Reflective Practice Makes a Difference
By Diane Esolen Dougherty
It seemed like a great idea. It worked in Up the Down Staircase! What could possibly go wrong? My seniors seemed to have been engaged, enthusiastic even, in our study of Hamlet. “Let’s put Hamlet on trial for the deaths of Claudius and Gertrude,” I said. I planned the project painstakingly, making certain that every class member had a role. I specified precisely what each role necessitated. I steered the required research. I indicated the minimum and maximum time limits for each presentation. I offered extra credit for providing props and I encouraged cooperative grouping. What I didn’t foresee was the abysmal flop that my exquisite planning failed to prevent.
When I was asked to post a blog entry on the topic of reflective practice, I thought of the above-mentioned experience early in my career. My student-teaching supervisor required his charges to submit weekly written reflections about what was happening in our classrooms. My notebooks from this period are instructive. Initially, I considered the assignment a “make work” charade. Planning lessons, meeting with my cooperating teacher, grading papers, attending mock interviews and job fairs all were vastly more important than “reflecting.” Who had the time? Most of my entries are cursory, demonstrating my dismissive attitude. In the post regarding the Hamlet project, for example, I blame the students mainly. “They” didn’t take it seriously. “They” didn’t show much effort. “They” opted for the minimum time allotment, and so on. It was my supervisor who suggested that I look again at my introduction to the assignment. Who did all the planning? Who decided what needed to be researched? Who found the sources? Who set the time limits? I did all of the planning and I presented the project fully formed. Would I have had a better, more successful result, he wondered, if I had allowed the students to have input? Thus I was nudged to look more deeply and carefully at my practice.
It would be nice to say that I had an immediate epiphany, but it was only slowly that I began to recognize reflection as a tool for learning about myself as a teacher. In recognizing how procedures and assignments worked in my classroom, I learned when to make changes and why some techniques worked and some did not. I began to make time at the end of most days to record “how things went today.” These reflections have sustained me and helped me to grow as a teacher and as a learner.
My long-retired supervisor used to repeat the following aphorism: “Some teachers teach for 30 years, and some teachers teach their first year 30 times.” I believe that reflective practice makes the difference between the two kinds of teacher. We learn by doing, of course, but we learn to know what we know and how we know it by reflecting.
Diane Esolen Dougherty is a retired teacher and consultant with PAWLP. Her new book written with Lynne Dorfman, Grammar Matters: Lessons, Tips, and Conversations Using Mentor Texts, K-6, is being published by Stenhouse this coming fall. Diane enjoys working with teachers and students in their classrooms.