published on august 5, 2020
Last updated on August 5, 2020
There’s an old saying in the teaching profession: “Some have taught 30 years—and others have taught the same year 30 times.”
We teachers should be learning and growing along with our students. “Hypocrite” is a harsh word, but it’s applicable to those of us who don’t do personal reflection, goal-setting, and self-assessment.
When I was working on my master's degree 25 years ago, there was a pile of literature on “becoming a reflective practitioner.” This basically means that we should be thinking about our teaching. The tyranny of the urgent tempts us to forgo reflection, but this is a disservice to our students and to ourselves.
I’ve heard more than one teacher say, “Students never get that unit, and the grades are always low.” This is a cop-out. Whether a concept is hard or not, it's our job to help everyone succeed.
We need to be asking ourselves, “Did they get it, and if not, why not?” “What seemed to work?” “What are the problem areas that need a different approach?” At the end of each lesson and unit, we should be taking a moment—even a brief one—to make note of the good, the bad, and the ugly. Then, we need to strategize how to do it better the next time around.
Most school districts require teachers to set yearly goals. For many, this is a perfunctory process we go through to fulfill the letter of the law. However, I encourage you to take this seriously. It will make a profound difference in the quality of your teaching.
We all have loads of data to look at—grade book entries, standardized test scores, AP results, anecdotal records, etc. Take an hour sometime after the end of a school year, and look for patterns in student performance.
Some patterns represent things that are in your control. You can’t fix everything, but you can certainly work on one or two. Ask yourself the three classic questions for self-reflection: “Where am I now?” “Where do I need to go?” “How do I need to get there?” After that, make a realistic plan to do some personal growth in an area that will impact student learning. You can use the tried and true SMART method for goal setting, or you can utilize whatever else works best for you.
In the process of doing reflection, goal-setting, and self-assessment, the third piece is often overlooked. Assessment requires data, and the collection and analysis of data can be tedious. Self-assessment can also be depressing because it requires us to be honest with ourselves.
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Buck up, my friends. We are teachers, and assessment is part of what we do. The first thing to look at is the student data mentioned earlier (i.e. grades, test results, anecdotal information). Those show the big patterns. You also need to look at data about yourself. What did your supervisor share after classroom visits? What was mentioned in your performance evaluation? Does your school use a teacher rubric (e.g. Danielson’s framework) that highlights areas for growth?
Perhaps the best assessment is having your students give input. Questions with Likert scales are great, but you should also give students space for open-ended responses. These surveys can be a weird mix of adulation and vitriol, yet studies have shown that student feedback provides a highly reliable picture of teaching effectiveness (Learning About Teaching).
Also consider being observed by a coach, a colleague, and/or yourself. Any of these options can be intimidating, but observation is a powerful tool for finding your blind spots. Make it easier on yourself by scanning the internet (e.g. TNPT) for an observation strategy that fits your level of comfort. The goal is to focus on a specific area where you are trying to grow. If you decide to observe yourself, you might want to talk your school into buying a camera setup that automatically tracks your movements. Check out Swivl. It’s the coolest thing since the robot vacuum cleaner.
Teachers carry a big load of responsibilities. The greatest of these is causing students to learn. The medical and legal professions call their work “a practice.” We teachers need to think like that. We aren’t perfect right out of college, and we need to practice getting better by doing reflection, goal-setting, and self-assessment.
Carlgren, Ingrid, et al. Teachers' Minds and Actions Research on Teachers' Thinking and Practice. Falmer, 1994.
“Explaining How To Set SMART Goals.” YouTube, 7 Oct. 2013, youtu.be/d6o5PyJM3bY.
Learning About Teaching: Initial Findings from the Measures of Effective Teaching Project. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, https://docs.gatesfoundation.org/documents/preliminary-findings-research-paper.pdf.
“Observation and Feedback: Resources.” TNPT: Reimagine Teaching, TNTP, 2019, tntp.org/teacher-talent-toolbox/view/observation-and-feedback.
“Teaching.” The Framework for Teaching, The Danielson Group, danielsongroup.org/framework/framework-teaching.
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