How Reflecting on the Year Makes Better Teachers

Every summer I do some serious reflection and self-criticism on how the school year went and start my initial planning for next school year while everything is fresh in my mind.  It’s easy to get complacent and, assuming you’re teaching the same thing the next year, to plan on doing many of the same activities (save you get super inspired on pinterest).  Here’s my take on that though.  That doesn’t do your future students any favors I would get bored doing the SAME thing in the SAME order just with a different set of kids.  Now yes, there are some activities I do each year, like a map activity for each war, but I try putting a slightly different spin on it from year to year so that it at least feels and looks different.

How and why I reflect on the school year that just ended before planning the next one.

How and why I reflect on the school year that just ended before planning the next one

To start the reflection process, I sit down with my planner, my binder of master copies of every project/activity/test/etc my kids did during the year, and a stack of sticky notes.  I then take a pretty honest look at it all and write my thoughts (positive, negative, anything) on a sticky note on each master copy.  One activity might have gone amazingly well with one group of kids but might have completely flopped with another and if I figure out why then I can improve it for next year.  Or, I can say something like I thought that would been really neat but really the kids didn’t get anything out of it and it is up to me to figure out how to improve it or to made the executive decision to scratch it.  With another resource I might say I can’t believe how successful this was and I should definitely do it again next year.  If something seemed like a flop across the board, I reflect on the whole unit and determine if that was because maybe I didn’t teach the material clearly enough, or maybe if I didn’t give the kids enough time to process everything, or maybe it was the style of activity itself, etc.  If I don’t challenge myself to make something more engaging, to fix what wasn’t great, what wasn’t rigorousness enough, or was too difficult for my kids, then I’ll end up being the same teacher the next year instead of a better teacher.

There are teachers who do the same activities the same way year after year and that might work for them.  They might work in a stable school district with similar students from year to year and might have such a handle on things that they can plan the next unit and say, “ok last year this took 12 days from start to finish so I’ll plan it for 12 days this year too…last year we did activity A on Tuesday, activity B on Thursday, and we discussed up to topic X on Friday so I’ll plan it the same way this year too.”  More power to those teachers (and I have known one of those and she was a fantastic teacher).  For many of us though, I don’t think that’s how we can be the best teachers for our kids.

For one thing, as of this coming school year I’ll have taught in 3 states in 7 years and each has slightly different standards and content area focuses, and the make-up of my classrooms were very different.  I had 5 honors classes one year from upper-middle class suburbia, another year in a different state I had students who were more focused on not getting sucked into gang activities than studying for a test, and this coming year I’ll be teaching middle school at an all girls’ private school.  So what was engaging to one of those groups, or the right amount of academically challenging, might not be to another group so I definitely can’t just press replay from year to year.

Not to mention, just because I thought activity A was amazing last year doesn’t mean there’s something better/more engaging/etc out there (like this past year I discovered gallery walks which my kids and I loved).  Your students last year may have had a cursory interest in spies during the Civil War but this years’ students might find the topic fascinating.  Taking an extra day or two to delve further into that topic for your students might not have been in your lesson plan book, but that’s what post-its are for.  Put a post-it over the next few days and push your plans back.  Other activities might seem to go over well each year, but given some space from the activity you might see a way to make it better.  Each time I taught the New Deal there was one activity in particular I did repeat each year.  It was a way to make a sometimes-blah-topic not so blah, and my kids got to use the school PA system so they always loved it, but the lack of “super-awesome-amazingness” of it always nagged at me.  It was good, but I knew it could be better.  So I stopped thinking about that activity for a few months, and when I revisited it I saw how to take it to the next level and now I’ll feel much better the next time I use it in class.

Is there anything in particular you do during the summer to make the transition from one school year to the next?  I’d love to hear about it in the comments 🙂

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