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Confessions of a Reflective Practitioner

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This post is by Scott Swaaley, who teaches physics and engineering at High Tech High in San Diego. Find out more here.

I spend a great deal of time interpreting my day's activities and my interactions with others. I also spend a great deal of time reflecting on my interpretations - challenging myself to find evidence, see the opposing view, and be rational when my ego oversteps. These habits have led to great outcomes in my professional careers, but I am beginning to doubt their rate of return, especially as it pertains to my quality of life. What is the point of all this analysis? Is it to learn? Is it to be better? Is it to make more money? Is it to be more popular? Is it all of the above?

I think the answer is that reflection is the foundation of learning. It's the application of the reflection--the part where I'm supposed to actually change behavior--that I struggle with. I have a growing mental list of things I want to improve about myself that ranges from dietary practices to student interaction, yet most of these reflections - these calls to action - never make it out of my head. They just hover there and remind me of how much more I have to accomplish in this life. This constant reminder then leads to a nagging guilt or disappointment.

While this applies to my life as a whole, I am most concerned here about how it impacts my teaching. As I begin to understand the seemingly infinite facets of teaching, my mind has started to dwell on some repetitive (and debilitating) thought processes. Some are about what I think are best (or ideal) practices in a classroom. Others manifest as fierce wonderings and doubts. When I start applying them through reflection to my daily classroom experience I quickly get overwhelmed. These thoughts range from trivially small and concrete to dauntingly vast and abstract:

In The Classroom

  • Organizational Systems. I like to tell myself that I am good at adapting to what students need on a day to day basis. That could also mean that I don't plan more than a few days ahead and my classroom is hopelessly devoid of consistent organizational structures which results in preventable disengagement of a significant chunk of my students. Which is true?
  • Psychology. There are always a few students in my class who are struggling through levels one and two of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Why in the hell are we bugging them about grades and algebra!? Get these poor kids some love, safety, and stability in their lives. I feel dirty when, at the end of the day and despite my best efforts, I have to give them a grade--just one more reminder of how they aren't valued by our society.
  • Projects. I tend towards large, complicated, and expensive projects. Do these projects actually increase learning outcomes or am I just a big kid that likes to play with big toys and the kids would be equally well-off with a bucket of cardboard and duct tape (and thus more of my personal attention and time).
  • Babies. I currently average 75 to 80 hours a week of school-related work. We're going to start having kids soon. Am I going to have to choose between being a good parent and being a good teacher? Our estimates of daycare expenses are nearly half of my salary--should I just stay home for a few years?

School wide

  • Student Choice. After core competencies are met (reading, writing, arithmetic, etc.), why do we force students to continue into the trivialities of subjects that they aren't interested in? I think students should have exposure to subject areas--so they can make informed choices--but why waste all this valuable learning time forcing students to study subjects that don't interest them?

Big Picture

  • Why am I here? For all the energy I put into sweating the small stuff in my classroom, why am I in a classroom? Is it the optimal way for me to make a difference or is it just where I landed? Would I be happier or make more money in an alternative learning environment? Should I start my own?
  • College. I hate the fact that college is the default path for students. It defines a huge part of the High School Experience, yet I believe college is the wrong option for many students. Why can't there be a better (less cost, more learning) post-high school option? Should I create that?

These thoughts often lead to a debilitating feeling of helplessness. So, what's a guy to do? These are my go-to suggestions for myself:

  • One thing at a time. When it comes to the classroom-level reflection, pick just one or two items to focus on for a set period of time. For example, this month I could focus on spending less time in class on my laptop. Next month I could focus on ensuring regular face time with every student. Let everything else go. At the end of a few cycles, I expect I would be a little better at each of the things I focused on. After a while, this would develop into a virtuous circle and all my problems would be forever better.
  • Eat magic mushrooms. Dedicate some personal time for a deep reflection of my career choice. What is my end game? What outcomes am I looking for? Then compare my current trajectory with these outcomes and make adjustments as needed.
  • Celebrate the positives. Give mental space to the celebration of successes instead of immediately focusing on the next improvement.
  • Live in the present. Instead of reflecting on the previous moment, or optimizing the next, focus on the present. Give yourself permission to delay or deflect the reflective process.

It's hard to avoid relating this whole process to that terrible statistic--that a huge percentage of teachers quit in the first five years. So how do we solve this Goldilocks dilemma? How do we encourage teachers to meaningfully reflect on their practice without turning their findings into an emotional burden? Post your thoughts and ideas to twitter #PermissionToBeImperfect.

With this post Learning Deeply will take a two-week break. Have a restful and safe holiday, and we will see you in the New Year!

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