Reflection. It can be a challenge to sustain and sometimes even initiate. Ultimately though, it’s a necessary component of English language teaching and can sometimes even be a catalyst for meaningful change in one's professional life.
According to The Britannica Dictionary (the one I often suggest to my students for its straightforward definitions and use of the IPA), reflection is “careful thought about something.” Many teachers associate this meaning with a time-consuming process or with tasks assigned to them in their own teacher training. Yet reflection doesn’t have to take a lot of time to be useful, and it can be very rewarding to institute on your own as a method of continuous professional development.
Most visibly, reflection can occur after something has already happened, but it can also transpire while something is happening and even before something comes to be. Today I’ll be sharing three phases where the act of reflecting will serve you well in your ELT life.
Reflection is probably most often discussed as an activity that occurs after a lesson, a course, or a term is completed. This typically includes thinking about what went well and what didn’t, providing you insight into what can or should happen next.
Reflecting at the end of a lesson informs your decisions for subsequent lessons. Maybe the next steps you already have planned really are what your students need. Or maybe those steps should be modified to support your students in a way you hadn’t previously considered.
Looking at a whole course, you’ll reflect similarly but with a wider lens. Here, you’ll ask yourself not only about the success of individual lessons and activities but also the overall structure of the course, sequence of skills and topics, and effectiveness of materials used.
Post-event reflections can be intentional, such as by setting aside regular review time, or can be spontaneous, when thoughts come to mind while you’re not focused on reflecting.
I regularly practice intentional reflection at the end of every term; it’s a good time to make changes for the upcoming one before I forget what improvements I’d like to make. I also encounter moments of involuntary reflection while walking back to my office from class or driving home from work. Both types serve the purpose of helping us grow as ELT professionals.
Instructional time is also a prime opportunity for reflecting – teaching and learning is happening right in the moment, so your thoughts and emotions are at the forefront.
There are numerous things you can pay attention to while you’re teaching that are really quite reflective. Have you ever had students give you a look of confusion after explaining a new concept? What about times when your students have responded to a task or assignment eagerly? Noticing how students react to instructions, activities, and materials is key to knowing what your instructional next steps should be.
You can also pay attention to your own reactions. Maybe you are pleasantly surprised at how well the day’s lesson is going, including student understanding and participation. Experiencing this reinforces your desire to continue locating and creating meaningful materials. On the other hand, recognizing your frustration in the way students are going about a certain task indicates that more support may need to be given or provided in an alternate way.
When you encounter these types of reactions in the classroom, make a note of them as soon as possible. I like to have sticky notes readily available so that I can record those “Ugh! I should have done it like this instead!” moments. If I’m using digital lesson plans, I can quickly type in my thoughts in a different color as well as easily add notes or move things around for the next lesson. Having the right tools available to you will cause reflection during instruction to become a habit.
You might be wondering how you can reflect even before you’ve taught a lesson. Think again about the idea of reflecting while teaching. You now have a collection of quality notes that can provide purposeful changes to your teaching and students’ learning experiences. Go back to those notes as you plan your lessons for next week or when you start a new term. What about them can help you plan better lessons, materials, or assignments?
You might decide that you need to look for relevant supporting materials because the course textbook just isn’t enough for a particular concept. Or you may elect to seek out expert help from an ELT colleague or institutional librarian. Depending on your thoughts, you might even determine you need to conduct a complete overhaul of the course and start from scratch. Whether it’s a small adjustment or a big change, your previous reflections, combined with your new lesson/course ideas, can have a considerable impact on the instructional path you choose.
One organizational practice that helps me reflect while planning is keeping copies of lesson plans from previous terms. As I prepare for a new term, I return to those plans and review the different notes I’ve made over time. I do this because sometimes one method works better than another depending on the time of year or the group of students. Other times I’m just ready for variety, so I look to see what I haven’t done in a while but I know works well.
Your goal in reflecting is to consider a number of factors – the objectives, methods, words, actions, expectations, and beliefs that go into a lesson or course – and what results because of those factors, in addition to how you and your students are impacted. The advantage to reflecting at every phase in your English language teaching is that it constantly encourages you to be aware of your particular teaching and learning situation as well as informs you of the next steps that are right for you and your students.
About the author
Heather Johnston is the Academic Coordinator of ESL at Murray State University and business owner of ELT Resource Room. Connect with Heather on LinkedIn.