When I remember my experiences as a classroom teacher, I know that while I was teaching music and felt that l was in my comfort zone, I was able to achieve the goals I had set for myself when I became a teacher and was the embodiment of my philosophy of education. I provided my students with opportunities to grow and problem solve where music was the vehicle. They had opportunities to accept responsibility and to follow through on a commitment. Learning was fun and challenging. Knowing that I was a part of my students’ growth in self-confidence and maturity was a great joy.
Teachers are (or were) successful students. They learned to play the game of education. I had promised myself that, although I had had to play that game as a student, I would not continue to do so nor demand that of my students once l became a teacher. At the time, I didn’t realize that my having internalized ‘the game’ would make it part of me and who I was as teacher. I know that when l was teaching a new subject in which I didn’t feel secure, when I felt threatened by a totally new professional experience, when l felt that it was all that I could do just to survive each day, l became the incarnation of the entrenched, terrible teachers I remembered from my student years. I was controlling and managerial – the classroom cop. I expected my students to be orderly, silent, and diligent. I was the vice-principal in Up The Down Staircase. There was a place for everything and everything in its place. The main focus of education was stuffing the required subject matter into often reluctant subjects while maintaining constant vigilance for problems which must be controlled.
It is any wonder that I felt that something just wasn’t right for me? The problem wasn’t my students. It was me. I was expecting them to accept my agenda for each class over their own. I did nothing to try to accommodate the stress which existed between my idealistic visions of learning and teaching and my students’ reality. lt is remarkable how arrogant I was. I expected my students to change to match precisely with my expectations simply because I said so and not because there was a valid reason for them to do so.
Luckily for me and my students, I took time during the turn around days between semesters to think about what had transpired when I taught English [definitely not my comfort zone] for the first time. As I reflected about what had happened over the course of the semester, I understood what my problem was. Then I was able to consider my practice and change.
At the beginning of the next semester, I asked my students to formulate evaluation schemes for group activities. I began to test much, much less, believing that it was what happened in class each day that was important not what happened only on the test. I learned how to conference writing. I acknowledged my students’ input into the course design and text selection. I worked not to take my students’ questioning of me or aspects of the course as personal attacks.
Not only was I empowering my students, but I was empowered. My sense of freedom in not having to account for each minute of every class allowed me to make effective long-range plans. l saw beyond planning for each class to how everything fit and connected – not just in the courses which I taught but in the subject area as a whole. I had a deeper understanding of teaching and being a teacher. I truly felt like a professional. And the process continued throughout the rest of my active career in the classroom.
I was able to work toward solutions which involved a paradigm shift in my belief of the role of the teacher in a ‘regular’ classroom. I began to move from teacher-‘wise person’ to teacher-‘learner’, from Buddha on the mountain top to guide on the side. I no longer saw myself as a dictator or lion tamer but as a facilitator of the learning experiences of my students. I also understood that my way of dealing with change or uncertainty had changed.
Armed with a deeper sense of myself as an educator, I no longer saw change or new challenges as things to be approached tentatively or fearfully. Change or challenge had always been like an obstacle before me in my career path. I could go around it but that journey would be long, tedious, and heavy-footed: physically, mentally and emotionally tiring. As well, I would have expended all that energy and learned nothing new. This had been my style of dealing with the need to change vis a vis professional issues or concerns.
Now, rather than go around a problem or issue, l could go into it: always looking forward and able to see the path ahead as l made my decisions, making a journey which was new for me. Sometimes, there would be stopping points where I could be silent and consider my next steps. Sometimes the path would be shallow; sometimes, steep. As I approached the core of the problem or concern, I always felt a sense of exhilaration because I knew that I would gain self-knowledge and a sense of personal power in seeing a way to deal with whatever the problem or challenge was. Then, my journey forward would be imbued with strength, power, energy, certitude, and hope. My sense of personal empowerment grew with each step toward new solutions and different choices.
It was really as straightforward as asking myself a few questions.
- What had happened in the class that day? What had worked? What had not?
- Were there any underlying issues which could have affected what happened?
- What would I choose to do differently?
Simple questions, really. Questions that did not try to place blame on anyone for what had occurred – so…no ‘Why’s’. Questions that gave me the space and opportunity to think about what had happened and to choose a different strategy. And, lest anyone believe that seeking my answers to these questions required inordinate amounts of time, reflecting on the answers was of the moment and quick.
For me, on my path of personal professional renewal and transformation, self-reflection was a primary means of linking my store of knowledge, professional expertise and wisdom. lt was my key to believing in the validity of my own theories of education which had developed from my readings, training, and educational career both as a student and teacher. And so, I have come to believe that purposeful, thoughtful professional self-reflection, no matter how it is labelled, is a very valuable tool which teachers can use to guide their personal professional development – their renewal and transformation.
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