Improving Your Teaching Practice through Reflective Journal Writing
[This originally appeared in KOTESOL’s “The English Connection” magazine in 2010 and was co-written with Manpal Sahota.]
If you’ve been following ELT conferences or journals over the last few years you’ve probably come across the term ‘reflective practice.’ Reflection seems to be one of the common buzzwords in teaching today and it might be the type of thing that we would typically dismiss out of hand as a fad or yet another term seemingly created to distinguish between the knowers and non-knowers in the ELT field. However, we feel reflective practice is an integral part of every teacher’s professional development and more teachers need to understand its benefits.
There have been several excellent seminars on reflective practice at various KOTESOL events, including seminars from one of the world’s leading voices in this field, Dr. Thomas S.C. Farrell. You can catch Dr. Farrell’s thoughts on reflective practice with his regular contributions to TEC in his column on professional development. For further information regarding other methods of reflective practice see Dr. Farrell’s book, Reflective Language Teaching, From Research to Practice.In this, our third column, we hope add to his work and share a bit about reflective practice and how it has shaped our thinking, teaching, and our work with in-service teachers.
What is reflective practice? It is analysing what you do in the classroom and challenging your beliefs about your teaching practice. Once you gather this information you use it to implement changes and guide your future teaching practices.
All teachers have classes that go very well and all teachers have classes that make them question why they got into teaching. Many times teachers attribute great classes to the strength of the lesson or teacher and terrible classes to the weaknesses of the students. However, more often than not the opposite is true. Perhaps the great class had nothing to do with what you did in the classroom and maybe the terrible class was a result of the activities you tried or the methods you employed during the lesson. This is a simple but important point often raised by Dr. Farrell. Reflective practice helps teachers to find the reasons behind successes and failures in the classroom.
We feel a great way to engage in reflective practice is through journal writing. Journalising your thoughts, experiences, successes, failures, fears and anxieties can prove to be a very insightful endeavor. You can choose when and how often you write journals, from writing everyday after each class to writing at home once a week. By writing about your classroom experiences you will be able to achieve a new understanding of your teaching practices and most importantly you will gain a new quality that all teachers should possess – awareness. Awareness of what you do, awareness of how you do it, and awareness of why you do it. Being aware of these three areas will help you develop and improve as a teacher.
Michael, who is generally proud of his healthy skepticism, decided to try keeping a reflective journal after hearing so much about reflective practice from many people in the field, including Manpal and Dr. Farrell. Michael was immediately impressed with the clarity of thought and peace of mind that keeping a reflective journal provided him. Michael started to think that reflecting on the class was at least as important as planning. He is quick to say that keeping a reflective journal is not a panacea but Michael strongly feels that there are definite and tangible benefits to such a practice. The first is that it helped him to frame the issues about his teaching in an unemotional way and gave him a chance to calmly approach the blur of activity that English lessons and training sessions can be. Teaching is often an emotional business and it has been very instructive for Michael to separate emotion from rational thought through the use of journaling.
If possible, it would be highly beneficial to share your journals with other teachers who are also engaging in reflective practice. By allowing others to read your journals and comment or give feedback your peers can support or challenge what you have written. You will able to learn from their experiences and thus improve your personal practical knowledge at a greater rate. A group of teachers engaging in reflective practice together in this way is what some refer to as a ‘community of practice.’
Manpal was part of a community of practice with two other teacher trainers when he worked at an in-service training institute for Korean English teachers. Being able to journalise our experiences and receive feedback from each other was very insightful for all three of us. It helped us to overcome classroom difficulties and encouraged us to implement changes in our lessons. Indeed, Manpal felt his teaching practices improved as a result of writing journals.
Where Manpal now works new teachers starting each semester are required to participate in a community of practice with 4-5 peers for their first 12 weeks. The teachers write about their successes and failures in the classroom, and offer advice/resources when a teacher is struggling with a certain class or topic/grammar point/etc. It was impressive for Manpal to see how open and supportive these communities became week after week. By the end the overwhelming opinion was positive as many teachers appreciated being able to discuss and share ideas with other professionals in their field. For many it was the first time they actually talked (thought) about what was going on in their classrooms.
In addition to sharing journals with peers, some teachers find sharing their journals with students to be helpful. For a few teacher training courses Michael posted his journal on his website for course participants to see. This provided a model of what a reflective journal might look like and offered at least two additional benefits. The first is that it showed course participants that Michael is committed to reflective practice and that he values it. Another benefit is that it gave course participants a chance to see what the trainer was thinking and feeling. Michael heard from many participants that reading his journal gave them a better understanding about teaching English as well as a better understanding about what he was thinking and feeling about the class. Michael felt that it was a good way to share both his thoughts and the decisions that he made related to the classes.
Of course, it is not easy to share your journals with just anyone. Many people don’t feel comfortable sharing their fears and failures with colleagues for fear of judgment and being labeled a ‘bad teacher.’ Some teachers feel a sense of competition with coworkers and are not interested in helping their colleagues improve as teachers. These are important obstacles to consider when forming a community of practice. You need to choose people you trust, feel comfortable with, and who are not afraid to share intimate accounts with you and the other members of your community. Another idea is to create ‘critical friends’ with friends you already have and who are in the EFL teaching profession. Sadly, it is quite rare for friends, even if they are both in the EFL/TESOL profession to critically discuss their teaching practice with each other (this was the case for Manpal and Michael for several years). Starting out with friends can be a gentle entry into the world of reflective practice.
While it is passionately supported by its adherents, reflective practice is still not part of mainstream TESOL education. Many teacher training courses, especially those for new teachers, do not include reflection. Apparently reflection is thought of as something for more experienced teachers. We feel that more courses and thus more beginning teachers should experiment with reflective practice as early as possible. Many of us have heard the difference between a teacher with 10 years’ experience and a teacher with 1 year experience repeated 10 times. We feel that healthy doses of reflection can help prevent teachers from getting stuck in ruts and having “Groundhog Day” type lessons, courses and careers.
If your New Year’s resolution was to become a better teacher, why not start reflective practice today?