Prioritizing Teacher Reflection
Reflecting on my teaching practice is like pursuing a healthy lifestyle—I know I should do it, but I could stand to do better. I’ve attended and been inspired by my fair share of conferences and webinars but found myself slacking in my growth as a teacher. I learned a lot, but it was hard to apply what I learned because I did not have a definitive sense of what my teaching style was. In order to become a better teacher, I had to take a hard, objective look at the things I was doing. For my presentation at last year’s Meeting Challenges Exploring Solutions conference at The New School, I did a small-scale version of this: I turned back to a student’s journal I had graded in 2015. After reading through it I pulled out the original file the student sent, marked it again, and put the two graded versions side-by-side. The difference was striking:
What immediately stood out to me was the color ratio. Every error in the first image is pointed out in red and corrected in green. If the student in this example copied all of my corrections and resubmitted this journal entry to me, I couldn’t be upset about that because I’d be setting them up to do it. If the student felt overwhelmed by the sea of red and green and decided not to bother correcting their work, I couldn’t blame them—I clearly corrected as I read instead of reading first and planning out what I would correct. I remember taking hours to go through this student’s journal and others, and it’s no wonder why: I had done all the work for them!
Another thing was the commentary itself. Although I provided reasoning for why I found the journal interesting in the 2015 version, I did not present the student with an action plan to revise their work or tips to keep in mind for the next assignment. “Explain the last point a little more clearly?” Huh? I was referring to the last sentence of the essay failing to properly conclude everything, but I did not get that across. Guiding questions would have helped the student see that.
Unexpectedly, this exercise provided valuable insight into how my thinking has evolved. In 2015 I was halfway through the MA TESOL program at The New School, almost a year into teaching at a private language school, and I changed up my lesson style daily instead of having a long-term view grounded in the course objectives. I was not fully confident in my capabilities as a teacher and assumed that what I learned as a student was common knowledge for my students. I felt insecure about being around the same age (or younger) than my students, and struggled to assert myself. The comments I wrote to students were encouraging and nice, but did not challenge them enough. I was also ambitious and creative, and always tried to pump life into textbooks with videos, activities, and articles that I could (barely) connect to the curriculum. But sometimes that enthusiasm got the best of me, and I ended up wanting to do everything at once. This explained why I corrected every single error in my students’ work instead of unifying comments around a theme. I even remembered how the above assignment came to be: I created personalized journal prompts to help my students enjoy writing, but they became burdensome to grade and keep track of. Some of my ideas were not grounded in reality.
In the years that have passed since then, I completed the MA program, gained more teaching and professional experience, and had more successes and blunders. I still suffer from impostor syndrome to a small degree, but am confident I have something to offer my students. When I get a student’s work, I think about the whole picture and try not to solve every problem at once. I challenge them to revisit their work with guiding questions and focus on the glaring errors that affect intelligibility. I can assert myself without being mean. I assume less about what my students know and am more mindful of cultural differences. For example, in the second picture, I used blue to highlight my corrections because most of my students were East Asian and associated red ink with death. I didn’t have to–I certainly could have just explained that to Americans it means something else. That choice showed me my willingness to adapt to alternative methods of working with my students.
There were certainly things I did right in 2015 as a teacher, like creating an environment for all of my students’ views to be respected or being open to reflecting their input in my lessons. What’s clear to me after this exercise is the need to incorporate reflection into my schedule more often. I’ve come up with a few tips for myself and other interested teachers:
- Record noteworthy moments while they are fresh: don’t expect to remember them the next day, much less a year later. This will add much-needed context for #2.
- Make an appointment for summative reflections (semester-end reflection, year-end reflection) to emphasize how important they are.
- Set an agenda for what you will review so you don’t get too consumed with the memories attached to your past work.
- Seek the opinions of others. No matter how deeply you reflect, you are bound to miss something that your peers and students won’t. Even people you know outside of the TESOL field can provide helpful insights.
- Don’t over-complicate it. A fancy journal or app is not required—just gather all your files/papers and observe.
- Create an action plan for your upcoming class(es). Insights are best when put into practice.
Before I move to Japan and the university students waiting for me there, I plan to expand my reflection to not just other assignments I’ve given, but my choice of materials, my interactions with students, other faculty and staff, performance reviews, my statement of teaching philosophy, my lesson plan style and process, and even how I reflect. Teacher reflection is quite the endeavor, but so is teaching itself. Both are worth the effort.
Author’s biography: Monique Bloomfield is an educator and writer from New York City. A graduate of the MA TESOL program, she has taught adult English Language Learners for universities, companies, and private language schools. Currently, Monique is preparing to move to Japan to teach English at Tokyo International University in spring 2019.