Reflecting in the Moment

This past weekend, I hosted a school-sponsored trip to go apple picking at a nearby orchard.  The weather was brilliant and the boys had a blast.  The apple picking wasn’t fantastic, but if you were patient, then the best apples had a way of finding you.  I walked around the orchard with two sixth graders from my class as they had never been apple picking before.  I wanted to show them the ropes.  We walked past several trees that didn’t seem to have any apples left.  Then we happened upon a tree that seemed quite full of red apples.  So, we started picking, and that’s when we realized that the tree was playing a nasty little trick on us.  From our angle, the apples looked perfect, but in fact were quite rotten or infested with various insects.  I explained to the boys, the art of apple picking.  You need to be choosy and picky.  You can’t pick every apple you see.  You must inspect the apple completely before pulling it from the tree to be sure it is not funky.  So, we continued walking about, looking for some pickable apples.  While we happened upon a few funky ones, we did manage to find plenty of great apples.  The key is in taking the time to look and observe before yanking.  While I’m not sure if these young men will ever have another chance to go apple picking as they come from a large city in China, they now know the ins and outs of apple picking.  It’s an art.  It’s all about stopping and thinking.

In the classroom, we refer to stopping and thinking as reflection: Taking the time to look back at what you did and learn from it.  While I usually do this after classes every day in this very blog, because I’ve gotten so into the habit of reflecting, I’m now always thinking in terms of reflection.  How did that lesson go?  Could it have been better?  Could my interaction with that student have been more effective?  I find myself mentally reflecting almost all of the time.  It’s great.

Today was the dreaded ERB Testing day at my school.  I hate standardized tests.  While gathering data for checkpoints can be beneficial, I also question the validity of filled-in bubbles.  What does they really tell us?  I’d much rather have a student respond in writing or orally to questions.  That way I really know if he knows his stuff or not.  I could guess on a standardized test and possibly score quite high on the scale.  Does that say anything about my aptitude or intelligence?  Not really.  Anyway, testing is yucky, but we administer them in the sixth grade because our school mandates it.  So, like a good teacher, I follow my orders.

The students did a great job.  They sat still, were generally focused, and seemed to really be putting forth excellent effort.  I was very impressed.  Very little policing needed to take place as they took the test in class today.  After the first few testing sessions, the students had a 15 minute break to get a snack, run around, or use the restroom.  They needed the time to recalibrate before completing the next section.  I reminded them that the ninth graders would be in classes and that other groups of students might be taking the test too.  They needed to be quiet and respectful when in the academic buildings.  I thought for sure that they could handle this.  I forget to take into account that they had been sitting, focusing on a challenging test for the past two hours.  How could they possibly be prepared to make smart decisions?

As the students began to filter back into the classroom, a colleague of mine came to report to me that some of the students had been running through the hallways, screaming as ninth graders were in class.  Holding the bar high, I sternly ended their break and had them return to their seats.  I expressed my disappointment in their choices and informed them that they would not get another break prior to lunch.  They struggled to follow our school’s core values and were disrespectful to their Cardigan brothers.  I moved right into the next testing session.

After I laid into my students, I started to wonder, Was I too hard on them?  No, they needed to be reminded of the rules and expectations.  If I didn’t mention it or make a big deal of it, they might think that they could act like that again.  We can’t have that.  Then, on my way to get a fresh cup of coffee, I chatted with a colleague.  He asked me how the testing was going for my students.  “Things are good.  The boys are doing well, but a teacher did tell me that some of the students were seen running in the building, shouting as they made their way back to the classroom.”  His feedback helped me to see the light.  “What did he expect?  They’re sixth grade boys who have just been cooped up in a classroom taking a test all morning.  Of course they had energy in need of escaping.”  I never thought about it like that.  Maybe I was not the only one who overreacted.  Perhaps my colleague had also overreacted by reporting the incident to me.  Sure, I want my students to be compassionate and respectful at all times, but on a day like today, we should be a bit more lenient.

After my students finished completing the test section they were working on, I got a little discussion going.  I shared my thoughts with them.  “While it was not appropriate to run and scream inside an academic building, you are sixth graders who had been sitting, taking a test all morning.  Excess energy was bound to build up.  You just need to be more mindful of other students next time when you allow that energy to escape.”  I asked if any of the students would like to explain what happened and own their mistakes.  Several students raised their hands and took responsibility for their actions.  They had been running inside and shouting.  They then realized the error of their ways.  I was impressed with the courage it took to admit their mistakes.  I thanked the students for showing courage and honesty in sharing.  I reminded them once again of the expectations for the academic spaces before I provided them with a short break to show good faith in their ownership and bravery as a class.

Reflecting on my quick reaction to something a fellow teacher shared with me, allowed me the chance to best support and help my students.  I probably came down too hard on them.  Yes, I needed to explain what rules had been violated, but I also needed to be mindful of their emotional and mental states at that moment.  They were stressed and tired from taking a test all day.  Their brains weren’t functioning at full capacity because of it.  As their prefrontal cortex hasn’t even developed yet, they were making decisions using a different portion of their brain.  They were actually over thinking their choices.  The student shouting was shouting, “Hurry up guys, we’re going to be late for the next test.”  Is that a bad thing to shout?  No, he was looking out for his peers.  He was trying to help his classmates get back to the classroom on time.  He was being thoughtful by saying that.  However, he did not think about the other students in the nearby classrooms that were in the middle of class.  The shouting might have distracted them.  So, while what my students did was not the best choice for the time and place, their hearts were in the right place.  Because I reflected on what I said to them as they started their next test, I was able to fix the situation a bit and help continue to build community within the classroom.  I gave the students a chance to own their mistakes and take responsibility for their actions.  If I were not in the regular habit of mentally reflecting, I might not have been able to rectify the mistake I made by lecturing them instead of trying to get to the heart of what happened.  I wasn’t willing to listen to them at first.  Therefore, I wasn’t respecting them.

Reflection is huge.  It has definitely made me a better educator and person.  Several years ago, I never used to think back on something and learn from the experience.  Once something was in the past, it stayed there.  If I remembered something really bad or good that happened, I might incorporate it into the next year’s lesson, but that was it.  I never really got better at teaching back then.  I remained stagnant.  Then, I learned to see the ripples in my teaching that were always there, but because I never looked, I just assumed my body of water was unchanged.  Being a reflective teacher has made me a better teacher for my students, and isn’t that what it’s all about?


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