn a lot by keeping such a personal journal. The process allows you to bounce your thoughts and feelings off the mirror of your own experience, knowledge, and beliefs. But as sharp and shiny as that mirror's surface may be, if you bounce your reflections only off of your own experience, knowledge, and beliefs, you limit your options for action and change.

Share Your Reflections

Collaborative reflection can have a greater impact than solitary reflection because others can push you to look deeper and harder; to go places you may not think about or even be willing to think about on your own. When you tell others your story -- when you share with others what you did and why, what happened as a result, why you think it happened, and what it might mean -- several things take place that do not happen when you process your thoughts alone:

you hear your own thoughts aloud along with the verbal inflections and intonations that suggest meaning beyond the words;
you tap into mindsets that perceive differently from your own, and therefore are not bound by the "shoulds" and "coulds" you might carry as baggage; and
you are able to elicit and receive feedback that is informed by experiences, knowledge, and beliefs different from your own and therefore capable of providing new insights.
Although there are appropriate times during the school year to ask other teachers and administrators to serve as mirrors for your reflections, summertime is especially good because this is when you and they can distance yourselves from the distractions and pressures of the classroom. The summer, too, is when you might have more time to spend with people other than those you work with. Imagine having a conversation about your reflections with your friends, spouse, or other family members while relaxing at the beach or enjoying a dinner together. Sometimes feedback from non-educators can open up a whole new way to look at a situation.

Whether you share your reflections in a formal or casual setting, you must be willing to expose your thoughts and feelings to others, be ready to listen to their comments, and be able to receive their feedback.

About Feedback

Feedback is the way others will provide you with their insights and opinions. To receive feedback when you want it, it is your responsibility to request it. To benefit from feedback, you need to be open to hearing it; that, too, is your responsibility. When you are fortunate enough to have your request for feedback honored, remember the following.

Focus on what is being said rather than how it is said.
Consider feedback as information rather than criticism.
Concentrate on receiving new information rather than defending the old.
Probe for specifics rather than being content with generalities.
CARE about the process. By that I mean:
v Consider everything said as potentially useful. Withhold judgment at first.

v Ask for clarification or more information when you feel you need it.

v Reflect on how what is said relates to your previous assumptions.

v Evaluate whether you will act on the new information, and if so, how.

Ultimately of course, after you feel you have enough feedback, it is your decision as to what action, if any, to take. By sharing and then allowing time to meld the insights of others with your own reflections, chances are that your decision will be more effective than if made in the heat of the moment when emotions and doubts can misinform effective decision-making.

And finally, all of the above becomes nothing but an interesting pastime unless you actually carry out your decision. Once you begin to act on the decisions resulting from your personal and shared reflection, you can tweak, fine tune, and start the process over again ... there is always more to learn. You owe it to yourself and your students to be a continuous learner.

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