by Aziz Soubai
As a language teacher, I face numerous daily challenges ranging from classroom behavior to grammar issues and learners’ lack of motivation. Without an effective strategy, a technique that would help me see and analyze what’s right and what’s wrong in my classroom practices, I will keep repeating, reproducing the same patterns and getting the same results. In this way teaching can be a vicious cycle. To avoid this, to make my instruction effective, to set clear objectives, I feel that engaging in some sort of regular reflective practice will do the trick.
That’s right! Reflection. That’s the magic word every language teacher needs to be aware of. Reflection involves thinking and “thinking may be the hardest work in the world which many of us will go to great lengths to avoid.” My intention, however, is not to make you avoid reflection. My intention is to share with you some of the tools I use to become a critically reflective teacher. These tools include compiling teacher and student portfolios, writing journals, and getting involved in professional development networks and groups.
The first most important thing in reflection is to be patient and enthusiastic in the whole process. Why patient? Simply because change in one’s teaching style and methodology is not easy; it takes a great deal of time, a lot of energy and passion. There are obviously many ways a language teacher and educator can use to reflect on his/her teaching: recording classes, doing peer observations and assessment, engaging in regular professional discussions, etc. You might wonder why I have chosen the reflection tools that I mentioned earlier. What makes them unique? In what fashion will they aid teachers in professional growth? Let me explain the reasons behind my choices in detail.
- A portfolio is a ‘private collection of evidence’, which might offer the teacher a clear, detailed picture of his/her teaching style and possible ways for future improvements. The same is true for the student – a portfolio will enable a learner to track his/her own progress, increase classroom motivation and even language retention.
- Writing journals is also a ‘private’ activity and might help teachers to gain a number of insights about their practices through the process of writing and collecting specific information about classes. That does not mean that recording lessons or inviting colleagues to observe them is something wrong or counterproductive. The simple explanation is that not all teachers have an opportunity to do that. Besides, bringing a camera to class is restricted in many schools around the globe. So, by offering to keep a journal I’m basically trying to focus on something practical that any teacher with no exception can do.
- Professional development networks (especially online, such as Facebook groups or iTDi courses) are a great way for language teachers to share their thoughts about teaching, interact with a large professional audience, and improve their own learning and teaching styles.
A teacher is always learning from his/her students. A good teacher is a learner at the core. Sometimes, reading learners’ faces and gestures can tell you a lot about what’s going on in class and whether you need to slow down, speed up, or completely change what you are doing or saying. That’s why I encourage my students to write down their feedback comments about different class activities. For example, students can evaluate certain aspects of a class activity or a whole lesson (such as teacher’s speech, interaction, clarity, presence) using rating scales. In my class this is done anonymously. Some might argue that students are not in a position to assess or, let’s say, help teachers to reflect on their methods and refine them accordingly. But I would say that you will be amazed at how much knowledge and details your own students possess! It seems such a huge waste not to exploit that knowledge for the sake of better teaching and learning experiences. I would even go as far as to say that your learners can help you engage in a continuous process of self-observation and self-evaluation better than your supervisors, no matter how trained and skilled they can be.
In my understanding, the process of reflection begins with the first phase of collecting information to build your teaching portfolio. Your portfolio can include:
- copies of students’ work (essays, presentations, projects, tests, and quizzes);
- notes, feedback on your classes and students’ performance in general;
- records of what you do to improve your teaching (workshops you attended, courses you took both online and offline);
- a statement of your teaching philosophy;
- a summary of any planned future professional development activities with a time frame for accomplishment;
- your conference presentations, awards, and publications;
- any materials from those who observed your class (supervisors, colleagues, or mentors).
After collecting and selecting enough evidence, I always like to refer to Gibbs’ Reflective Cycle, which is composed of six basic phases:
- Description (What happened?)
- Feelings (What were you thinking and feeling?)
- Evaluation (What was good and bad about the experience?)
- Analysis (What else can you make of the situation?)
- Conclusion (What else could you have done?)
- Actionplan (If a similar situation happened again, what would you do?)
As a final point, I would like to say that it is only by carefully examining what we do in class that we become successful language teachers. In the words of Dr Phil McGraw, “you can’t change what you do not acknowledge.”