Gentle Reflection Yields Results

Learning without reflection is a waste. Reflection without learning is dangerous.
— Confucius

We all know the exhilarating feeling that comes after a lesson that went really well and the frustration that a less-than-perfect lesson brings. But do we always capitalize on the learning opportunities presented in both situations? When things go well, do we take time to reflect on the moves that we made that turned the lesson into a success? When things go badly, do we just beat ourselves  (or the students) up in our mind, or do we focus on which decisions to change so that we don’t have a similar experience the next time around?

 Teacher reflection is the key to learning from past experiences in order to improve our instruction. The process involves examining what we do in the classroom, thinking about why we make those choices, and analyzing data to determine how effective the strategies we use are. The work of reflection is associated with research by John Dewey who said, “We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.” Without the practice of reflection, teaching often becomes an unconscious act of mimicking the way in which we were taught rather than intentional and transparent crafting of instruction.

 Making time for reflection can sometimes feel overwhelming to today’s teachers who already have extremely full plates, but it is an essential step in honing our skills to continue on a trajectory of professional growth. Because we believe so strongly in the transformative power of reflection, Infinite Horizons has created a list of ways to incorporate this practice into your current teaching routine. We’ve created one list for those who are just beginning this practice or feel crunched for time as well as one for those who are ready to sink in and do some deep learning and growing.

 Beginning Reflection- Fast but effective:

1. Highlighter and pen: Print out your lesson plan, and highlight strategies that worked well in one color and those that didn’t in another color. Keep all of these printed lessons in a binder. When planning your next lesson, focus on how to include the effective strategies more often and improve the moves that didn’t work the last time. Include a column to the right of your lesson plan to jot down notes about the specifics of what went well and what didn’t after teaching the lesson. How do you know one strategy was successful and another not? What is your evidence? (Click here for a sample lesson plan template.)

2. Teaching Journals: There are many different types of teaching journals that help with the reflection process. Some are just blank notebooks that you can fill as you wish with thoughts about your lessons and your students. Others are formatted worksheets that provide structure and focus to the reflection process. (See our free reflection journal sample here.) These journals can be filled in immediately following a lesson or at the end of a school day. Find the time that works best for you, and create a ritual around your reflection. Pour a cup of tea. Put on soft music. Find something that makes the reflection process calming and rewarding as well as productive and helpful.

3. Student helpers: There are some ways our students can get involved in our reflection process. Let’s say that you want to observe how often you call on each student during class discussions. You could give one student a print out of the seating chart and have him make tally marks by the students’ names every time you call on them. (This strategy is probably only doable with students in upper elementary and older.) Of course we would only ask this of a student who would be able to listen and learn while completing this task, but it can be a huge eye-opener for us to see tangible data on our own classroom behavior.

4. The Carpool/Phone Call Pal:  Make good use of your morning and afternoon commute by debriefing your day with a colleague. If you can carpool with someone, the person who is not driving can possibly jot down notes on the gems of the conversation. If you are not able to be in the same car, it is still helpful to discuss the results of your lesson plan aloud with another person. Make sure to begin the conversation with a specific focus so that it doesn’t devolve into one of those oh-so-tempting venting sessions. In the morning you could set your objectives together. For example, you could say, “Today I want to focus on increasing student participation. I’ve included x, y, and z strategies in my lesson plan. I’ll let you know how it goes after school. What are you focusing on today?” Having this type of conversation with another person not only holds us accountable to progressing on our own goals, but it can also can help shake us out of our own patterns of thinking and offer fresh perspective.

 Taking it up a notch:

1. Video: Find a camera and tripod to record yourself while teaching. Although it can feel a bit uncomfortable at first, seeing ourselves in action is extremely helpful in the reflection process! Sometimes we notice that things went much better than we thought they did, and other times ... well ... we learn.smiley face Often the values that we hold as educators and our actions do not align. It is hard to recognize this discrepancy when we’re in the midst of teaching. We’re usually so focused on completing the things we have in our lesson plan that we can’t always see ourselves with a macro lens. What’s more, many of our behaviors are subconscious, yet they can still affect the success of a lesson. These behaviors become more apparent when we watch ourselves teach. 

When viewing the video, it might help to select a lens through which you want to study your practice, then watch for general trends. (For example: I want to see if I am calling on girls as much as boys.) Next, choose at least one thing that went well, and explain why it worked. Find one thing to improve, and brainstorm possible solutions. Seek out the advice of colleagues or use professional resources to help you improve in that area. The next time you record yourself teaching, watch for improvement in the weak area that you had highlighted last time.

2. Friendly observations: Have a colleague observe your class and focus on a specific area that you’re hoping to improve. Next, find a time to discuss observations and brainstorm possible opportunities for growth. (You can use our reflection template to guide your conversation after the lesson is over.) In order for this process to be of use, establishing mutual trust and nonjudgmental attitudes is an absolute must! The fact that you are inviting other teachers into your room to observe your teaching is in itself a courageous act that is rocking present trends. If done well, it can push your teaching to a higher level and be an excellent source of support in your school.

3. Looking at Student Work: Watching and learning from our own actions in the classroom is important, but the rest of the story lies within the context of what students can do after the lesson. More often than not, we can see which students’ needs were met and which students need more support. Sometimes, however, we get stuck on how to interpret student work, how to best support our struggling students, or how push those who are more advanced. Opening up this conversation with colleagues can provide deeper perspective and new insights into ensuring that all of our students learn and grow.

 4. Deep Self-Reflection: Have you ever wondered why certain student behaviors bother you more than others? Isn’t it interesting how your colleagues can be more patient with a student that drives you insane? In order to understand why certain students trigger difficult feelings in us, we have to know ourselves emotionally, culturally, and academically and recognize how these factors impact who we are as teachers. Self-awareness is essential in helping us understand and teach those students who present us with the greatest challenges. Taking time to reflect on our past experiences and recognizing our own hang ups is the first step to finding a way past our walls and barriers. It takes courage to look at ourselves with an honest critical lens, and it’s that kind of courage that can change our lives and the lives of our students. When we know our weaknesses and our triggers, we can find ways to get the support we need to push past them. (*Stay tuned for more information on this and other excellent resources from our newest book which will be published later this year!)

 5. PLCs: Create or join a Professional Learning Community at your school or in your district. Professional Learning Communities are groups of educators who meet regularly to discuss and come to a shared understanding of current research in order to improve student learning in their classrooms. They are communities that discuss problems of practice and work together to find practical solutions. They are results-focused and committed to making a difference in their schools together. Here’s a link with more information on PLCs - Learning by Doing: A Handbook for Professional Learning Communities at Work (Second Edition) By Richard DuFour, Rebecca DuFour, Robert Eaker, and Thomas Many. You can also visit: or for more helpful information on PLCs.

 In all of the opportunities for reflection listed above, it’s important to concentrate your attention on one positive aspect and only one opportunity for growth in each reflection session. Narrowing the focus will allow you to dig into reasons why one thing worked while another tactic did not. It will also make the reflection and growth process much more manageable. We all want to push our practice to the next level, but we have to be gentle with ourselves along the way. If we try to change multiple things at a time, we will end up overwhelmed and frustrated. It is best, therefore, to honor our efforts, recognize our strengths, and search for small ways to continue to improve our teaching. It is also very helpful to focus on the same aspect or strategy for multiple reflection sessions.reflection cycle

If the topic of our reflection changes daily, the learning that will come from it will be fleeting and weak. Only after several iterations of the reflection cycle is it truly possible to own the new effective strategy or the tweak on a previously used strategy. We want our reflection to truly impact our teaching, so we need to dig deep into one topic at a time to do so. Slowly but surely, we will see our own skills sharpened, and we will be able to help our students achieve even better results.

(image from:

Wherever you are on your quest to become a reflective practitioner, we want to applaud your efforts and support you along the way. Please share ideas with us on how you incorporate reflection into your teaching routine on Twitter and Facebook! Together we can list a myriad of effective, practical strategies to add to our teaching toolbox. 

Written by:  Michelle Leip with Kathleen Kryza