May: A Time for Reflection and Appreciating Yourself as a Teacher
Linda Woolf, STP President
May 8, 2022
The duties of a teacher are neither few nor small, but they elevate the mind and give energy to the character." –Dorothea Dix
For teachers, the months of May and June always bring forth a mix of emotions—joy, hope, dread, anxiety, regret . . . The academic year is grinding to a halt, with firm deadlines—the administration is not going to accommodate a request for “just two more weeks.” Graduation, students moving out of dorms, advanced placement (AP) tests, summer jobs, and a host of other events mark the transition from one school year to a break before the beginning of a new year months away. You may have even gotten a small token of “teacher appreciation” (i.e., a plant) with the operative word being “small.” Some of us may still teach during the summer but it always feels a bit different than during the “regular” academic year. Nonetheless, the end of the year is a time for reflection and even a bit of future planning. And, yes, for teachers, the end of the year is often not marked on December 31—that is just a time to party during “winter break” or pack for NITOP.
Looking Back: A Time for Reflection
Each semester, many of us assign self-reflection papers or student journals as part of our courses. We want our students to think deeply and critically about the concepts learned in class and the application of ideas to their everyday lives. As we finish another academic year, I hope that all of us will similarly look back over the past year and critically reflect on our teaching. However, I also hope that we can connect that reflection to our values as teachers.
As some of you know, I am on Facebook and periodically post on the STP Facebook page but I also follow other teaching and psychology related groups on Facebook. It is this time of year when we see so many posts about the AP exam, inclusive of teachers questioning whether they taught the right things, whether they gave bad advice about how to take the test, and concerns about not compromising the test. Every AP teacher wants to do everything right, so that their students have the best chance at success. For all teachers, we see questions/posts about handling instances of academic dishonesty, running out of time to meet all the teaching goals we set for ourselves, stories of challenged grades, questions about rubrics, as well as stories of success. These are all reflections but often reactive rather than proactive, situational rather than sustainable.
For many teachers, these past two years have been the most challenging of their entire careers. So I hope as your first reflection, you will pause and give yourself credit for all of your accomplishments. You have made a difference in the very stress-filled lives of your students and their families, as well as your colleagues and communities. The pandemic forced many of us to try all sorts of new pedagogical and learning strategies and modalities. Take a moment to sit down and congratulate yourself, for handling all of the new challenges and for being adaptive and innovative. You not only survived but also grew as a teacher.
Second, I hope you will examine all that you did right and where you fell short in your teaching. Sit down and focus on all that you did right. Think about what you did that was successful and how you can carry those practices into the future. If you had some failures along the way, reflect on what you can learn from those experiences but do not define the past two years by those missteps. Yes, take a look at your course evaluations but look for the constructive comments. If you are like me, you make a beeline to the most negative comment and dwell on that feedback. Well, sometimes these comments are the most instructive and can help you grow as a teacher. So, pause and critically examine the content of that comment. Of course, there are times, when a student may state that they don’t like your shoes (yes, I got that comment) and you can ignore such feedback. Also, look at the positive comments separating out the unhelpful (“Best professor ever!” Feels good doesn’t it!) from the instructive (“I really liked this assignment because . . .”) comments. Such information will help you plan for the future. Of course, I am a big fan of mid-semester course evaluations or conversations as a tool for reflection and possible course change during each semester (e.g., Keutzer, 1993). I’ve done it both formally and informally depending on the class size and level of the course. Each class is unique and such evaluations are helpful to learn if you are meeting these students’ particular needs and interests, as well as demonstrates respect for your students. It highlights that they are partners in the learning process.
Third, you can evaluate all sorts of other markers of whether you feel you were successful in the past year or not. For example, I like to look at whether I successfully met the learning outcomes for the course using the results of various assessments as a measure for each of these goals. Or you can examine overall grades for each of your courses, comparing these grades to previous semesters. Or you can evaluate your time management if you finished the material early or, more likely, ran out of time at the end of the term. There are lots of ways you can assess your own endeavors as a teacher.
Further Reflection on Values
Further, I really want you to reflect on your values as a teacher. Obviously, we want our students to learn and apply psychology to their everyday lives. But, what else do you value? You might reflect first on those teachers who stood out both positively and negatively in your life and what they did that was important. For me, it was whether the teacher exhibited respect for me and value for me as a human being. Hopefully, the days are gone when it was considered acceptable for a teacher to be disrespectful based on power and status or worse, based on differences in gender, race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, national origin, LGBTQ+ identity, disability, and other elements of personal/cultural identity. I want students to see that I care about them as human beings and know that I will treat them with respect and dignity. I want students to see me as accessible if they are experiencing difficulties. I may not be able to fix their problems but I can listen and point them to appropriate resources for help. So, throughout the year, but particularly at the year’s end, I reflect on whether I treated students with fairness, kindness, support, and respect.
Some other values for me are communication, alternate views of success for students, and cultural humility. I am grateful to students for their openness in discussions and all the feedback they provide me through the year. I’ve reframed “success” being tied to stellar academic achievement—it comes easy to some students—but rather tied to individual growth. I recall the 60+-year old student who never took a math class during her time in an inner-city high school. She worked like crazy, was incredibly stressed, had to learn new skills but ultimately she passed statistics with a C grade. I also remember the parent at graduation who came up profusely thanking the psychology faculty, as her son struggled throughout college. Mom never thought he would ever finish but he walked across the stage and got his diploma. These are the sorts of accomplishments that do not make it on any marketing posters but make a tangible difference in the lives of individual students, their families, and communities. I’ve also come to know that my cultural values and traditions, many of which are grounded in mainstream psychology, are not universal and there is so much that I do not know about other peoples and cultures. Hence, I have a commitment to work aimed at anti-bias education and decolonizing my courses, recognizing that I too have much to learn.
So, take a moment. Grab a cup of coffee, tea, or perhaps an adult beverage. Find a quiet place and reflect on your values as a teacher. How do these values shape your courses and teaching? I’m sure that some of your values and goals may be different than mine. And such differences make for great diverse educational environments and opportunities for students. Regardless, think about what is important to you and then examine how you translated those values into your courses this past year. Chances are—despite COVID, despite the stresses of the world—you will have much to celebrate as you reflect on how your values informed your accomplishments during the past year.
And as a final thought: Know that I am grateful for all of you amazing teachers and your work is truly
ReferenceKeutzer, C. S. (1993). Midterm evaluation of teaching provides helpful feedback to instructors. Teaching of Psychology, 20(4), 238-240. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15328023top2004_12