End-of-Year Reflection: Think About the Whole Child
As the school year winds down, teachers are spending as much time reflecting on the past year as they are thinking about a summer filled with sit-down lunches, obligation-free evenings and weekends, and restful nights without dreaming about school.
Throughout the year teachers reflect continuously on particular interactions with students, a given lesson, or even a whole school day because they realize it is the key to improving their practice. At the end of the year, however, teachers should take time reflect on how things went overall to set themselves and their students up for success next year. Without a framework to guide teachers, reflecting on the entire school year can easily turn into spiraling self-talk with few results other than "this was the worst year ever" or "this was the best year ever." Nevertheless, teachers can engage in focused reflection that will truly help them to better meet the needs of the kids they will meet in September.
Here are a few points for teachers to reflect on in creating a more engaging, challenging, and safe school experience:
Relive your moment. At the 2014 ASCD Annual Conference in March, Russell Quaglia challenged educators to find "what gets you up in the morning and in front of those kids." This is great advice for teachers to keep in mind when reflecting on the school year, though for me, thinking about my attitude going to and from work is more insightful than thinking about what gets me up in the morning.
I recall the mornings in my classroom listening to my favorite songs in anticipation of the wonderful surprises about to unfold. I also think about those mornings I listened to the hum of the copy machine mimic the monotony the work it would produce. I reflect on the drives home when I turned the music up a little bit louder, rolled the windows down, and sang along in celebration of a risk taken or a challenge met. I also remember going home with a heavy backpack and a heavy heart.
From all of this, I realize the positive scenarios were in relation to long-term projects in which we were all in it together with an authentic goal and real chances to succeed or fail. For example, at the very beginning of the year my class was fortunate to work with Mike Feurstein from the DON'T WAIT® to UnMake a Bully program to write, direct, act, and film an anti-bullying public service announcement that was premiered at the local performing arts center. I looked forward to each day we worked on that project because it challenged me, was fun, and I learned a lot both about the content and about myself. I felt the same way about the other projects that followed as a result of our experience. Not surprising, during those projects students came to school excited, were engaged, and learned. We need more of those moments. Our students need more of those moments. Find them, relive them, and recreate them.
Evaluate classroom culture. No teacher expects their classroom to run smoothly each and every day but it is beneficial to think about the classroom atmosphere in general because it is a critical precondition for learning. If students do not feel valued, safe, and respected they will not be fully available to learn. Additionally, as teachers continue to accept 21st century learning skills (collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking), the nature of the classroom community becomes even more important. Therefore, here are some guiding questions teachers can use to get started evaluating their classroom's culture:
- Were students willing to share their thinking and ask questions knowing their classmates would accept them?
- Did students feel comfortable respectfully disagreeing with one another and invite others to challenge their thinking?
- Were students eager to work with whomever they were grouped with?
- Were all students included on the playground and at lunch?
- When problems between students arose, were they resolved to make the culture stronger or did they persist and divide the room?
Depending their responses, teachers can begin to plan for the changes necessary in creating a stronger, more positive classroom environment that supports students and their learning.
Another thing to think about is how the classroom culture changed over time and, if it deteriorated at any point, what initiated the decline and how was the pre-existing positive atmosphere re-established? A particular revealing point I look at is how the classroom atmosphere responded to the arrival of a new student. It is a very telling event because students are charged with teaching the newcomer how things are done and what is valued. Midway through this year a new student who was determined to turn the class into his stage for getting attention tested the culture of our classroom. For a time he was fairly successful in persuading some of his classmates to join him in his antics and the rest of the class seemed to enjoy the show. Thus, the culture of the classroom was in flux. In the end, however, the pre-existing positive culture prevailed and the new student assimilated to the ways of the room. If the new student had assimilated more quickly I would have known our group identity was strong. The reality, though, was that the new student was able to influence the overall environment. I learned that no matter how strong I think the classroom culture may be, it will always be tested. I need to evaluate the culture of the classroom more frequently throughout the year to ensure that it is strong. After all, classroom culture is not something teachers can establish and walk away from; it requires maintenance.
Think hard about soft skills. Beyond thinking about the class as a whole, teachers should also reflect on students as individuals. Particularly, teachers should consider students' non-cognitive skills development—including their willingness to take risks and try—to persevere in the face of challenges, accept failure as part of the learning process, and invest in their learning. These skills are not only critical to success in school; they are also critical for success in life beyond school. Since there is no right place to be at any given time with these skills, teachers should reflect on each student's individual progress.
Progress in these areas may be incremental for some students so here are some questions teachers can use to help them notice even the smallest developments and plan for future improvements:
- Did students' questions become more specific over time? Did they move from saying, "I don't get this" to articulating a particular aspect of the problem or task that puzzled them?
- Did students begin to seek feedback rather than approval?
- Did students ask for more self-directed learning?
- Did students reflect on their learning, set goals, and have a plan to meet them?
At the end of the year teachers have the tendency to focus solely on the content they didn't have time to cover. I always hear comments like, "I didn't even get to three-dimensional shapes this year." Teachers shouldn't beat themselves up over this, though. Rather, they should reflect on their year to identify what worked to develop interest and engagement, the classroom culture, and students' non-cognitive skills. That way, instead of just trying to do more next year, they can do more of what works and matters most. Thinking about what works and matters most is a great way to spend the summer and will surely get teachers fired up for the new school year.
Kevin Parr is a 4th grade teacher at Abraham Lincoln Elementary School in Wenatchee, Washington. A native of Michigan, Parr earned his undergraduate degree in environmental science from Central Michigan University. As a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala, he realized his passion for teaching and working with children. Parr earned his master's degree in elementary education from Johnson State College in Vermont in 2003. Connect with Parr on the ASCD EDge® social network, by e-mail at email@example.com, through his blog, or on Twitter @mrkevinparr.