“…not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” – William Bruce Cameron
What do we, as educators, need in order to be truly great?
When I was recently asked this question, I thought about the obvious answers:
- Students who live in stable homes, aren’t hungry, and occasionally get some sleep
- Community support
- Administrative support
- Societal and legislative understanding of what we actually do
- A focus on student growth and development instead of standardized test scores
- Hand sanitizer
…and then I thought about what our great teacher ed programs do to prepare their students to even become educators in the first place. What do these programs—like the one at Michigan State University—provide for their students and how can we build that into our own professional development model?
The answer is complicated, but it boils down to two factors: sustained mentorship, and sustained reflection, which go hand-in-hand.
The gradual release model of a good teacher ed program creates an environment for pre-service teachers in which they are constantly supported in all facets of teaching by multiple mentors. There is time scheduled for discussion of classroom management, pedagogy, work/life balance, mental health, assessment, and curriculum design. It is not uncommon to meet monthly, weekly, or even daily for supportive discussions to not only voice concerns but also to troubleshoot solutions. And yet, once we release these pre-service teachers into the wild, they become their own islands, drowning in the tsunami of papers to grade, emails to answer, standards to meet, meetings to attend, and hand sanitizer to apply. Even with new-teacher mentor programs mandated by the state, the time for supportive discussion is minimal. Instead, the focus is on survival. What is missing in these relationships and discussions is the time and energy devoted to the development of the whole teacher. Schools are a sink-or-swim world, and the survival mechanisms we develop in lieu of support are often unhealthy and pedagogically unsound.
And yet there is no time to think about it.
There is no time during the day, no time left after all of the assessments, no time in between all of the fires to put out (and the actual fire drills) for the sustained, supportive reflection that we all so desperately need. Because that’s what the teacher ed model of mentorship actually promotes and sustains throughout the program: long-term, intense personal written reflection.
I have mentored many student teacher interns during my career and this requirement for daily written reflection is a powerful piece of the developing teacher puzzle. MSU pre-service teachers are required to journal daily on their successes, their failures, their struggles, their joys. Although the degree to which the interns do this varies by person, the goals and results are the same: thoughtful reflection facilitates thoughtful teaching; a thoughtful educator is one who spends a great deal of time reflecting on all aspects of their participation.
But in the “real world” of teaching, who has time for this thoughtful reflection? Who has the energy? And if we are reflective, by nature, what questions are we asking ourselves? How do we constantly better our practice and celebrate our successes when we are neck-deep in crisis management and drowning in mandates?
I read a piece earlier this year that changed the discussions at my family dinner table (when we are lucky enough to all sit down to an actual dinner together); this piece suggests that—instead of asking each other “How was your day?”—to ask the following questions:
- How were you kind today?
- How did you fail today?
- What are you proud of today?
- How were you brave today?
What if we teachers had the time/took the time/demanded the time to ask these questions of ourselves every day? If not every day, then at least every week? If not every week, then at least once a month?
What if we added continued, sustained reflection to our workload? How might this work? When would it happen? What would the results potentially be? Because, let’s be honest. We don’t have time. Those of us who are constantly overthinking everything are doing this already in the middle of the night (or in a nightly bottle of wine). And those of us who are in survival mode don’t have the time, or the impetus, or the wherewithal, or the motivation to go down that rabbit hole.
And yet, without reflection, how will we ever do more than survive?
One place where reflection could be nurtured is during PD and staff meetings. We are already there, a captive (if not engaged) audience. Adding a systematic 10 minute written reflection might allow us to stop, take a breath, and take measure of ourselves, our practice, and our goals. But this reflection needs to be thoughtfully designed if it is going to be productive. And we need to be honest with ourselves and take stock of what we bring to the table. If our reflection centers around others (kids these days/parents these days/administration these days), the result is deflection, not reflection. Instead, we have to ask ourselves the following questions. Not all at once. Not on the same day. Not even in the same week. But systematically, we have to stop moving, take stock, and write.
- How was I kind today?
- How did I fail today?
- What am I proud of today?
- How was I brave today?
- What student did I truly connect with today?
- What student interaction do I wish I could do over?
- What truly worked about the activity I designed today?
- What do I need to rework in my lesson plans from today?
- What are my greatest traits as a teacher?
- What are the areas in which I struggle?
- Why did I become a teacher?
- Am I the teacher I thought I would be?
- What is a different way I could teach that concept that I taught today?
- Are my students engaged in my classes? How can I change this?
- Are my students motivated? How can I change this?
- What other ways could I assess the skills that I am teaching?
- What do I love about my job? About this school?
- What can I do to positively impact the environment in my school?
- What relationships with other staff members can I build?
- Whom do I admire on staff and how might I let them know?
How can I become the teacher I always wanted to be?
This might not affect teacher evaluations or student assessment or test scores or learning targets. This might not change the ways in which we and our students are measured.
But it might impact the ways in which we think about what we do and why we do it and who we are and who we want to become.
And this is what education should be about: supporting ourselves and our students so that we can all truly be the best that we can be.
This is what counts.