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Reflecting on a tough year

This past school year has been like no other. Schools and teachers have been pushed to their limits and beyond. Many teachers have reached their breaking points and the numbers of teachers leaving the profession have skyrocketed. Outside the classroom, the persistent pandemic, economic hardship and constant conflict have been bombarding us non-stop. It has taken everything we have to get to June. And now it’s time to … reflect? Seriously?

At the end of an experience, we know it’s important to reflect in order to glean the most from it. But how do you reflect on a difficult experience without reliving the hardship, and potentially the trauma of it? How do we move forward in a positive way? I have a process for reflection that helps me in these times. I’ve also used it with groups I work with. Today, I offer it to you.

Identify Growth

In the words of the musical Hamilton, “Look at where we are, look at where we started.” Often, the progress we’ve made has been slow and incremental, or perhaps sporadic, with a lot of stops and starts or even steps backwards. When we see all the small steps, it’s difficult to see that progress has been made at all. Similar to measuring height on a doorway, looking back over a longer period of time helps us see the bigger picture and all the forward progress we’ve made, without seeing all the difficulties of getting there.

Look at your skills at the beginning of this school year. Chances are, you’ve learned something new or honed a skill or two. What can you do now that you couldn’t do last September? Read back through your journal or lesson plans. How were you thinking about your work when the school year started? How has that changed? When I started my graduate program in January, I was strongly encouraged to reflect and journal after each learning session. Looking back now, I’m surprised at how much I’ve learned, even in that short a time.

Focus on the Positive

When an experience has been difficult, it’s easy to focus on all the things that went wrong: the poor decisions we’ve made, the traumatic events, the things that could have gone better. I know I’ve spent many sleepless nights thinking through that day that was a disaster, trying to decide what I could have done differently. While this can help us learn from our mistakes, it can also set us up for a negative mindset and a cycle of self-criticism and failure.

Search through your lesson plans, notes or journal and identify the things that went well. Which lessons were your students excited about? Which ones did they do well with? Which days, hours or minutes were the ones when you felt happy? In 2021, I started keeping a mood journal, to track the days or events when I felt happy, cheerful or optimistic. There have been much more than I thought there were!

Get into the details

Once you’ve identified some positive moments, look back at what you did, thought and felt during that time. Get as specific as you can. What decisions did you make? What were the turning points in the day? What made it a positive experience? What did your students enjoy about it? Why did they do well?

At a recent training, I had the opportunity to see an amazing amount of growth in my trainees in just a few days. They learned a lot of skills and gained confidence by leaps and bounds. As they gained skills and learned difficult things together, their bond grew as a group. One of the best things I think I did was sitting them all down after a somewhat chaotic and stressful afternoon and looking at what was going well and where we still needed to grow as a group. They identified that even though the day had been chaotic, they were communicating well, prioritizing safety and helping each other remember all the steps they’d been taught. It was a real turning point for all of us.

Identify what’s important

Now that you have all the details, identify what was important about what you or your students did. What effect did decisions, actions, thoughts or feelings have on the group? What made that moment a turning point? How did it become a positive moment? Taking the time to allow my group to identify their strengths helped us use them to accomplish the rest of the learning they needed to do. The rest of the training went much more smoothly and by the time the training was over, they were confident not only in the skills they had, but in each other. They knew they would have the support of the group to work through problems and do the job they needed to do.

Apply what you've learned

Once you’ve identified the ingredients that made that day, hour, or minute a success, look at other moments over the past year. Were there other times that were similar? Did those same ingredients show up in other high points or positive times? Were there others? Pile up those ingredients. Write them down. Fill your professional pantry with them.

Now look at something that didn’t go as well, or something new you’d like to try. What ingredients from your professional pantry could you add to turn this new moment into a positive one? It’s wise to choose only one at a time or choose just one ingredient to sprinkle into several new situations. Making huge changes to everything all at once can be overwhelming. Give yourself every chance for success. For me, I’m identifying the places during my trainings when that moment of taking stock and identifying the strengths of the group could take place. Which parts of the training create that chaos? When might my students feel discouraged? I’m looking forward to implementing my “new” technique into my work.

While we may be tempted to try to forget the past year completely, reflecting on it can be a valuable part of growing as a professional and a person. Focusing on the positive moments and intentionally planning to put more positivity in our work is a much healthier way to move forward. Who knows? It could make our summer better too!


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