Academic Exchange Quarterly Winter 2005 ISSN 1096-1453 Volume 9, Issue 4
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“Teaching today is much harder than it used to be” is a commonly heard refrain. Unfortunately the hardships faced by many of today’s first year teachers have caused too many of them to leave their chosen field of education. This article describes how reflection can be used to face and overcome challenges directly affecting teaching and learning.
Every year in August and September eager and idealistic new teachers arrive at schools ready to make a positive difference in their students’ lives. The transition from theory to practice, for many, is swift and brutal (Ornstein 2003). During their time in schools of education, most new teachers had plenty of support from university supervisors and their peers. They go into teaching expecting the same level of support and are shocked when they realize they are totally on their own (Ornstein, 2003).
Without moral and practical help, new teachers must look to themselves to determine how to cope with incidents in order to create a positive learning environment for their students. This is how I found myself when I was the new teacher. Hole & McEntee (2001, p. 27) developed the following protocol for individual reflection that closely parallels the reflective processes I used and have described in this article:
1. Collect stories. Keep a diary, log, or informal notes on stories of incidents as they occur.
2. What happened? From your notes, expand on a story that requires further thought.
3. Why did it happen? Provide background information surrounding the story; look for causes and effects.
4. What might it mean? Determine whether the incident is worthy of action. Explore multiple solutions and answers.
5. What are the implications for practice? Reflect on the incident in context; determine how you would monitor and adjust your practice.
Hole and McEntee’s protocol enables teachers to move toward self-regulated behaviors necessary for teaching and learning. Self-regulation is a metacognitive activity requiring teachers and students to reflect on their thinking. It is an active process where participants set goals, take action, deliberately monitor their actions, and make necessary adjustments to meet articulated goals (Pape, Zimmerman, & Pajares, 2002). Self-regulation of teaching practices is coming into its own due to the inclusion of reflective practice in the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) Standards and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS). Attention to reflection has far-reaching consequences as more than 40,000 teachers in our nation’s schools are currently Board Certified (NBPTS, 2005) and 620 colleges of education have met NCATE standards (NCATE, 2004).
Teaching students to think critically about their learning is an indispensable skill required by good teachers. Just as students benefit by reflecting on their learning, teachers benefit by reflecting on their teaching practices. Teachers must learn to identify and set specific goals for themselves, the same expectations they hold for their students. John Dewey said, “…thinking enables us to direct our activities with foresight and to plan according to ends-in-view, or purpose of which we are aware. It enables us to act in deliberate and intentional fashion…” (1933, p. 17). Self-regulation is at the heart of deliberate and intentional practice.
Schön (1987) coined the term “reflection-in-action” to describe the experience-based platform that supports teachers and guides their practice. Through reflection-in-action, good teachers are empowered to elevate teaching to an art form where teachers masterfully connect theory and practice. Reflection-in-action facilitates the intentional actions teachers take everyday in response to stimuli from their students. The following account from a first grade classroom illustrates the importance of reflection.
Surviving the First Days of Teaching
I was the new teacher in a rural school in
Each day I tried to arm myself with life-saving equipment. I planned my lessons, gathered all the necessary materials, and set up everything necessary to teach so each lesson could progress seamlessly. However, the children had their own needs, the need to move, poke, play, retaliate for real and imagined offenses, talk, and a big one, use the bathroom. It appeared that the highlight of their day was to get to the bathroom. All that water, paper, and quasi-freedom was a major attraction that drew them away from my lessons. When the last bus left at , I savored the quite solitude before getting ready for the next day. The process of my life as a teacher began a predictable cycle. As the days alternated between exhaustion and relief, I knew I had to do something. I still had about 160 days to teach, and this treading water, that was quickly becoming routine, was not close to my goal of creating a community of self-confident, self-motivated learners.
Though I did not consciously set out to do it, I sought refuge in reflection. My mind was overwhelmed by the cacophony of the sights and sounds of the classroom. My ears rang with the often-shrill voices of the children. My name had been repeated so often it became an echo within my head, “Ms. Holmes, Ms. Holmes, Ms. Holmes, Ms. Holmes, Ms. Holmes.” Initially reflection came to me uninvited and unbidden. Thoughts of my children invaded my mind while I was driving home, shopping for dinner, or trying to relax. Events in my life did not trigger these thoughts; they were simply there. I knew I needed to establish a time when I could gather all the thoughts that had been roaming through my head. Early morning, between the hours of and , became my time for more focused reflection. I reflected on the content of the lessons I was teaching as well as classroom management practices; both directly contributed to the children’s behavior. I made it a practice to review carefully my plans for the day. This review took the form of writing detailed notes about how and what I would teach. To organize and record ideas and insights from my reflections, I used yellow sticky-notes that I attached to the squares on the weekly lesson sheets. My yellow-sticky note messages contained ways to set up for the lesson, how-to information on conducting the lessons, names of students who needed extra attention, and any other information pertinent to the day’s lessons. One memo I frequently wrote to myself was, “Be positive.” This one I stuck to the very top of my plans. I learned early on that when I became negative, it was much harder to recoup the day and provide quality instruction and student interaction.
During these early morning hours I thought about my children, their backgrounds, their needs and what I as a professional educator could do for them. I knew that simply getting through the day was not enough. As I studied and reflected over my plans, I looked for ways to improve my lessons. I sought ideas from books and articles, and mentally reviewed how these would support my lesson. Books provided the ideas; reflection provided the wisdom for implementation.
My morning ruminations continued every day through the last day of school. Each morning I gained new insights and thoughts of new ideas to try. I devoted much of my reflective time to seeking ways I could help the students control their impulsive behavior. Several of the children in my class had a short, but notorious behavioral history. More than two thirds of my children had been retained from the previous year leaving me with an age spread from six to nine years. Reflecting led me to develop one over-arching principle of behavior management that held true throughout the year, positive reinforcement. My students always responded to praise. When I phrased my command to an individual student in a positive way, “I like the way LaToya is sitting.” The entire class responded. When I phrased my command to an individual student in a negative way, “Don’t get out of your seat, LaToya!” only one child responded.
The realization that by positively recognizing one group of children, the desired behavior was immediately copied by the others led me to develop a simple, non-disruptive way to promote good behavior. I simply wrote the name of each group on the board (one of the children thought of naming the groups after days of the week). When Monday’s group behaved appropriately the group earned a star by its name; the group that earned the most stars had special privileges such as lining up first for recess and being first to choose center activities. With so much at stake, students would often urge others to behave. One of my highly competitive boys, Joseph, wanted his group to get the most stars. He didn’t worry about using a positive tone. His shrill piercing voice could whip the others into shape with just one or two urgent commands, “Hurry up, get your books out!” or “Don’t talk!” Though this in itself could be disruptive, I was always happy to shift some of my responsibility to the students.
The use of a positive approach to discipline is supported by research on classroom management and discipline. Harlan and Rowland (1991, 35) state that praise and positive reinforcement are “powerful and effective” for promoting acceptable student behavior. Evertston, Emmer, & Worsham (2006) report that establishing positive relationships with students is one of the most significant factors leading to student success. Brophy and Good suggest ways to use positive language when directing students’ behavior. By expressing expectations in a positive way, we establish and model an atmosphere of respect. “Use your own ideas.” is a positive statement of behavioral expectations that leaves the student’s self respect intact. “Don’t plagiarize” sends the same message to the student, but with additional baggage of accusation and disrespect for the student’s integrity (1991, 208). Students crave attention. If we silently take good behavior for granted, and respond with a passion to bad behavior, students will engage in bad behavior as the only sure way to get attention. For many students, negative attention is preferable than no attention at all.
Split Personality of the Classroom
During the school day I had noted a dramatic difference between the tone of the class in the morning and the tone of the class after lunch. During the morning my children were easier to keep on task and were more interested in learning. After lunch they were a boisterous lot regardless of the activity. I tried to think what caused this daily behavioral transformation; something had to be causing this schizophrenic-like personality of my class. Was behavior affected by eating, an inability to settle down after a break, or were we all growing weary of trying so hard? How did my lessons differ from morning to afternoon?
The morning lessons were more structured than those in the afternoon. In the afternoon my children spent part of their time rotating among math, art, and language arts centers. Many of the children complained saying, “We want to do work.” It appeared that not only did my children have a difficult time handling the freedom that came with center work, but they did not value the work they were doing if it did not include pencil and paper activities. Information about the children’s feelings came in fragments. These bits and pieces of information were not always welcome. I wanted to dismiss their complaints by saying, “You are working!” It was only through careful reflection that I saw the classroom through my children’s eyes. They wanted the more familiar paper and pencil work so they could monitor their own progress. The use of manipulatives did not give my students the individual specific feedback they needed. I had to revise my lesson plans to include goal-oriented activities within the centers. I built in self-assessment so the children could see progress while engaged in hands-on activities.
I observed and listened to my children to gather information for improving my teaching. By charting my children’s behavior during different activities at different times of the day, I concluded that my behavior had changed in the afternoon. I was more inclined to speak to the children more cryptically, “Sit down! Be quiet!” My carefully cultivated positive approach diminished as the day wore on. Positive strokes had to be repeated, often more than my patience would allow. When I felt my patience was at an end causing me to lapse into the feel-good tendencies of lashing out at offending students, I reminded myself to be positive by glancing at my yellow sticky-note at the top of my plans: Be positive!
To satisfy many of the children’s needs to use pencil and paper, I ran off a huge assortment of math facts papers. The papers varied in length and difficulty to meet the needs of the high and low achieving math students. Initially I distributed one math paper to each student so I could match the level of the paper to the child. When the children finished, they were allowed to go to a math center or choose any of the math papers to work individually or with a partner. I promised to grade every paper they turned in; for some children I graded up to six fact-laden math sheets each night. Many children turned their papers over and wrote and solved their own problems. Though harder to read, I graded these too. For the children who turned in papers with many incorrectly worked problems, I marked the problems that were correct, and wrote the number they had correctly solved at the top of their paper.
One popular activity that did not require pencil and paper to be satisfying to my children was a math game I found during my pre-dawn kitchen table sessions, “Trading Up.” The game consists of a single die and a pile of realistic play money. After shaking the die, the student takes the number of cents indicated on the die. If the child shakes a four, he/she takes four cents. The children have to trade up for nickels and dimes each time they collect five pennies or two nickels; they are to have more than four pennies or one nickel in their possession at one time. The goal of the game is to see who can collect the most dimes. Perhaps due to the visual and instant feedback, this became the most popular center.
I realized that my children were seeking recognition and validation of the fact they could succeed in school. Because so many of my children had already failed first grade they became anxious if they could not see their own progress. They needed structure and concrete goals. Once I developed an understanding of some of the causes behind my children’s behavior I could adjust my lessons and classroom management style to meet their needs. Through it all I learned there are no easy fixes. Afternoons were still more difficult to manage than mornings, but changes, based on a child’s eye view of the classroom, helped considerably.
Conclusion: A New Awareness Spawned by Reflective Practice
How could learning occur with a teacher who had been fighting for day-to-day survival? The innate curiosity and spirit of the children must top the list of answers. However, active reflection, a dominant and tangible force, had become the mainstay of my teaching. Schön’s (1987) notion of reflection-in-action, “thinking on one’s feet,” occurs countless times every day in classrooms. The utterances and actions that sprang from on-the-spot reflection were not sufficient for me to be effective. I needed to focus intentionally on my goals and determine how to meet them. Thinking on my feet was a start, but I also needed quiet times, removed from the classroom where I could think through the unique and complex issues that confronted me each day. Schön (1987) calls this delayed reflection, “thinking-on-action.” I found “thinking-on-action” the most helpful because it helped to prevent me from making snap decisions or worse, emotionally laden comments to my students that were hurtful rather than helpful.
Though reflection is often thought of as a solitary process, in the ideal world, reflection would also be a social process, where ideas are shared with other teachers and professionals. However, like many other teachers, I was left to fend for myself; the culture of my school did not support interaction and collaboration among teachers. Unfortunately, teacher isolation is common among new and experienced teachers alike (Ornstein 2003). As I sought answers through reflection, I realized that the process of change takes time. A single idea, no matter how good, will not instantly effect change. Reflecting prevented me from passing the blame to others (students aren’t like they used to be; families do not provide enough support; supplies are not sufficient…). I looked to the children and to myself for the answers; the responsibility was undeniably mine. Through reflection I was able to gain a deeper appreciation of the needs that fueled the behavior of my children and how I could meet these needs while working to change behaviors that were inappropriate for school and life success. Reflecting took on a broader meaning than just critically thinking; in its truest sense, reflecting came to mean never giving up.
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