by Letty Rising
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When considering elevating your teaching practice, there are really two major paths towards self-improvement. One is external feedback from colleagues who can let you know if you’re on the right track or might need to make some adjustments. The other is self-reflection.
The great thing about self-reflection is that we take ourselves with us wherever we go, and so self-reflection is an opportunity that is always by our side. Rather than having to wait for others and to lean on external validation or critique, self-reflection is an internal process that supports continuous growth.
However, it is also true that the skill of self-reflection does not come naturally to some, and is something to be cultivated over time. In order to feel successful with the process of self-reflection, you will need to be able to ask yourself questions, respond to those questions, and then take action. For self-reflection to be successful, it doesn’t merely stop at the thinking stage…it continues to the “doing” stage, which involves taking action, observing if the action was successful, then adjusting if it was not.
Every day as a teacher offers the opportunity to reflect, which acts as a springboard for an action-oriented activity that leads to positive change. However, in order to get to this point, you’ll need to start by asking yourself some questions, and really digging deep into the answers. The following are examples of questions, but the possibilities are endless!
Was my presentation a success?
After giving a presentation to a group of children, you will want to ask yourself if it was successful. Successful can mean many things, but here are a few examples:
- The students were asking questions and exploring the materials
- The students indicated that they enjoyed the lesson
- The students were attentive (listening and watching)
- The students were eager to repeat the lesson or engage in some sort of follow-up work
If any of these things weren’t happening, is there anything you can do next time to change that? Such as: asking students more questions to get them engaged, and talking about expectations regarding how to interact during lessons.
How was my mood today?
As Haim Ganot says, our mood creates the weather in the classroom, and sometimes we forget how impactful our mood is to classroom life. If you ask yourself how your mood was, and there is a string of “not so great” mood days, you will want to see if there is anything you can adjust externally to support your internal state.
Did anything surprise me today?
Were you surprised by a child’s response to a presentation, by a child’s sudden initiative, or by a group that worked together especially well today? Were you surprised by any words or actions that you heard or witnessed? If so, why were you surprised? What new information did you get from this observation?
Were there any obstacles in the way that prevented any student from doing their best?
This is sometimes hard to detect, but it’s good to see if there are roadblocks to a child’s success. If so, is there a way to remove those roadblocks? For example, was a child tired or hungry or experienced a triggering event that caused different behavior than what is typical? And if so, what caused the fatigue, the hunger, or the triggering event? Can any of the obstacles be easily removed? Who has the power to remove them? Identify that person or those people, and talk to them.
What are the biggest obstacles for me to improve my practice, and how can I overcome them?
These obstacles have to do with YOU. Are there external obstacles in your way, and if so, who can you call upon to help remove them? Maybe your obstacles involve a lack of resources or lack of time. Is there someone who can give you these things? And if not, where do you have agency and can act upon your circumstances?
What about internal obstacles? Are you feeling anxious or unconfident? Do you not have the knowledge committed to memory enough to transmit it to the children? Do you have a fixed mindset as opposed to a growth mindset? These are all questions to ask yourself. Our thoughts and beliefs are often our greatest obstacles towards forward movement.
Could any misbehavior be due to me delivering unclear expectations?
If you are feeling irritated because misbehavior is at an all-time high, take a step back and think about if you have been clear about your expectations? If you are unclear, it can cause children confusion and/or discomfort, and they will act accordingly.
What was the best part of my day, and how can I have more moments like this?
Reflect on the best part or parts of your day. How was the environment prepared when these moments happened? Did these moments result from planned or spontaneous situations? Who did your best moments involve? These are questions you will want to ask yourself to create more of these experiences. From the questions you ask yourself, you will notice patterns emerging over time. From there, you can do what it takes to create the optimal environment for more wonderful moments to happen.
What was the most difficult part of my day and how did I respond to it?
When reflecting upon the most challenging part or parts of your day, self-reflection is most important. It tends to be that humans prefer to take credit when things are going well and to externalize when things are not going well. When your day is difficult, it is easy to jump to the conclusion that a certain student was misbehaving, a colleague was moody, or things went awry because your assistant teacher didn’t make sure the supply shelf was replenished in the morning before the students came.
However, none of these things involve self-reflection. Self-reflection involves noticing your actions or behavior and identifying ways to adjust in order to generate a different outcome next time. When reflecting on a difficult part of your day, instead of thinking of all of the reasons why someone or something else might have caused it, you will want to first ask yourself the following questions:
- Was I in a bad mood today?
- Was I clear in my expectations?
- Have I been giving the child who is exhibiting difficult behavior positive attention?
- Is there anything that anyone said to me that, in hindsight, I could have used to prevent what happened?
- Is there something in the environment that I can change?
- Is my body language and tone inviting?
Am I making efforts to spark interest in every child, every day?
Traditional education involves teachers instilling knowledge into children, who are blank slates. We are filling them as if we are filling a vessel. The assumption is that they won’t want to do most of the things except for those that are deemed as “fun,” and that we have to make them do these things, by assigning, leveling consequences, etc. However, in the Montessori approach, we must always start with enticing them, inspiring them, and igniting a spark of interest. What kinds of things can we say to spark interest?
Have you ever wondered….(why the sky is blue?)
Have you ever tried…(turning a solid into a gas?)
Do you know that… (Jupiter is the fastest spinning planet in the solar system?)
Humans get better at anything through time and practice. When we practice anything, it’s an experiment on trying something new, and we continually adjust. Reflection is thinking about whatever it is that we practiced, identifying what went well and what didn’t, and adjusting accordingly.
While educators can also receive external feedback, such as from colleagues, school leaders, and even students and parents, that feedback is intermittent and is based upon observable measures. When reflecting, you can not only review the actions in your mind but also have “thinking about thinking,” also known as metacognition, to rely on. Reflective thinking is identifying your own thought process and making adjustments, which ultimately leads to external adjustments as well.
If you aren’t accustomed to reflecting on your practice, go easy on yourself! Becoming intentional about reflection and setting aside time to do this, just as you would set aside time for observation, will help you get on the path towards continuous and automatic reflection, which will undoubtedly elevate your teaching practice.
Letty Rising has been involved in Montessori education for over 15 years. She holds a B.A. in Sociology, a California State Teaching Credential, and an AMI elementary diploma for ages 6-12 and an M.Ed from Loyola University in Maryland. She has held positions as a Homeschool Education Specialist, Montessori Elementary Teacher, School Director, Principal, Montessori Coordinator, and Consultant in several public and private Montessori school communities throughout the years. Letty currently supports schools around the world through professional development offerings, consulting, and mentoring.