What does a good teacher look like when doing her job well? This image resonates with me: Imagine a teacher who has just said good-bye to her last class of the day. A smile still lingers on her face from her last interactions with her students, perhaps one final suggestion about preparing for tomorrow. As she walks across the room to her desk, the smile fades and is replaced by contemplative look, then a quizzical look. She starts thinking about the goals for tomorrow and adjustments to make based on how individual students reacted today, about what she knows about her students’ lives that might impact tomorrow’s plan, about an article she read with new ideas to consider, about the new district assessment plan she will be judged by. She drops into her chair exhausted but cocks her head to one side and says softly, “I wonder if it would work better tomorrow if I…”
I have the best job I could imagine at the Earlham College Master of Arts in Teaching program. I get to work with a group of teaching candidates who have come to our small program intentionally. They come to us wishing to learn how to teach in a way that is consistent with our guiding principle of “Awakening the Teacher Within”. Our candidates come to us knowing that they will begin their journey as educators by reading The Courage to Teach by Parker Palmer, exploring who they are and how they will develop the personal relationships so key to good teaching. I get to teach in a program that explicitly blends theory with practice and focuses on helping individuals grow into good teachers by stressing a culture of inquiry around teacher standards. Learning how to be a good teacher means learning to live one’s life guided by questions.
My colleagues and I were interested in the extent to which reflection continued to be important to our graduates even after they left our program so we asked graduates to respond in writing to survey questions and interviewed area graduates in a focus group meeting. We began with the premise that reflection is crucial. We decided to examine what they had written and said, to listen to their voices. What we learned was truly impressive.
By embedding reflection into both the classroom and clinical parts of our program, we try to make reflection a systematic part of what teachers do, a habit. Our graduates’ voices clearly expressed the extent to which reflection had indeed become a part of who they are. Several graduates wrote about trying to improve their teaching by looking both within and without. One person wrote that
The answers are hidden, bit by bit, in each class I teach. They are in my experiences with my students, my colleagues, and with my own inner teacher. They are in my ability and willingness to reflect on myself as a teacher and my own performance in the classroom. The information exists with my colleagues in their hundreds of collective years’ of craft knowledge. The answers I seek are in my students, if I will only humble myself enough to ask them.
Other graduates expressed that the program did more than help them shape their identity as a teacher but helped them grow personally as well. For instance one person said that “What the M.A.T. program has given me is more than my identity as a teacher; it has helped me develop my identity as a young woman in society and define my beliefs.” Another young woman said that throughout her time in our program, “I began to explore the inner workings of myself, reflecting on why I want to teach and what qualifies me to do so. During this search for myself I successfully awakened the teacher within me and developed into an educator who recognizes the value in lifelong learning, reflection, and relevance within the classroom.”
In an open-ended response one graduate noted that it seemed natural to reflect on her practice when she became a full time teacher. She said, “I think the MAT gave me the skills I needed to be a reflective teacher in several ways…before, during, and after actual teaching of students in the classrooms… My principal told me that I reflect more on my own teaching than any of my coworkers and she praises me for it. I know I still have my faults and weaknesses as a teacher, but I know reflection will keep me grounded and rational too, making choices to benefit my current and future students.” This was one of several statements that drove home the fact that our graduates continued to use reflection both to grow personally and to do their jobs well.
To what extent was reflection embedded in their teaching? During a focus group, one veteran teacher responded to a request to define reflection by saying, “That is hard to answer. That is like asking us if we breathe! How now can any of us ever think about teaching without reflection?” Yet another veteran teacher added “It’s not something you do in addition to… it’s organic.” Even when noting that current issues in schools were causing changes in school culture that put a very low priority on reflection, our graduates insisted that their ability to reflect was helping them put a more positive spin on the challenges. They emphasized that although they were disheartened by a culture of negativity that has crept into many school cultures, with the focus shifting to be more on numbers for accountability and less on the individual students producing those numbers. They maintained that the process of reflection helped them to look behind or beyond the numbers on a report, seeing reflection as a “…helpful process, inherently proactive and optimistic and one that values students in a different way.”
Anyone who would be a good teacher must develop a wide array of skills and become well-versed in several interconnected bodies of knowledge. We know that our focus on teaching reflection comes at a cost of teaching other things. It’s a compromise we embrace. Becoming proficient in the art of reflection helps teachers make sense of the many elements they must juggle as they continue their journey toward excellence.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Randy Wisehart is currently the Director of Graduate Programs in Education at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana. He teaches and supervises teaching candidates in the Master of Arts in Teaching program after spending twenty-nine years as a secondary English teacher and high school administrator. He lives in Richmond with his wife Tammy and retired greyhounds Zane and Maggie.