5 Questions to Tackle When Reflecting on Teaching

Jon Konen
District Superintendent

"May the Force be with you!"

Almost as commanding as the force, do you use the power of reflective thinking? The ability to reflect effectively can help a teacher both personally and professionally.

One of the most underutilized tools educators use is the ability to reflect. Whether reflection is seen as too time consuming or plainly, a waste of time, many educators are missing the power to change or confirm their practices. Usually, when a teacher's schedule gets busy, the time usually set aside to reflect is tossed out or reduced. When this is done, a teacher might actually be adding more time to fix or repair prior learning experiences. In reality, if the teacher had spent time reviewing properly, many future problems would have been avoided.

All teachers should establish metacognitive processes. The multitude of benefits far outweigh educators skipping or not making sure this process occurs every day. Funny as it may sound, many effective administrators find a secret hiding place, take a walk, or may even take an extended bathroom visit, in order to reflect, gather themselves, and tackle the next problem. Teachers must find time to reflect as well. Master teachers put reflection into their day in several areas.

The following five questions will support your progression in reflection from proficient to exemplary.

1 - What Can Teachers Reflect on Daily? Weekly? Monthly? Yearly?

When told by colleagues, his opponents on the basketball court, Michael Jordan's defense was lacking as compared to his offensive output, Michael set a goal. He used self-reflection to determine what things he could work on in order to become a better defender. Through hard work and determination, Michael Jordan won the defensive player of the year. In fact, he also won NBA Most Valuable Player of the Year …a distinction only a few players have ever won in the same year. Michael was not done...he went on to win nine NBA First Team Defensive Awards over his career. Honing his skills by reflecting daily helped Michael achieve his goals.

Metacognition occurs at some level with all humans. Educators can dig deep to understand more about their students as well as reflecting on the teaching approaches used with the students. There is a multitude of areas within an educator's day where reflection can be powerful. Here is a list of 10 areas and 100+ questions that might help in your daily reflection of routines, instruction, and relationships:

  1. Procedures, Routines, and Transitions
    • AM Arrival - How can I make arrival more effective and efficient? Are students coming from the playground, cars, buses, etc.? What doors do the students enter? How are the students coming into the school? Do students use lockers? What are students doing right away when they enter the classroom?
    • Supplies - How can I transfer the management of supplies to students more effectively? What supplies do students need? How can I better support students with supplies?
    • Materials - What materials will students need daily? How can I transfer the management of supplies to students more efficiently? How do students turn in their work? How do students support passing out materials?
    • Lines - What can I say, model, and do to get students from point A to point B more safely and efficiently? How often should we practice this procedure or routine? How can I transfer the ownership of lining up safely and quickly back to students?
    • PM Dismissal - How can I make dismissal more effective and efficient? What students ride the bus, attend after school day care, parent, walk home, etc.? How can I transfer ownership of dismissal back to the students for safety and efficiency?
  2. Before a Lesson Starts
    • Materials and Supplies - Do I have all necessary materials and supplies ready to go?
    • Engagement - How will I engage students right away and keep them engaged throughout the lesson? What active participation techniques and learning structures will I use in the lesson? What feedback do I want from students in the beginning, middle, and end of the lesson so I know students are mastering the content?
    • Objective and Rationale - What do I want students to know or be able to do by the end of the lesson? How will I make sure all students know the objective? How will I make sure all students understand why they are learning this content? What does this content connect to in past learning experiences? What does this content connect to in the real world? Are there professions or jobs that need this skill specifically for success?
    • Formative Checks - What formative data will I collect to make sure we are on track during the lesson?
    • Summative Checks - How will I know by the end of the lesson that students were proficient or mastered the content I taught?
    • Individual Student Checks - What students do I need to be cognizant of during the lesson? Will I need to be ready to support specific students? How will I support these students during the lesson? What has worked in the past with these students? Do I have ideas on how I will differentiate instruction further for individual students?
    • Groups of Students Checks - Will I group students? How will I group students? Will the students be grouped flexibly or will they remain the same for the lesson?
  3. During the First Part a Lesson (Repeat in the middle of the lesson)
    • Effective and Engaging Start - How is the first part of the lesson going so far? Am I meeting the goals of the lesson?
    • Objective and Rationale - Did the students understand the objective of the lesson? How do I know? Did the students understand the rationale of the lesson? How do I know?
    • Formative Checks, Feedback, and Engagement Level - What feedback are the students giving me? Does the feedback tell me to continue, reteach, or do something different for the remainder of the lesson? What do the formative checks so far tell me about the instruction and engagement? Do I need to add in more, less, or continue with the same engagement strategies and learning structures?
    • Relationships - How are students treating each other? How are students reacting to me as a teacher? Do any relationship building strategies need to be changed, reinforced, or continued? How will I communicate this with students?
  4. At the End of a Lesson
    • Lesson Reflection - Has the formative checks, feedback and engagement level all been successful? Can I go forward with the formative or summative assessment at the end of the lesson? Can I predict what the data will tell me if students take the assessment?
    • Assessment - Do I need to change, adapt, or continue with the preplanned assessment? Do I feel students have been engaged at a level where the assessment will give me good data about their comprehension of the content as well as my teaching effectiveness?
    • Relationships - Repeat from the middle of the lesson.
    • Closure - How will we add closure to this lesson? Will we continue the lesson at another time? Will the lesson content lead into the next lesson or topic of study? What closure techniques will I use? How will I communicate to the students the success of the lesson? How will I praise the current efforts or fix the relationships in the lesson before the next lesson?
  5. After a Lesson has Ended
    • Relationships - What do we need to work on to better the classroom culture? What specific students, groups of students, or classes do we need to add more relationship building or team building activities?
    • Data - What does the formative and summative data tell me about students mastering the content? What does the data tell me about my instructional effectiveness? Was there an educational impact? What do I need to change?
  6. Student Relationships with Each Other
    • Words - How do students interact with each other with their words? Are there signs of a positive school culture in the words? Do students speak about kindness, tolerance, and empathy?
    • Actions - How do students physically interact with each other with their actions? Are there signs of supporting each other with supplies, materials, and possessions? Do students visibly show kindness, tolerance, comfort, and empathy with their actions? Do students do random acts of kindness for other students?
  7. Student Relationships With Teacher
    • Words - How do students speak to the teacher with their words? Are there signs of respect, trust, kindness, and empathy? What specific words do students use when asking for support from a teacher or adult?
    • Actions - How do students physically treat the teacher? Are there visible signs of respect, trust, kindness and empathy with their actions? Do students do random acts of kindness for teachers or staff members?
  8. Parent Relationships With Teacher
    • Words - How do parents and teachers talk to one another? Are there signs of respect, trust, and kindness in the chosen words? What specific words do parents use when talking with the teacher?
    • Actions - How do parents physically treat the teacher? Are there visible signs of respect, trust, and kindness in their actions? Do parents offer to volunteer or support the classroom?
  9. Staff Relationships With Other Teachers
    • Words - How do teachers talk to each other? Are there signs of respect, trust, kindness, and empathy in the chosen words? What specific words do teachers use with one and another? Is there a common language that teachers use with one another?
    • Actions - How do teachers physically act towards one another? Are there visible signs of respect, trust, and empathy in their actions? Do teachers do random acts of kindness for other teachers or staff members?
  10. Teacher Relationships with Administration
    • Words - How do administrators talk to the teacher? Are there signs of respect, trust, empathy in the chosen words? What specific words do administrators use with teachers? Is there a common language that is used between administers and teachers?
    • Actions - How do administrators physically treat teachers? Are there signs of respect, trust, and empathy by the administrator to the teachers? Do the administrators do random acts of kindness for teachers or staff members?

Reflecting daily, and meta-cognitively breaking it down into smaller chunks, you will begin to tackle these 100 questions repeatedly for better efficiency and effectiveness. You can then reflect on your entire week or month. Most lesson plans are completed weekly, and unit plans can be monthly or bi-monthly. When these conclude, it provides for great reflection on where to go with the students both academically and socio-emotionally. Here is a short list of ideas that exemplary teachers may use in reflection at the end of a week or month:

  • Specific Lesson Reflection (Practices, Approaches, Strategies, etc.)
  • Pacing of Curriculum (Behind, On Target, Ahead)
  • Overall Classroom Culture (All Relationships)
  • Summative and Formative Data (Reteach, Continue, Or Extend)
  • Engagement Practices (Active Participation and Learning Structures)
  • Upcoming Curriculum Connections (Plant Seeds, Direct Connection, etc.)
  • Upcoming Special Events or Situations for Class, Grade, or School (Anything the Alters Schedule)
  • Proactive Reflection (Preplanning, Getting Ahead, or Prevention)
  • Growth Mindset Reflection (Personal and Professional Learning Goals)

The most powerful reflection can come at the end of the school year. Taking time to reflect back on your education approaches, philosophy, academic data, as well as any socio-emotional data is a great way to decide whether you will change, adapt, include, or continue practices that will make both the job more enjoyable as well as increase student achievement. Here is a short list of ideas that exemplary teachers may use to reflect at the end of the school year:

  • School, State, and District Assessment Data (Summative Data, Normative Data, etc.)
  • Discipline Referral Data (Including Positive and Negative Data Trends)
  • Curriculum, Materials, Supplies, Technology Used and Covered
  • Instructional Strategies (Stop, Add, or Continue)
  • Formative Assessments (Stop, Add, or Continue)
  • Behavior and Relationship Strategies (Stop, Add, or Continue)
  • Proactive and Growth Mindset Reflection (Increasing Personalized Learning Network)

2 - How Can a Teacher Become More Accurate and Specific in Their Reflection?

The ability to reflect accurately is an abstract concept and driven by perception. Reflecting on the perception of yourself as a teacher may sound foreign to you, but making it evidence-based supports an honest awareness of your abilities. By including and connecting with professionals inside and outside of education, you can help form your own self-perception.

Exemplary teachers are humble, yet confident. They understand that there are always areas of growth for themselves. They know their personal strengths and weaknesses and they are continually working to sharpen their skills. When they reflect, they are sometimes critical of themselves, but understand with perseverance and a growth mindset they can overcome most any challenge. They are able to find evidence in their practices to determine their success, or to determine areas that they can strengthen.

Exemplary teachers reflect with specificity. They spend time reflecting on things that both went well, and things that went wrong. When reflecting to fix something, they search for specific strategies, approaches, materials, or people that can support them in making positive adjustments. Through this reflection, they can tackle the same problem differently. They put time into being proactive to make sure certain outcomes are more predictable.

As a teacher's toolbox of strategies increases, they are able reflect on a plausible solution more effectively and efficiently. Research, experience, and collaboration support an exemplary teacher's reflection process. Increasing the specificity during reflection can target increasingly difficult problems.

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3 - How Can Teachers Connect Best Practice, Current Research, Collegial Collaboration, Deep Questioning, and Prior Learning Experiences to Increase the Effectiveness of Reflective Processes?

The ability to teach successfully may be innate in some individuals, but for most educators we beg, borrow, and steal ideas, strategies, materials, and more from others. Best practices change routinely and emphasis on certain aspects of education are changing with new research. The ability to collaborate with individuals in and out of education is becoming easier and faster. Deep questioning by others on a teacher's educational practices can lead to increased growth for both the teacher and their subsequent students. As a teacher garners more years of experience, they are able to connect successful prior student practices to present students through a reflective process.

Exemplary teachers can cite resources, professionals, and other colleagues for the reasons why they teach what they teach. These educators mix and mash together ideas, strategies, and approaches to form their own philosophy of education. In progressive and effective school districts, educators build common practices together from these resources and professionals in the field. For example, if your school uses the Daily 5 reading structure, great resources and professionals to follow would be Kelly Gallagher and his book Readacide, Steven Layne and his book Igniting a Passion for Reading, Chris Tovani and her book I Read It, but I Don't Get It, and Donalyn Miller and her book The Book Whisper. Working as a district, school, grade level team, or even individually, a reading philosophy can be created. Specific practices and strategies from each professional can be used and perfected. Collaboration, sharing, and reflection play a significant role in devising a teacher's vision for reading in their classroom.

When a teacher creates a personalized learning network, they surround themselves with individuals that help them dig deeper into their education ideologies and practices. Much like an instructional coach, colleagues and other professionals support by asking difficult, critical, and deep questions. This is when accurate and true self-reflection is most powerful. An exemplary teacher's network includes individuals outside of the education field. These teachers use people in other professions that understand and know specific concepts that relate to the goals of their personal and professional goals. For example, when teaching the concept of accruing taxes to a high school accounting class, engaging in conversations with a certified public accountant (CPA) could be included in the teacher's personalized learning network. The expertise that the CPA can offer might far out way any research the teacher can do on Google.

Years of experience in the profession is the best source of knowledge when reflecting. Exemplary teachers remember successful specific strategies they used with individual students. They try to replicate these positive experiences for other students. They reflect on what worked well, as well as what did not, especially when supporting new students with similar learning difficulties. Experience also helps exemplary teachers develop groups of students with similar needs more effectively and efficiently.

The ability to cite references, whether they are people or resources, when changing, adapting, or adding new teaching practices should be occurring every year. Exemplary teachers understand that as students change, they must change, too.

4 - How Does Having Grit, Perseverance, and a Growth Mindset Play a Role in Effective Reflection?

Grit has become a word that is synonymous with success. It is the number one factor found in all successful education settings. With almost 13,000,000 views, Angela Duckworth describes "grit" as the "power of passion and perseverance" in a 2013 TED Talk. In order for a teacher to take their instructional effectiveness to the next level, they must have this "grit" coupled with a growth mindset.

The exemplary teacher uses "grit" to reflect effectively. When something is successful, they spend an enormous time reflecting on why. They determine the main factors for its success. They then implement the same strategies and approaches to replicate the same factors, which in turn increases the success rate. Passion for not only what you are teaching, but passion for success, play a role when exuding grit.

We can almost say with certainty that reflecting for replicating positive results is not done enough by educators. Unfortunately, most teachers spend an exorbitant amount of time reflecting when something negative occurs. It is powerful to reflect why something goes wrong; the factors associated with failure, as well as what the teacher is going to do the next time. Changing practice and approaches may be hard to do, but why should we ride the proverbial "dead horse." A new saddle, giving it water, or pulling it will not make a dead horse walk! We must be problem solvers.

Denny McLaughlin, in his High Trust Theory , states the sooner a teacher can "go to solution," the healthier the person! Many times educators are stuck diagnosing the problem, never going to solution, and eventually drowning in failure! Denny calls this, "Sniffing the turd." We can admire it, look at it, diagnose it, but it is still a turd! Again, it takes "grit" to move past sniffing, and move on to finding a solution!

Never giving up is the unrelenting ability that sets master educator's apart from all others. They find a way for all students to learn. Failure is not an option; students continue learning and participating in their own education. These teachers instill this concept of perseverance into their students on a daily basis through their words and actions.

Synchronously, these teachers have a strong sense of perseverance themselves. They model it in the all the work they do, and not just with students. They are meticulous and empathetic in the fact they understand that their words and actions affect other teachers around them, and the subsequent students seated in front of them in the classrooms. They are thoughtful how they treat students, parents, colleagues, and community members. They understand that by putting relationships first, it gives them more time for instruction in the end. They work hard to build and continue strong relationships with all stakeholders. They know that it takes perseverance for effective communication.

Carol Dweck's work with growth mindset is a vital characteristic to an exemplary teacher. As quoted by Dweck on the website, www.mindsetworks.com/, she defines a growth mindset as the following:

"In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work-brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities."

Exemplary teachers are always looking to increase their knowledge, hone their teaching craft, and work on relationships. Having a growth mindset sets these teachers apart from the know-it-alls, and the teachers who believe they are already master teachers. Teachers must have the mindset that there is a lot to learn and it is my job, through perseverance and grit, that I am going to garner information, as much as possible, to support the students and staff in my school.

For example, a new student comes into your classroom in the middle of the year. The student has not only a learning disability (LD), but also is diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder (RAD). You have never dealt with a student that has both LD and RAD. A gear kicks in your body and mind, and you believe - I must learn more! You research strategies, talk to previous teachers in another school district, talk to colleagues and other professionals, as well as experiment with new strategies and approaches to support the new student. The exemplary teacher is always reflecting on their success, as well as their new student's success!

In comparison, a developing teacher, who may even be labeled as an unsatisfactory teacher, would only put reactive and punitive actions in motion. They would not take time to learn more about the issues or form a relationship with the new student. The teacher places blame on the student, the parent, and the administration for placing the student in "their" classroom. Never once do they reflect on their own practices!

An exemplary teacher that radiates grit, perseverance, and a growth mindset tackles new problems in order to find solutions. They do not shy away from challenges and they understand how reflection will support their growth, as well as the students they serve!

5 - How Does Establishing a PLN (Personalized Learning Network) Support Effective Reflective Practices?

What Charlotte Danielson touches on in Domain 4 Component A, Reflection on Teaching, can be described as powerful, but minimal compared to other components where she gives a myriad of descriptors and examples. Reflection can be the most powerful tool a teacher can use to improve instruction. A new fad in the past decade, but not a new concept, is the ability to find people and resources to support your personal and professional educational growth. In the past five-seven years, Personalized Learning Networks (PLN) are being discussed, created, and even celebrated in many professions. More specifically, in education, teachers are creating PLN's to become more connected. This is leading them to be more successful, efficient, effective, and reflective.

PLN's can be described as concentric circles, similar to the multiple circles in a Venn diagram. The first circle would contain the colleagues and professionals that you collaborate with the most on multiple topics. Next, there are a series of connective circles where you communicate with the colleagues often, but for only one or two main purposes. Lastly, there are a few connective circles where you communicate with the professionals or colleagues only once or twice. Then, adding in a three dimensional perspective to the Venn diagram is the aspect of time. Depending on your personalized learning at the time in your career, there may be colleagues and professionals you work with intensely. Then that communication fades over time.

Much like teachers differentiating instruction for students, a PLN is devised around the specific needs of each person. In a school, teachers PLNs may overlap in some areas, especially if there is a focus or vision from the district, school, or grade level. For example, a sixth grade team is researching strategies to work with students on the positive and negative implications of social media on learning. Their goal is to educate six graders on their impact of social media on their relationships with each other, as well as ideas on how they can positively communicate with each other. Together the sixth grade team finds professionals and colleagues that can support them in reaching their goal. They find people online that have great ideas and are willing to share their ideas. The sixth grade team's PLN is increased.

PLNs can be a powerful tool for reflection. With advent of social media, information from millions of educators is at teacher's fingertips. Exemplary teachers have a well-established PLN, that is both online and in-person, that drives their learning. At any moment, they can ask for advice from professionals and colleagues in order to grow personally and professionally.

(Charlotte Danielson Model: Domain 4 Component a)

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Jon Konen