Mirror, Mirror On the Wall: Reflecting on Tough Teaching Days in the Classroom

Last week was a rough week in Mrs. C’s science classroom. This year I’m a 100% remote teacher in a hybrid school, which means while students are sitting in my classroom I am teaching from my basement. With support from fellow staff members and administration this has been a surprisingly successful format for teaching during the pandemic. This week has definitely tested that success in ways that made me take out my teacher mirror. 

The challenges started on Monday, with two periods of my classroom bombing a quiz. Halfway through the second quiz, I had settled on a reason why my students were failing: Me. It was my ineffective teaching, the lack of my presence in the classroom. My pedagogical knowledge is not as strong as I think it is. In short, I’m the epicenter of bad education.

This chain-reaction of ineffective reflection continued for two days, until I hopped on the treadmill for some mind-clearing exercise. It didn’t take long for me to have my “aha!” moment: Deciding that I was the only reason that the quiz didn’t go well was too easy of an answer. Finding the real reasons for the poor test grades would take more digging and the answer would likely be much more complicated than, “You’re a bad teacher, Mrs. C.”

Reflection is such an important tool, and most teacher education programs have healthy doses of reflection as a part of the curriculum. Not all reflection is accurate or helpful though. Reflecting honestly takes a high level of personal vulnerability and humility. You have to open up your heart and mind to the possibility that sure, you’re part of the problem, but you’re not the whole problem. Your brain will search for easy solutions-that’s effective, right? Good job, brain! But more often the solutions are not easy, so you have to be willing to dig deeper for the truth. 

In grad school, I took a class on qualitative analysis that taught me effective reflection practices. As an analytical thinker, just the title “Qualitative Analysis” made me batty. There were collages (Collages in grad school? No, just no.) There were many reflection exercises that I deemed worthless. But I was wrong. Looking objectively and systematically at your teaching practice is worth it, even if that reflection doesn’t include any data. 

Effective reflection on classroom practices can start with a mind map, either a real one or one that lives in your brain.  You have to ask yourself some hard questions: What is the problem? What are possible causes of the problem? What did the students need to meet the standards that they didn’t get? Which activities that I did in class to support the standards were less effective than I thought they’d be? Did I bring less energy to the classroom on some of the teaching days? When and how did I give effective feedback that led to understanding?

After my mind-changing treadmill run, I asked myself some of those questions. During the period when students were taught about the topics covered on the quiz, my grade book was down for three weeks (!!). Did I provide feedback in a different way during that gradeless three week stint? On reflection, I threw out the baby with the bathwater. No grades? No feedback. Working assessments into your daily practice, whether it’s a dipstick assessment, a short essay, or a test, help you to gauge students’ progress towards the learning targets. On reflection, I had let that key strategy go during the time when my gradebook was down. 

Looking over the assignments that I had designed and curated to support the standards, I felt confident that they were well-planned and executed. But without reflection or feedback on those tasks, I’d missed a critical part of the learning cycle. The quiz itself was the next item that I put under the microscope. Did the questions I asked reflect what the students had learned? Reading through the questions with fresh eyes, I realized that I had written some of the questions in an overly confusing way. While the content of each question was sound, my writing style was complicated and indirect. 

How do you move forward after an educational breakdown? Devoting time to completely reteaching the lesson set is not realistic from a time and energy standpoint. Use your new understanding of the problems that occurred during the last unit to inform your next unit. Spiral back to the previous content using warm ups or some mini-lessons to reinforce the concepts. And most importantly, keep on teaching and reflecting! 

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