|For some people it is bad news or disappointing experience that leads them to step back and reflect. Perhaps I am weird, but I am as likely to reflect when I receive unexpected good news. And so it was this week.
I cannot be more specific because the good news is not public yet - I have been allowed to share with colleagues, in part because I am allowed to invite some to join me. It involves my teaching. And that both embarrasses me and becomes a cause of reflection.
I know that even on my weakest days, when I am dead tired, or not fully prepared, I am still a fairly good teacher, although I can at times be boring (fortunately for my students, boring does not happen all that often). There are days when I am by my own standards a very good, even excellent teacher. Those are the days when the classes are alive - it is not so much what I am doing, as it is that somehow I find the way of connecting that brings the students more into the process. They carry the class, and my role becomes more of one who prods, who asks some questions, who helps them take charge of their own learning.
There is an interesting phenomenon that occurs when an outsider is in my room, either as a visitor to speak with the students, or to observe me. Almost invariably the students make me look good. Perhaps it is a sign of the trust and respect that I try to make part of my classroom. That happened a few weeks back when I was observed by someone from the Central office of our very large school system (1ith largest in the nation, with 196 schools, over 18,000 employees of whom almost half are teachers, and around 130,000 students). It happened again this week when there was a photographer in my room as part of the good news.
Part of the reflection going on in the background is why my classes cannot always be that vibrant. Of course, students may have other things on their mind. Perhaps I am not as well prepared when there is no outsider, in which case I bear the major share of the responsibility. But moments where the learning is a shared journey, where the room positively crackles with student involvement and excitement - those moment refresh me, make me more willing to continue at the task of teaching, even when I become as exhausted as I did this week.
Why should it make a difference when there is an outsider in the room? While I am grateful that my students ramp up their own performance and thus make me look better than perhaps i deserve, is there perhaps a larger lesson here? I am very used to having visitors in my room. 9 years ago when our school was being visited as part of re-accreditation for Middle States, each teacher was supposed to be observed twice. I was observed by 5 different people. When I taught in my first school, a middle school in our system, my principal used to regularly bring visitors to the building into my classroom. My wife has visited my classes, I have had parents shadow their children, I have had other teachers who want to watch me teach, and so on. The dynamic changes somewhat with another person in the room. It is not that either the students or I play to the visitor. And yet the mere presence brings something else to the classroom exchanges, a greater intensity if you will.
Part of my reflection was on this. Clearly when we are aware others are watching us it makes a difference. In a school context I can say that my students want to demonstrate that they are learning in a way not measured by their test scores, although those scores are usually pretty damn good. Perhaps it is a very human impulse, to want the outsider visiting to think well of what s/he experiences.
I wonder how this applies outside of school. Clearly one reason we want more transparency in government is that we may not completely trust what happens behind closed doors. We are afraid of the deals that may be made outside of the disinfectant of sunlight.
But should how we act - in government or in school - be different merely because others are observing? Should I appear to be a more effective teacher only when there are visitors in my classroom? I recognize the human dimension in this, the desire in most cases to want to appear s well as we can, but wonder if it gives a distorted view, especially when it is the unusual rather than the norm?
Having experienced the phenomenon as the one being observed, I think were I the observer I could take that into account, hopefully without devaluing what it is I am actually observing. Bu I struggle a bit with what I know about the difference when there is no outside observer.
For myself and my teaching, I am not too perturbed because I know some of the most dynamic classes I have lead were when no one else was present, when the trust and excitement in the classroom was because of genuine passion - usually of the students, sometime something I brought to that session. Sometimes I have come home to describe a class to my wife only to regret that there was no record other than our memories of what had happened.
I am reflective, in part because I am shy. In he case of my writing I will on occasion revisit older diaries, not just the diary but also the conversations that ensue in the discussion in the comments. Sometimes I am as amazed at what I as able to write as I am amazed when people say good things about my teaching. Did I really write/say/do that? Other times I realize how I could have written/said/done something differently, perhaps much more effectively. And I bring both realizations, at least semi- consciously, to future similar endeavors - of teaching, of writing, of doing.
In teaching, part of the requisite reflection occurs afterward: what had I intended, what worked, what didn't and why? what can I learn for the next time. Some of it should come before - what am I trying to achieve, what are the pitfalls, what possible tangents might require exploration, what do I do if something does not work (and raising one's voice and/or speaking more quickly rarely is the answer). But there is also another kind of reflection, and it is contemporaneous with the action upon which we are reflecting. It is the ability to reflect at least in part even as we speak or write or act - or in my case teach. Perhaps what makes things different with an outsider in the room is we are aware that someone is perceiving without participating, and we on some level find our words/actions influenced by that awareness. Yet we do not need the outsider to have the same effect if we allow some part of our consciousness to act as that observer for us.
As a teacher, it is the concurrent reflection that enables me to realize when a lesson is not working and needs to be changed, right then. It is what enables me, to use an expression I borrow from a former assistant superintendent, that the horse I am riding has died and beating it will not make it go any faster. It is what I use to make an instant judgment if a seeming tangent is actually more important to follow than the original direction of the lesson.
In my recent reflection I have wondered how all this might apply to the larger world outside of the classroom environment in which I spend a large portion of my waking hours. I wonder how we might persuade those in positions of authority in government, in business, in religion, in all human endeavors, to insist on room for reflection - not only after, but in the planning and anticipation, and especially while in the middle, so that perhaps they might realize when the policy or politics horse they are riding has died an d that beating it will not make it go any faster.
The word "reflection" - it carries the idea of seeing our own image given back to us, from a mirror or still body of water or a shiny metal surface (and after all, what makes a mirror effective is the shiny silver backing). If we are perceptive, we get a different kind of reflection back at us, in the reactions of those with whom we interact, from those to whom we address our words and our actions. It seems to me that we should be including these reflections in our processing of events even as they occur. If they are not what we expected, should not we be considering if we should be continuing on that particular horse? Is there not something important for us to realize?
I'm not sure how much sense this makes. I am still quite tired from this week. The good news is very exciting. I have been able to share the specifics with a few people, and their excitement for me has challenged me. If I am honored for what I do, for me it is not a culmination, but rather an incentive to be even more deserving, to earn the respect the acquaintances with whom I have been able to share have offered me.
I know how often I am not satisfied with what I have done as a teacher. I suspect many as leaders in politics may feel similarly, at least those who perceive their role in terms of the service of leadership rather than the glory and self-aggrandizement that unfortunately motivates some. I try to help my students understand how to be self-aware, reflective in their own learning. And I wonder, should our leaders not also attempt to help us as citizens and participants in our liberal democracy be more self-reflective and self-aware rather than merely reactive on a visceral level? If so, how would this be accomplished? Within the four walls of my classroom I have a great deal of flexibility, I have the support of my building administrators, I can build the trust with my students that enable such changes to take place to the benefit of all of us? How could this be accomplished in the larger sphere of politics and government, even on a local government level? What would then be the role of political parties, think tanks, media, and other institutions?
I do not know how to address these issues on the larger canvas to which this site is dedicated. I can only hope that in my small corner of that canvas - in my classroom, my personal life, my writing - I can offer something positive, participate in whatever small way to helping others explore how they too can make positive differences.
In chaos theory, the flapping of a butterfly's wings in the Southern hemisphere can lead to massive storms along our coasts, and elsewhere. Each action we do has potential beyond our ability to conceive of its impact. That idea could paralyze us. It can also inspire us, provoke us to consider what is we have done, will do, are doing. It can move us towards reflection in a positive way.
Reflection. My word for the day. My thought for the day. My reflection for the day.
And of course I have one more word as well.