I spent quite a bit of time over the past few weeks reflecting on my previous entry. I want to build on it in this post because I have learned from experience that the kind of teacher collaboration I described there requires another important element that, unfortunately, is often ignored in many schools around the world. I’m thinking of reflective teaching.
Reflective teaching is a complex field. To provide an insight into the complexity of reflective teaching and its far-reaching impact, I often refer to the following passage:
On the surface, the reflective practice movement involves a recognition that teachers should be active in formulating the purposes and ends of their work, that they examine their own values and assumptions, and that they need to play leadership roles in curriculum development and school reform. Reflection also signifies a recognition that the generation of new knowledge about teaching is not the exclusive property of colleges, universities, and research and development centers. It is a recognition that teachers have ideas, beliefs, and theories, too, that can contribute to the betterment of all teachers (Zeichner and Liston, 1996)
I see a number of key elements here. First, a recognition that teachers should have ultimate control over their work, their classrooms, the curriculum, the methodologies they employ. Second, I see a strong focus here on the freedom to examine (critique, question, test, modify) their own values, teaching philosophies, and approaches that they bring to their work with the students. In other words, reflective teaching is an opportunity to think critically about who they are as human beings and as teachers, and how their humanity impacts their work with the students. Third, Zeichner and Liston also advocate for teachers as curriculum developers and architects of education reform. Finally, the passage above calls for a model of teacher professional development that is built upon the expertise of the classroom teacher — the ideas, theories, approaches, solutions, and insights that grow out of their everyday work in the classroom.
The best teachers I have ever had myself and the best teachers I have worked with, observed, and learned from — both as a student and, much later, as a colleague and a supervisor — were the ones who embraced their humanity, who were not afraid to admit that, as human beings and as teachers, they were a complex reticulum of experiences, beliefs, and values. They knew that in order to understand and improve their classroom practice, they also needed to understand their own beliefs, understandings, and assumptions as human beings and their connection to their teaching. In other words, they embraced the fact that who we are as teachers is, to a very large degree, influenced by who we are as human beings. What’s more, they built their teaching on their humanity.
The idea that teachers bring to the classroom their own experiential knowledge is hardly new. It’s been given different labels over the years, but the idea has been around for a long time. This notion of our experiential knowledge being a result of experiences from personal and professional lives has been called “teachers’ appreciative systems” (Zeichner and Liston, 1996), “personal practical theories” (Connelly and Clandinin, 1988), “strategic knowledge” (Schulman, 1986), or teaching metaphors (Bullough, Knowles, and Crow, 1992). These labels all refer to the fact that all teachers arrive in their classrooms with assumptions, values, beliefs, understandings, and knowledge derived from a multitude of experiences, in the classroom and in their personal lives, that combine to influence who they are as educators, how they perceive teaching and learning, and how they see their own roles in the classroom and the community.
Handal and Lauvas (1987) argue that these practical theories come from a combination of three specific sources: personal experiences, transmitted knowledge, and key values. All three are important in defining who we are as educators, but in this entry I’ve chosen to explore the role of personal experiences.
I’m focusing on personal experiences because they are what makes us better teachers. However, they can make us better only if we allow them to influence what we do in our classrooms and explore the connection between the personal and the professional. While we are all influenced by our lives and experiences, we’re not always given opportunities to embrace our personal experiences and build on them as teachers. Those who are provide rich and engaging learning experiences in their classrooms. Those who are not are wasting their students’ time.
Many education leaders today focus on accountability, standards, testing, drop-out rates, and teacher evaluation but don’t always take the time to start with the teacher herself and professional development that engages teachers in building upon their humanity. Let’s admit it: teachers today are far too often defined and treated as implementers of someone else’s ideas and mere classroom technicians. Education leaders today have a responsibility to create professional learning communities where teachers explore, reflect, build upon, and learn from their humanity. Let me give you a personal example that illustrates the value of this approach.
It’s Warsaw; December, 1981. I’m sitting in the back of my parents’ car, looking out the window. My parents are both sitting in the front, and I can hear their conversation, hushed. The atmosphere is tense. I don’t really understand why. I’m too young, but I do know that there are soldiers on the streets of my city, checkpoints, and armoured vehicles. We’re driving towards city centre, and, as we stop at a red light, I look to my right and see one of the city’s biggest movie theatres … and an armoured vehicle beside it. I look up at the marquee and read Czas Apokalipsy (Apocalypse Now), and then, a bit higher, up on the roof, the name of the theatre, Kino Moskwa (Moscow Cinema), but I’m too young to understand the multilayered irony. Then the car starts moving again, and I refocus on the high-rise apartment buildings down the road.
Years later, while doing research at the University of Toronto, I stumble upon a photograph of that same movie theatre by Chris Niedenthal (see below) and realize that it must have been taken that same week. It shows exactly what I saw through the window, sitting in the back of my parents’ car.
A few years after, as a graduate student, I discover reflective teaching and start integrating reflection into my classroom practice. I begin to reflect on how I teach, how I interact with students, how I structure lessons, how I assess and evaluate the work of my students, how I interact with their parents. Gradually, very gradually, I begin to notice trends in the content and approach of my language arts and English classes. There’s a strong emhasis on social justice and human rights. I frequently include units on the historical context of the literature we study. I also examine my cocurricular involvement and notice that, apart from coaching, I also regularly choose to assist with the Debating Club and Model UN. Finally, I zero in on how fervently I embraced blogging in my classroom and why — as a platform for my students to develop and explore their own voices, to be heard not as students who must jump through hoops to get a good grade, but as young people who need the freedom to engage as independent thinkers and explorers.
Finally, while preparing for a conference presentation, I think back over several years of teaching language arts and English at the middle and high school levels, and I realize that I very rarely taught texts that did not have a connection to social justice, freedom, democracy, or human rights. I start reviewing my notes and see references to the Holocaust, genocide, the Berlin Wall, the Cold War … and the list goes on.
And that’s when it hits me … THIS IS WHO I AM. My professional identity as a teacher is inextricably connected to my personal life and experiences, including living in a totalitarian state as a child, including that time in the car counting the number of armoured vehicles on the streets of Warsaw during the 1981 Martial Law.
I was very fortunate as a teacher to have the freedom to let my humanity provide the foundation for my work with my students. I was very fortunate to work with education leaders who understood the value of a teacher whose personal commitment to social justice drives the curriculum and student engagement. They knew that students always benefit from interactions with teachers whose humanity shines through their classroom practice, who cannot divorce who they are as teachers from who they are as human beings. My students benefitted because I had the freedom and the flexibility to focus my classroom practice on things that I care about and that make me who I am. I was not forced to teach content I had no connection to or to employ methodologies I did not find valuable or relevant. My students saw the human being behind the lesson plan.
Embracing reflective teaching led to more than just that realization, however. Once I understood that connection between Mr. Glogowski the person and Mr. Glogowski the teacher, I delved even deeper into reflection and became a better teacher. I focused even more on what I perceived to be my strengths as a teacher, based on my personal and professional experiences. Upon reflection, I also realized that both despite my passion and because of it, there were weaknesses in my practice. Thanks to reflective teaching, I was able to identify and correct them. I realized that my commitment to social justice and its impact on my classroom practice were also depriving my students of opportunities to learn through a different lens. I asked myself difficult questions, I probed deeper into that web of personal and professional lives, I examined and critiqued. The end result was a teacher who had an even stronger understanding of his humanity and profession and who adjusted his practice based on insights that emerged from reflection.
I know the value that reflection brought into my personal and professional lives, and that’s why I now advocate for professional development programs that engage teachers in reflection and schools that provide the freedom teachers need to let their humanity transfer onto their students.
When we look at examples of successful schools around the world, there is almost always a teacher development model behind the success that emphasizes reflection and time to work with and learn from one’s colleagues. If you’re thinking of school reform, teacher development, or student achievement, start with reflective teaching. It’s inexpensive, meaningful, and reminds everyone that the teachers who matter are the ones who help you get in touch with core human values, and the only teachers who can do that are the ones who understand, build on, and learn from their own humanity.
Bullough, R., Knowles, J.G., and Crow, N. (1992). Emerging as a teacher. London: Routledge.
Connelly, M. and Clandinin, J. (1988). Teachers as curriculum planners: Narratives of experience. New York: Teacher’s College Press.
Handal, G. and Lauvas, P. (1987). Promoting reflective teaching. Milton Keynes, UK: Open University Press.
Schulman, L. (1986). Those who understand: Knowledge growth in teaching. Educational Researcher, 15(2), 4-14.
Zeichner, K. M., and Liston, D. P. (1996). Reflective teaching. An introduction. New York: Routledge.