But deeper understanding can only occur with the ability to reflect: to review, to notice, and to think carefully about what had taken place.
This is true for our students and is certainly true for us teachers looking to improve our practice.
But how can we become more reflective teachers?
1. Formal Observations
Many schools have a Director of Studies observing a teacher when they are newly employed, and subsequently, once every 6 months or more. Such observations often have an evaluative function.
- You are under pressure to ‘perform’.
- You put on a model lesson than is nothing like your usual classes.
- Things can go wrong and you feel like this is not representative of your normal classes.
- Your line manager could provide some useful feedback.
- You could find out positives about your teaching you didn’t know about before.
Before the observation, make a list of things that you’d like your line manager to look out for e.g. your teacher talking time; the way you correct, etc. Let your manager know that these are things you’d like to improve on.
2. Peer Observations
These observations don’t have an evaluative element. Some schools have an open door policy where teachers are encourage to observe each other. Even if your school doesn’t have such a policy, you could ask a colleague you respect to observe your lesson.
Watching another teacher’s lesson could also make you reflect on your own teaching. Is there something they do that you don’t?
- You might find it difficult to find time to do this.
- You might worry about being judged by your colleague. You might find taking criticism from a colleague harder than taking criticism from a line manager.
- You get to share lesson ideas and inspire each other.
- It can help you look at your own teaching from a different angle.
Ensure you meet beforehand and talk about the purpose of the observation. Ask them to look for strengths and not just weaknesses. Decide if observations will be reciprocal.
3. Talking to your colleagues
Many of us chat about our lessons with colleagues in the staff room and some of us might share our experiences with our EFL colleagues around the world via social media. Not only is sharing your teaching experiences cathartic, it also helps you make sense of what happened.
- Without being there, your colleagues might not fully understand the context to provide an informed opinion or give useful advice.
- Some colleagues might be cautious about being honest. You might only get solidarity and not constructive feedback.
- Gaining solidarity from colleagues can be a good impetus for you to reflect on your practice.
- Chatting about your experience forces you to formulate your thoughts and think through what has happened.
Let these chats be a springboard to more reflection and action instead of the ‘be all and end all’.
4. Student feedback
At the end of a course, we might take pride in getting 5/5 stars on every feedback form but it is often not as easy to swallow less positive feedback. Student feedback can be invaluable in facilitating reflection.
- We see negative comments as a personal attack.
- We dwell on the negativity instead of reflecting.
- Students might not understand the principles behind what you do, and act like experts in teaching à la the phenomenon ‘apprentices of observation’.
We find out what really matters to our students/clients.
• It forces us to think about our beliefs that underline our practice.
Ask your students “What can I improve on? Help me to be better.” And don’t wait till the end of a course to get feedback. Ask your students for feedback regularly.
5. A diary
Keep a teaching diary and write in it after every lesson, jotting down what you taught and how you went about doing it.. You could blog your reflections and allow other teachers to benefit from it.
- It’s time-consuming.
- It relies entirely on your memory and your point of view of what happened in class. And as we know, memory tends to serve the user and not necessarily the truth.
- It provides a tangible basis to work from.
- Having previous entries to look back on allows you to see the progress made.
As part of your journal entries, include these two sections called ‘What I could work on’ and ‘Action taken’.
You could record yourself with a digital camera or a simple audio-recording device. Most smart phones have both. You could also make a record of your boardwork by taking a photo of your board every lesson.
- Many people find watching/listening to themselves cringe-worthy.
- Your learners might find a recording device in class intrusive and become self-conscious of their own language use.
- Once you get over the initial discomfort, this is easily the best tool for reflective teaching. Seeing the lesson in action enables you to notice things you or your students did. Seeing is believing!
Decide if you'd like to point the camera towards yourself or your students. Ask your students for permission to record and ensure they know it is for self-developmental purposes. Be sure to watch/listen to the playback at least three times so as to get over the initial discomfort.
Whichever ways you have chosen to reflect on your own teaching, remember it is important that you go beyond thinking about your practice, and work towards formulating a feasible action plan to improve on your chosen area.
As Penny Ur once wrote,
“It has been said that teachers who have been teaching for twenty years may be divided into two categories: those with twenty years’ experience and those with one year’s experience repeated twenty times.” (Ur 1996: 317)
And I know which type of teacher I’d rather be.
Ur, Penny. (1996) A Course in Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.