As we enter the Lenten season, a time of reflection for Christians, it also seems like a good time to think about the role of reflection for the Christian teacher. I’ve been teaching for over twenty years. I like to think that this means that I’ve become a better teacher over time, but the truth is that putting in the time is not enough to get better at something. Practice does not make perfect. Practice does not even necessarily make progress. Improving in any area calls for more than practice. Practice and persistence are certainly important if you want to develop your craft as a teacher, but it calls for a certain type—what some educators call reflective practice.
Imagine a teacher putting hours into preparing a special project-based learning unit for her students. She incorporates active learning, a multisensory experience for the students, a great launch day to introduce the project, opportunity for student practice and feedback, plans for students to present their projects to an authentic audience, and even makes sure that all the activities and assessments are carefully aligned with the learning goals.
About a week into the unit she is frustrated. The students are not focused. The quality of their work is far below her expectations. The student interest and engagement is low. To top it off, the students are not working at a pace to finish their projects in the allotted time. The teacher drudges through the unit, pushes students to finish their projects, and vows never to try project-based learning again.
I’ve met many teachers who told me stories like this. It might have been project-based learning, inquiry-based learning, cooperative learning, service learning, the flipped classroom, or dozens of other approaches to teaching and learning. The teachers take a risk, try something new, it doesn’t work out as they hoped or expected, and they blame the disappointment on the teaching and learning strategy.
The problem is that great teaching, especially using different methods and strategies, takes reflective practice to refine. Imagine a young person going to his first day of piano lessons, getting frustrated that he couldn’t play a song with perfection, and quitting the next day. When asked why, he explains that it is a waste of time. Pianos obviously don’t work very well. Of course, those who play piano know that pianos work perfectly fine. It is just unrealistic to expect that you can play a song the first time you sit down at a piano. Playing music takes practice, deliberate practice, the sort of practice where you are reflecting on what is working, what is not, and how you need to adjust to improve.
The same thing is true when it comes to trying new or unfamiliar approaches to teaching and learning. Without reflective practice, teachers will find themselves frustrated with the outcome of their efforts, fearful of trying new approaches, or unable to grow or adapt to new students and circumstances. Some will experience despair and burnout, leaving teaching altogether. Others may stick with teaching but they find themselves increasingly frustrated and bitter. Still others will find themselves stuck in a teaching rut, limiting their efforts to a few tried-and-tested methods, afraid to try anything new.
Embracing reflective practice has completely different outcomes. Teachers discover that teaching is a skill that you can develop and improve with practice. They become open to trying new things. As they learn to ask the questions of a reflective practitioner, their confidence grows as well. They become more candid about their challenges and failures because they know that this is part of growing and improving. They surface what didn’t work, try to figure out why, get feedback and help if necessary, and come up with strategies to improve the next time. This cycle of reflection continues, and as they experience the joy of success and betterment, they find themselves becoming hopeful and increasingly confident teachers.
How do you become a more reflective practitioner? It can start with taking the time to work through a series of questions about your lessons. You can come up with your own questions, but many find some version of the following five to be helpful. Spending as little as five or ten minutes reflecting on these questions at the end of the day can produce great outcomes. Of course, spending a longer period of time with them at the end of a week or unit can be even more helpful.
What happened in the lesson?
It is helpful to start by simply describing the lesson in action without making too many initial judgments. What did you do? What did the students do? You will get to the judgment and evaluation part later, but it is useful to start by working through a rich description of what happened.
What were your reactions to what happened?
What feelings and actions emerged as you went through the lesson? Just describe it. Were you excited, frustrated, distracted, insecure, confident, or something else?
What worked? What didn’t work? What went well and what did not?
This is where you are starting to evaluate the lesson and your role in that lesson. This is also the time to critique the situation. Consider how students acted, what they learned, what they struggled to learn, and anything else that you deem important. As a Christian educator, prayer can play an important role at this point. You are not just looking at student outcomes and behaviors, although both play an important part at this stage. This is also a time to consider the extent to which your attitudes and actions fell short and call for a time of repentance. As we are reminded in 1 John 1:9, “if we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins.”
How can you make sense of what happened? What can you surmise from it?
If something things went well, why did they seem to go well? Ask the same about things that did not go well. Lift up the hood of that lesson. See if you can take things apart and get at the source of one or more of the successes and problems. At this point, you might want to consult additional sources for insights: people, books, online articles, and whatever else you find helpful. This is the analysis stage, and it is where you are going to get ideas on how to adjust things in the future.
Given everything else that you’ve considered, how are you going to respond? What will you adjust or keep the same the next time? Do you need to get help with something? Are there certain students or situations that require prayer or study of God’s Word? Do you need to do additional research? What steps will you take to learn from this experience and make progress in the future? This is the time to set some goals and steps on how you will achieve those goals. It is the action plan phase of reflective practice. Now that you’ve reflected, what are you going to do about it?
These five questions are powerful tools for honing your craft as a teacher. Great teaching takes practice. It takes reflective practice. Anyone can improve as a teacher. Some might progress faster than others, but every Christian educator can benefit from going through this sort of prayerful reflection about teaching, the lessons they prepare and use, and the way they interact with their students.