Whenever anyone ever used to ask me about the importance of reflection in professional practice I used to answer like this:
‘I am a rugged manly-man. I wake up, perform my morning exercise routine of wrestling a bear with one hand whilst punching a lion in the face with the other, eat a breakfast of rusted nails washed down with a cup of hot lava and proceed to my day’s toil of repeatedly hitting children in the back of the head with the stick of knowledge, only stopping to eat a raw steak for lunch and chop down a tree with the side of my hand for fun.
Reflection? Ha! I have no time to pause and admire my work. That is for lesser and more effeminate types who spend their days preening in front of a mirror, adjusting their long and wavy Kim Jong-Un bouffant and thinking. I am a man of action and have no time for the thinking. I am a doer. I do the doering. I do the doering all over the place. Then I leave and go home to sleep in my cave.
Now stand aside for I am teaching the things to the people. Away with you.’
I never seemed to get invited to staff nights out for some reason. Think it must have been the loincloth.
OK, reflection as an affront to my manhood was a pretty extreme and immature stance to take. It was also a bit of a fabrication. (I’m really as metrosexual as they come. Put my toenail trimmings in the bin and everything…if the bin’s close enough. Either that or I just eat them. Keeps things tidy.) So I never really believed the stuff I was telling people but it’s better than admitting the alternative, which is that I’m just not very good at the whole reflection thing. I’m a bit like a vampire. I could stare for hours into the mirror and have nothing but an empty space staring back at me. I try to look at what I do in an analytical fashion, try to pinpoint where it went well or where it went wrong or where it went kerrrAZY! I can go around and around the reflective cycle until the spokes are just a blur but it never really resulted in my teaching getting better. This is for a few reasons:
Firstly, I never reflected just for the sake of it. It doesn’t come naturally to me and as I’m not some sort of perverse masochist I don’t go out of my way to try to make myself uncomfortable (although, having said that, I did become an English teacher. OH GOD. OH GOD. WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME? I’VE GOT A PROBLEM. I NEED HELP).
The only time I ever reflected was when I had to. That’ll be to pass my PGCE then, where it seemed that the actual teaching played second fiddle to beard-stroking pontification about the teaching. Or to pass the DTTLS course which was just the PGCE course in disguise, but with more of a sculpted goatee than a full-on wire wool lumberjack bird’s nest. Or those really rewarding staff appraisals where you’ve got three small boxes to justify your very existence but you’ve also got to liberally slot in allusions to the schools newly published ‘core values’ even though they make absolutely no sense outside of the echo chamber of a boardroom. You know, really fun times like that.
So reflection became a chore and I acted the same as I do when faced with any chore – I did my level best to avoid the hell out of it. It didn’t help that it took me longer to record my reflection that it did to actually teach.
Which brings me to the second problem; that of time. Starting out I didn’t have time to eat, let alone write 200 words after every lesson about the pros and cons of phrasing when asking Jayden to stop using his bic to punch holes in the wall that had been newly plastered after one student had flung another into it last week. I could hardly fit any time in for my loved-ones so the prospect of taking another hour-and-a-half at the end of an exhausting day to ponder my hideous failure introducing group work to Year 8 did not fill me with the intrinsic joy that should be felt at the prospect of becoming a better educator. I felt like I was getting left behind because I didn’t have time to stop and think. It’s an absolute luxury in a lot of places. Once again, reflection became an unnecessary burden.
Lastly, thinking about your own work in such a way as to be able to do something about improving it takes a brutal self-honesty and a keen analytical eye. In such a uniquely professional yet personal job as teaching, the development of those things can actually be quite a painful experience. There is a tendency to self-deceive, even in the best of us. Our thoughts on what we do are coloured by who we are (as it should be) but this also means that I was never convinced that reflection was a completely effective tool, as our conclusions are filtered, molded and perhaps censored by our own hand. And I don’t know about you, but I’m very fond of telling stories.
It’s only recently that I’ve begun to see the inherent use of explicit reflection. It helps that I’ve stopped using the word ‘reflection’, which for me always suggested images of Narcissus – happy, paralysed and drowning. Instead I’ve come up with a new label: ‘Thinking About Stuff’.
I now have the time to Think About Stuff. I even do it just for its own sake rather than to help me fill up an empty box on a form. I don’t do it with a particular goal in mind, I just Think About Stuff. Having done it, things occur to me that might make things easier for me and better for my students. I find this pleasing and I give it a go the next time it’s appropriate. No pressure.
It’s the rigid uniformity of the reflective process that has put me off previously, so I’ve adapted it in a more easy-going format where I can have some fun with it. There’s satisfaction to be had at getting better at something. If you turn that satisfaction into just another job to do, you lose it.
Or at least I did.
Now… away with you. I have to go and have a bath in some white water rapids and find a wolf that I can use for a loofah.