Barry Saide takes notes constantly.
This teacher in Bernards Township, New Jersey, jots down ideas about which strategies are particularly engaging to students, which lessons don’t seem to connect and what he might to differently the next time around. “By the time 9 1/2 months have gone by, I have a laundry list of information,” Saide says. “Then, all I need to do is go through my lesson plans and my notes, and I have a wealth of data to say, ‘What grade would I give myself?’”
This reflection is essential for professional growth and can provide more meaningful lessons than even the best teaching workshops, says Alisa Simeral, co-author of “Teach, Reflect, Learn: Building Your Capacity for Success in the Classroom.”
“The best teachers are constantly reflecting,” says Simeral. “It’s embracing that notion that, if something isn’t working in my classroom, that doesn’t make me a bad teacher. It’s there to teach me something, and it can strengthen me in my profession.”
Here are some questions to ask yourself as you wind down from one school year and begin to plan for the next:
1. Are you taking enough risks?
Saide used to shun educational technology. But he saw the impact that it was having in other people’s classrooms and he pushed himself out of his comfort zone to incorporate tools like Twitter, Edmodo and blogging into his instruction.
“I need to risk, I need to fail, I need to learn that failure is just the first attempt in learning,” says Saide. “I said, ‘Let me be that person I want my students to be: A lifelong learner.’”
For other teachers, “risk” might mean teaching a challenging new book, or trying out unfamiliar methods like flipped learning—anything that keeps the work from feeling stagnant.
2. What can you learn from colleagues?
Saide didn’t need to take any classes to learn the best ways to incorporate technology into his teaching. “I just bit the bullet and asked people, ‘How do you do that?’” Saide recalls. “Sometimes, that’s the hardest thing, to ask another educator how to do something. In actuality, the most flattering thing you can do is to say, ‘Can you teach me?’”
If other teachers in your building excel in an area where you struggle, try to connect over coffee during the summer to see what you can learn. Maybe you’ll have something to teach them, too!
3. Are your classroom systems efficient?
Systems like attendance, handing in papers, grading and library set-up and procedures make or break a classroom, depending on how smoothly they run. But it’s difficult to change things up during the school year—summer is the optimal time to take a step back and tweak things.
“The more kids know exactly how to do things and where things go, the better the classroom is going to run,” says Jennifer Orr, a teacher in Fairfax County, Virginia.
4. Is your classroom culture where you want it?
Don’t just reflect on academics. Ask whether your classroom is the sort of place where students feel safe and accepted (and where they have fun learning!).
“If you want to build a classroom with high academic achievement,” says Saide, “you need to first get to know kids—not as students, but as people. If they think we see them as just another data point, then we’ve lost the battle.”
Kevin Parr, a fourth-grade teacher in Wenatchee, Washington, decided last summer that his students weren’t taking enough ownership over their learning. “That was my thing this year, to eliminate the line of kids pushing their papers at me to see if they did it correctly,” he says.
Parr implemented more project-based learning in his classroom and had students keep track of their work through calendars and journaling. “Last year, I was managing everything,” he says. “This year, my goal was to get them to manage their progress.”
Other classroom culture goals might revolve around the way students treat each other or whether students are able to show perseverance in the face of obstacles.
5. How can I build on my success?
“Teachers typically think, ‘If I have to reflect, I have to change everything,’” says Simeral. “It’s more about validating: What’s worked for you? What successes have you had in your classroom this year?”
If Orr, for example, discovers some effective new strategy or an engaging read-aloud book near the end of a school year, she’ll try to incorporate it earlier the next school year. Building on the positive not only helps improve instruction—it can keep teachers from getting down on themselves unnecessarily.
“One of the greatest challenges for teachers is that we often look at the problems,” Orr says. “We look at kids and see what they can’t do yet, or we look at the things we’re not doing. There are fabulous things that are happening, and it’s easy to miss them.”