Developing a reflective practice, one change at a time

By Crystal Nelson, Ed.D.

After a challenging first year of teaching, I knew I needed to make some changes. I reflected on my year and identified areas I thought would make the biggest impact in the next year. That summer I worked on what I needed to learn and developed a plan to make my next year better. Thus began a habit of reflecting on my practice that has helped me to improve each year in my teaching career.  I have taught for nine years and have focused on changes associated with classroom management, individual behavior modification, and instructional strategies. My favorite area of growth has to do with learning how to serve students in reading intervention.  Even though I’m a music teacher, I got to learn the foundations of how to teach reading! I hope sharing these steps can help other teachers reflect and grow too:

1. Identify where you need improve. What is going to make the biggest difference in student learning or even in maintaining order in your classroom? What is the goal of this change? Limit the changes you are going to make to no more than three. You can’t change everything at one time, and you may not see the success you’re looking for if you spread your attention too thin.

2. Decide how you’re going to measure a goal. Sometimes, my measurement stick is very specific and is exactly how teachers are supposed to goal-set: “I will use x instructional strategy 8 out of 10 lessons.” Sometimes my goal breaks the rules and lacks the specificity: “Improve at x skill.”  Of course, you want to quantify any goals relating to student learning. However, changes relating to organization, classroom management, procedures, etc. can depend on your starting point and your knowledge of what your “end game” should quantifiably look like. Sometimes the vaguer goal is just fine, and you will know if you’re happy with the change or not.

3. Make a plan to make your change happen. If you aren’t sure and don’t know of anyone to ask, read. There is a book on every topic. Reading professional literature has been the biggest help to me, especially those times when I’ve felt like I had no one who could give me the advice I needed.

4. Identify when to start. It’s hard to make “big” changes in the middle of a semester or school year. Because your classroom expectations and policies are already set, it often takes a lot of legwork at the beginning to make a new change successful. It might be better to start new changes on a fresh year with a new group of students when you’ve had all summer to let your ideas marinate and have had time to get new systems in place. It is possible to make adjustments and changes in the middle, but it really depends on what you’re trying to do, how you will be managing the expectations of students, and whether you physically have time to get the legwork in.

5. Reflect on your new change throughout implementation. Is it better than it was before? Where are you seeing success and where are you still unhappy? Modify your plan as needed and figure out those problem pockets. If you feel the plan is failing, you don’t have to continue living with something that isn’t working. However, analyze why it isn’t working and give it a real chance before you give it up completely. (Remember, if you’re attempting a behavior modification plan, the behavior might get worse before it gets better. If this is an area with which you don’t have a lot of experience and the behavior is especially challenging, get help from your principal or a teacher who has a lot of success in this area before implementing the plan.)

6. Pick your next change if you’re happy with the results of your new change, or you’re at a place where you can handle something else.
My first year of teaching was incredibly challenging, as I know it is for many. I try to stay focused on what I can control and improve, rather than all the many factors outside of my control (lack of parent support, limited instructional time, etc). This has led to improved student learning, behavior, and personal job satisfaction.  

Dr. Crystal Nelson has taught for nine years and is currently at Camden Elementary.  She teaches Pre-K–2nd grade general music and reading intervention and serves as RTI co-coordinator. Crystal was as a Hope Street Group fellow for two years as a member of the inaugural cohort of teacher fellows in Tennessee.