Teach and reflect and teach…

Teach and reflect and teach and reflect and teach… (and repeat) (Of course, if you truly reflect on your teaching, you never repeat yourself.)

This is one of the last posts written on my vacation in Portugal. During this week I’ve tried to clarify the different aspects of the declaration I posted last month. Even if not all the posts were directly connected to the main topic of this blog, they still shed light on my ideas and beliefs about teaching and learning.
One of my key beliefs is that teaching and reflecting go hand in hand. It’s quite obvious that teaching without reflecting is possible. But is it possible to reflect without teaching first? I don’t think it is because reflection implies that we need something to reflect on.
Two of the purposes for reflecting on our teaching are to find reasons why something didn’t go as we planned or to build on something that went well. That’s why if you truly reflect on your teaching, you never repeat yourself. In the first case you’ve made changes based on your reflections and in the second case you’ve clarified your beliefs about teaching and learning and therefore are teaching more purposefully.

Pretty simple really.

Small changes

Make small, tiny, minuscule changes.

Sometimes we think that we have to do grand and amazing things in the classroom. And then we don’t do anything because we don’t know where to start. We’re dissatisfied with our lessons and teaching, but don’t have the time to develop all our own materials and then write our own textbook. And so our intentions don’t lead to actions.
Don’t defeat yourself before you even get started.
Small changes can have ripple effects that are more lasting than you might realize. Introduce an activity differently than you have before. Try a new kind of follow up exercise. Or (a classic John Fanselow idea) teach from the back of the classroom.
Current brain research shows that when we make more neural connections, we learn more effectively. Small changes in your normal teaching practice can pique your students’ curiosity and help build those neural connections — the ripple effect has begun!

What tiny change in your teaching practice can you make today?

Way leads on to way.

Have you ever discovered a saying or proverb that really resonated with you? Perhaps you wrote it down and kept it in a special place. You looked at it often enough that you had it memorized. But after a while, it didn’t have the same impact on you that it used to have.

“Way leads on to way”, a line from the Robert Frost poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” is that kind of phrase for me. It describes the idea that even when we make plans for our lives, we don’t know if they will actually come to pass. Simply taking a step can lead us in a different direction than we first intended to go.

For me it became a good reminder not to make too many detailed plans for my life. Often when I have made plans for what to do next, they didn’t come to pass. Like when I decided to relocate to a new city in Japan, applied for what I thought would be the perfect job, interviewed for it and then didn’t the job. Later on, when I learned more about that school, I realized that I would not have been happy working there, even though I had been convinced that it would be the perfect place for me.

“Way leads on” is actually a Quaker idea.* We can try to identify what the next step in our career or life should be, but we don’t know where this step will lead us. Despite that, we step out in trust and faith, knowing that the results of this step will lead us to the next step.

We have to take the first step before we find out what the next step will be.

* I’ve also read about “way leads on” in Parker Palmer’s writing (probably in The Courage to Teach, but can’t cite it now since I’m on vacation without the notes on my laptop and writing this my phone.)

The lighting of a fire

“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”
Apparently this wasn’t something that W.B.Yeats said, despite all the websites that say that he did. (They’re probably just quoting each other.)

No matter who said it, this quote speaks to me of the reality that learning never ends. We can, and should, keep learning for our entire lives. There’s always something new to discover about the world, about our students, and about ourselves.

It also speaks to me about the challenges of being a teacher. If education was like filling a pail, then at some point we would be able to say that our job was finished. But if the analogy of lighting a fire is true, then perhaps our job is never finished. A fire that’s lit needs to be tended. It doesn’t simply burn forever. Too much fuel can smother it. Too little oxygen can make it go out.

If this is all true, then the question remains — who helps teachers keep their fire lit?

The last thing you need?

Sometimes, the last thing you need is yet another activity for Monday morning.

Are you like me? Do you have a thick file of activities that you picked up at conferences and workshops? “Fail-safe!” “Fool-proof!” “Works with any level.” These are just some of the things that you’re told when you collect another one.

But what do you do when one of those activities doesn’t work? When the students don’t respond as you hoped they would? What about when an activity works well with one group but not a different group?

We can hide behind new and innovative ideas for only so long before we have to acknowledge that unless those activities lead to student learning we’re just wasting time.