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Reflecting on your teaching outside the classroom

It has helped me become more aware of my students and what they respond well to and it has helped me become more aware of the beliefs and ideals that underpin the way I approach my work.

It has also helped me develop when few other options are available. Until recently, I worked in Gabon, where there was no chance to attend workshops or conferences, no outside experts visiting the school, and only a small team of language teachers to work with. Introspective reflection and engaging with online networks were often my only sources of development.

It is the most personal and context specific part of our continuing professional development. A lot of training is done to us, with the time, place and topic chosen by employers, event organisers or publishers. It regularly involves the opinions of others saying what they would do, such as when we are observed. Reflection, on the other hand, allows the voice within to be heard. It is the result of our own thoughts and our own perception of our teaching. That is what makes it potentially so powerful.

But how do teachers reflect? What are the sources of inspiration for those ‘reflective moments’?

These were questions I posed recently through an online survey as part of a research project for the Trinity DipTESOL course. 140 teachers from different fields of ELT responded and I will now share the main findings.

Reflecting alone

One of the most common modes of reflection cited in the survey results was ‘quiet thinking time.’ This takes various forms – a few introspective moments after class, making ‘hot notes’ in the immediate aftermath of a lesson, writing journal entries, or reviewing self-made recordings from class. Foord (2009: 21) states ‘the advantage of self-observation is that it is non-threatening.’ We can explore weaknesses in our own time without feeling exposed. If we take the time to make written records, these can be revisited and ‘as a result…, we may quite possibly come to conclusions about what to do next’ (Harmer, 2007: 411). Through this process, we can move from the descriptive to the critical. The notes and self-observed data we create can remind us what happened in class and our thoughts and analysis can lead to insights and targets for development.

Reflecting with Colleagues

While introspective reflection can be useful, there are also advantages to sharing our thoughts with others, thus making the process more social. Indeed, the survey showed the most popular method of reflection was the ‘staffroom conversation.’ Our colleagues know our working context better than anyone else so they can provide useful insights and advice.
As with reflecting alone, structured activities can aid both parties in going beyond the descriptive and into the critical. For example, when keeping a diary, sharing it with a colleague can help ‘provid[e] the journal author with an alternative point of view’ (Richards & Farrell, 2005: 74). Targeted peer observations with follow-up discussions are another option for gaining deeper perspective (Foord, 2009).

However, the survey showed that organised activities with colleagues are not as common as the impromptu post-lesson chats (82% of respondents cited staffroom chats as a method of reflection they engaged in regularly while only 22% indicated they planned and structured collaborative reflective activities). These activities can be problematic as they rely on us having access to like-minded colleagues in sufficient numbers. When working in a small school or with unwilling peers, teachers need to look further afield.

Reflecting through Online Networks

The final part of the survey focused on engaging in reflection through social media sites. The most popular ones for teachers looking to connect and reflect were Facebook, Twitter, blogs and discussion forums. These allow us to connect with other teachers around the globe, regardless of time zone and location, and share experiences with them, giving and receiving feedback as we do so. Blogs, for example, offer a way to share otherwise private insights from journals by ‘inviting other teachers to read and comment as you go’ (Foord, 2009: 84).

There are issues to consider, however. Teachers must actively engage with their networks to see the benefits of shared connections, otherwise online groups do little more than ‘provid[e] teachers with lists of resources and information’ (Hockly & Clandfield, 2010: 92). There is also the issue of how willing teachers are to share details about their teaching online, especially problems and weaknesses. The survey results did not show a clear majority of respondents either favouring or disagreeing with the idea of online reflection. 37% said they used online networks to reflect while 38% said their connections with other teachers were mainly social. 36 % openly detailed the ups and downs of their teaching online whereas 38% said they refrained from such discussions. This split is understandable as individuals of course use social networks for different purposes.

Reflecting Actively

There was one statement on which agreement was strikingly clear though – the idea that reflection can be prompted by engaging with other teacher’s experiences (89% of teachers agreed with this idea). The internet and social media give us access to a huge variety of teacher experiences. Even if the teacher doing the sharing works in a different context, there may still be a detail or a comment that sets of a train of reflective thought in our own minds. It is then up to us to act on it, experiment with it, and use it to inform our own development.

That, for me, is the key to meaningful reflection. Whether it be quiet thinking time with a cup of coffee, a quick chat with a colleague, a post-observation discussion with a senior teacher, writing a journal, or reading a blog, how we reflect is not so important. It is what we do with our reflections that matters. We must be active in our thoughts, identifying problems and solutions and evaluating the advice and experiences of others. We can then channel these thoughts from outside the classroom into our own professional development and growth inside it.

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