How we grow as teachers using reflection: learn from the inevitable mistakes.

As teachers, we are always learning on the job. Each lesson we have, we learn something new.  It is a reflective practice.  When we learn new skills, we make mistakes. It’s a part of the process.  The important part is the reflection; we think about what happened and if you could have changed or done something different, what would the outcome have been.  When I was a newly qualified teacher, I would react to a student swearing at me with anger. I would feel the emotional pinch.  

On one occasion, I talked to a student about why he hadn’t completed his assignment and would be staying in at lunchtime to complete it. My tone was aggressive, and to make things worse, this reprimand was given publicly in front of the class.  His reply was, ‘I don’t give a fuck and I won’t be staying’, I was so angry I raised my voice further and said ‘How dare you, who do you think you’re talking to, out, out right now as I finger pointed at the door?  At which point he jumped up, pushed his chair over and slammed the door hard on his way out.  In the moment my body was taken over by adrenaline and I was in shock.  

Reflecting on that moment, I try to picture my facial expressions and remember my tome and words used.  It’s difficult, but I’m sure it was harsh and publicly humiliating for the student.  That night I could not stop thinking about different potential stories that could have made him react in that way.  Yes, I was harsh, but that is not normally how this student behaves.  Maybe he had had some bad news before coming into my class? Then my heart sank. Maybe he had something bad happen to him or his family that prevented him from completing his homework?  

Equally powerful is the follow up of the aftermath. At a later time, let’s call it a restorative conversation with the student.  This is an opportunity to ask some of these questions, talk about how we’re feeling. For example ‘the story I was telling myself was that you were disrespectful and not caring about the assignment and you had promised you would hand it in on that morning.  It is a perfect time to apologise if you think you were too harsh and explain you were just frustrated because you care about them and their learning. This is the perfect time to discuss how to work together in the future to ensure the same thing does not happen.  Remember, every day is a fresh start for the students and yourself.  You are only as good as your last lesson.  

I am a CMS geek. Having read many books on CMS and my colleagues would laugh and call me a Barrie Bennett groupie because I asked him to sign my favourite CMS book when he came to the school I worked at to deliver some professional learning.  I also recommend reading Kounin’s work, its old 1970, but he coined the term ‘whit-it-ness’ and how powerful having it has for improving your ability to calm the classroom.  It’s basically having ears and eyes not only at the front but at the back of your head.  You position yourself in the room so you see everything and you are giving consistent reminders to students and corrections in their behaviour no matter where you are in the room.  

Teaching is like being a detective.

This detection of behaviours lets the whole class know that you know what’s going on at every minute. This ensures the behaviour is nipped in the bud and does not have a chance to escalate.  It’s the ability to have a conversation with a student regarding the work on one side of the class and, during this conversation, periodically scan the room for rule break.  During the one on one conversation, you may pause and give a few reminders to students on the far side of the room ‘Jake sit front, thank you’, ‘James this is quite independent working time’, then continue giving feedback to the student you were sitting with.  

Now over the years, I have got this skill finely tuned. I would big myself up with such affirmation ‘you have got this ‘with-it-ness’ down to a fine art girl’.  To spice up my lessons, I like to inject a variety of instructional strategies, which are collaborative to improve engagement and raise the students’ motivation to learn.  However, when students start moving about the classroom or work in small groups, it becomes increasingly difficult to ‘see’ everything happening and thus, behaviours can escalate quickly out of control. This is sometimes why some teachers don’t venture from the students being in rows and lecture-style teaching for fear of behaviour problems. Anyway, that is not a problem for me because I see everything!  Famous last words!  

In this one particular lesson, I had a great activity looking at prior knowledge of the relationships between decimals, fractions and percentages.  This involved creating a mind dump and then a gallery walk to inspect the other groups work.  Towards the end of this activity, I had the principals personal assistant knock at my door, ‘hi’ I said, smiling thinking I was smashing this lesson with such an awesome activity.  He summons me towards the door using a hand gesture and a face like thunder, ‘oh dear’, I thought what is wrong.  ‘Someone has thrown stationery out of the window and the principal is in a parent meeting in the office below this classroom and all they can see is raining pens.’  My automatic thought was it must be coming from next doors classroom because I was here, and I saw everything.  

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