You recently completed (or are near completing) one of the most challenging school years an educator could experience. You’ve earned a well-deserved break—an opportunity to exhale and put aside the stress of building lesson plans and grading assignments. But there’s one more thing you can do before you close the book on this past year and turn your focus to the fall.

It’s time for some teacher self-reflection.

Now we can all agree that calling the 2020-2021 school years “outliers” would be an understatement. Making the shift to remote learning with little to no warning, no pre-established plans (there’s a reason they call it unprecedented), and scaling back both classroom sizes and lesson plans are just a few of the many reasons your fellow educators would prefer to simply forget and forge ahead.

Yet, pandemic and all, it was an experience, and they say that experience with reflection is still the best teacher. There are plenty of lessons to be had around how you deal with anxiety and trauma, whether it’s in the classroom or the staff lounge. The key is to take a comprehensive, unvarnished look at the past, and determine how best to apply those lessons in the future.

So take that step in front of the metaphorical mirror.

The benefits of looking in—and back.

While the next classroom crisis you face may not be the size and scope of a pandemic, performing a critical self-assessment of how you’ve responded to positive and negative situations in the past can help prepare you to engage with students who are anxious about a return to the classroom.

One of the outcomes of this kind of analysis is the ability to perform reflective teaching. What is reflective teaching? Reflective teaching can be an excellent way for new and experienced teachers to enhance their teaching methods and improve their overall mental health. There are several other benefits:

Professional growth. An extensive inner thought process gives you a much better understanding of your strengths and weaknesses—information you can use to adjust your routine, modify techniques, improve how you address a class, and simply become a better teacher. 

Flexible teaching. Reflective practice in teaching can help you better understand and predict student preferences, making it easier for you to deliver your message, and helping ensure that each student is engaged and benefitting from the experience. For example, a flexible approach to a problem might involve students searching for creative solutions, either individually or in small groups. Challenging students to problem-solve in different ways helps develop critical thinking and coping skills that over time will greatly benefit their ability to focus and understand their studies.

More lively lessons. A dull class is every teacher’s nightmare. Pulling from previous experiences can help you better sense when a lesson seems to be losing momentum, as well as know how to pivot in a way that creates a lively classroom where students actively contribute. 

Enhanced problem solving. Reflective teaching looks to previous experience—whether your own or a colleague’s—for solutions. This exercise gives you the confidence and resourcefulness to address problems as you teach, not avoid them. It also engages your creativity and problem-solving skills.

Turn to the COPING ModelSM.

So how do you begin the journey to reflective teaching? A good framework developed by Crisis Prevention Institute is the COPING ModelSM. It’s a tool that can help prepare you for the continued or increased feelings of anxiety as we move into a new school year and will help us to better manage our anxious feelings and behaviors when they arise.

Control
Get yourself under emotional and physical control before you start any self-reflecting exercise. Taking time to center and calm yourself helps you disassociate from strong emotions that may impair your ability to do an honest assessment.

Orient
Reflect on what you experienced over the school year. Consider organizing those reflections into two columns: successes and challenges. Take your time, allowing yourself to relax to ensure that you remember things accurately. Add details, considering any Precipitating Factors (health or mood, time of day, weather, lesson difficulty) that you think may have affected the experience. Then look at what you’ve written, or even read it out loud, to give yourself an opportunity to edit or expand upon thoughts.

Patterns
Once you’ve oriented yourself, look for patterns in your successes and challenges. You may discover that there is consistency in how you approached a situation, an emotional state that led to a particular result, or the people (coworkers, students, parents) involved.

For example:

Did your most challenging moments all seem to occur around the beginning or end of the day?

Did a particular student or group of students play a role in your biggest successes?

You might also see that in some cases challenges set up successes. Why do you think that was the case?


Investigate
Focus on the challenges for a moment. Take some time to really think about other ways you could have handled a challenging situation. If you did, do you think there would have been a different outcome?

Identify outside resources that could be helpful as you consider alternate approaches to problems. For example, a hobby you really enjoy could be a positive outlet that helps offset any negativity you absorbed during those challenging situations. Friends, family, and trusted colleagues can also be great sources for ideas—in fact, they may have been through a challenging situation that’s almost identical to yours.

Finally, if during your investigation you feel that a situation escalated into a traumatic experience, ask yourself if you need to do a further debrief with your school, or seek additional support from a trained counselor.

Negotiate
Now that you thoroughly investigated some of the challenging situations you faced over the past year, it’s time to commit to changes that will improve future responses. As you negotiate what your commitments will look like, keep in mind that they’ll probably look and sound different from your colleagues. Each of us processes information differently and requires different approaches to overcoming the challenges we face.

What could your commitment look like? Here are some examples:

  • Perform a breathing exercise before class or after lunch.
  • Schedule time in your calendar for positive outlets/activities.
  • Meet with a colleague on a weekly basis to compare notes and support one another.
  • Write down your commitments and review them at the start of each day.
  • Read a daily affirmation.

Try a few different approaches until you find the ones that work best for you, then work them into a routine.

Give
Last but certainly not least, don’t forget to give yourself some grace. As we talked about in the beginning of this piece, you’ve just come through one of the most traumatic school years in recent memory. A little kindness, empathy, and self-encouragement are well deserved.

Not to mention the fact that while you did face some challenges, you also had plenty of successes to build on!

Pass the process of teacher self-reflection on.

While you encourage yourself, it’s also the perfect time to look for colleagues who could use your support and encouragement. Share the COPING ModelSM with them. Talk about your experience with it and offer to help them address their challenges, being mindful to point out their many successes.

By supporting one another, and engaging in a little reflective practice in teaching, you’ll be even more prepared for what the new school year holds.
 
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