Urgent vs. Important: on reflection

Last summer, I came across a blog post by Peter Greene, “The Hard Part”. And still, I find myself thinking about this.

There is never enough time. There are never enough resources. There is never enough you.

A teacher friend of mine once said something about how we, as teachers, are often making decisions between urgent and important things. There are always things that must get done Right Now. We’re doing a lab tomorrow- this means making enough solutions for all the classes, making sure the lab bins are set up, labeling the cups and beakers in advance so that the kids aren’t wasting time (because we’re not just doing a lab tomorrow, we’re also doing a quick review and taking a quiz that many students are complaining they aren’t ready for). There’s always grading to be done (which reminds me, I was supposed to grade a student’s late lab notebook). And when it seems like there’s nothing to do, I’m looking ahead, trying to anticipate what’s coming down the line, creating drafts of documents for our team to look at so that we’re not scrambling last-minute to get things done (although let’s be honest, we are often scrambling last-minute to get things done).

Many of these urgent things are also important. It is (at least, to me) important to have lab prepped ahead of time. It’s important to have an outline of lesson plans several days in advance so that I have some time to think about what I’m teaching and how I’m teaching it. It’s important that copies are made on time. It’s important to grade the work that I collect in a timely manner, so that students get feedback in a timeframe that is useful for them.

But there are those things that are important but not necessarily urgent. And it is hard to justify the time for those things sometimes. I started a 3-minute observation club in my department this year, and I’ll admit that I’ve been a little disappointed by how it’s been going. We started with 10 teachers, but one only came to the first meeting, and every month fewer and fewer teachers have stopped by the open classroom to observe their colleague. I’ve had several people tell me that they aren’t going to continue with the club (at least, not this year), because they can’t commit the time. It’s ~15 min to observe the classroom (more if you choose to, I’m counting transit time), ~10-15 min more to type up your notes from the observation, and a 1 hr meeting, so total of about 1.5 hrs a month. 1.5 hrs doesn’t seem like a lot, but in teacher time it’s volumes. Particularly when it’s supposed to be “my” time. I can grade a class’s worth of exams in that time, or lesson plan. I can clean up my classroom, I can organize myself so that I’m ready for the next period I’m teaching. And at some point, I’d like to go home and relax so that I don’t burn out completely. So I understand why this club gets pushed to the end of my colleagues’ priority list.

I personally had high hopes for this 3-minute observation club, because I wanted time and space to reflect about teaching with my colleagues. But reflection is one of those things that seems to be important but not urgent. In our chemistry team, we started an on-going google doc where each person can type in their thoughts and feedback about specific activities we tried this year, so that when we look back on it next year we can remember what went well and what didn’t (instead of trying to dig it out of our brains). I’ll admit, I also haven’t kept up with this google doc. There’s often too much to do on the “urgent” list, and when I’m done with the “urgent” list, I often forget about this doc.

There is just not enough time. In my perfect world of teaching, there would be time built into the school day for reflection, for conversations around teaching and learning with my colleagues who are working with the same population of students. But because reflection is so important to me, so vital to my development (and also my sanity) as a teacher, I take the time for it, formally and informally. I want more time for reflection, more time to process what happened that day and how to really move forward in a way that best benefits my students. And I want more time to reflect with other teachers, particularly those at my school who can help me really reflect (rather than offering “quick fix” solutions).

Our 3 min observation club is down to about 6 people. At the moment, I believe that these 6 will stick it out for the rest of the year, because we seem to value the development of a reflective teaching practice. I’ve had thoughts before about the importance of a reflective teaching practice, and more and more I believe that reflection really is essential to developing as a good teacher.

There’s been a NY Post interview/promo going around the internet (at least, among my teaching internet circles) about this new book by Ed Boland, who left a job as an executive to teach at an inner city school. There’s a lot of outrage against Mr. Boland, with good reason (in my opinion). He seems to have a White savior complex and was perplexed as to why his students didn’t appreciate all that he was doing for them (confession- sometimes I’m also angry and frustrated that my students don’t appreciate all that I do for them. But I get over it). I wonder how much reflection Mr. Boland brought to his teaching practice. Peter Greene, again (coming full circle in one blog post) wrote eloquently about this, pointing out that Mr. Boland probably had no idea of the power of gentleness in the classroom. And I wonder if part of that lack of gentleness is a lack of a reflective teaching practice- rather than demand control, what else can I do? What is really going on in this classroom? Are there underlying issues (that perhaps I am not responsible for, exactly, but am inadvertently aggravating)?

So how do we find time to reflect? And how to do we convince others- colleagues, administrators (at the school and district level), legislators, anyone who dictates how my time as a teacher should be used- that this reflection really is valuable for developing teachers, for helping teachers grow in their practice and become better and more responsive to students? I believe that reflection is important, and perhaps more urgent than it often seems to be. How do I convey that to others, who only see the immediate needs and the outcomes? (Can you tie teacher reflection to student outcomes? That would be an interesting study.)

All I can do right now is make sure that I am taking time to reflect, even when that’s getting cut out of time that I could be spending on other things. I’m thankful to be among colleagues who do care, who are willing to take the time out of their day to talk about things (in more than just a venting session, although those have their place too), to think more deeply about their practice.  But I hope that, as a profession, we see the importance of reflecting, and somewhere down the line, space is made for it in meaningful ways.

5 thoughts on “Urgent vs. Important: on reflection

  1. Loved this, Heidi. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and for the reminder about that important distinction between urgent and important. You note a lot of what keeps teachers from seeing the important for the overwhelm of the urgent. I wonder, what do you think helps other teachers see the benefits of attending to the important, but not urgent?

    I’m also interested in your disappointment about observation club numbers and can resonate with it. What motivates you to participate in something like your observation club? Having had very similar experiences last year and feeling the frustration of thinking about how little I felt the time commitment was, but how prohibitive it was for some teachers, I think I’ve gotten to a point where I have to believe that they haven’t given it enough time to experience the benefits of putting in that extra work. And perhaps for where those colleagues are at right now, that’s the most important thing. It’s hard to reap benefits of reflecting if you can’t be in the right mindspace to learn from it and I include myself when I think about the times when I can’t be present in my own reflections.

    I appreciate how you bring teacher burn-out into the conversation. It makes me think about our early Teaching as Inquiry work in Year 1 of KSTF and how we generally learned that while it is more work, engaging in (optional, teacher-driven) inquiry was actually protective from teacher burn-out. I mean, isn’t that one of the greatest benefits we’ve reaped from KSTF? I know it’s been a big one for me.

    Thanks again for sharing–you’ve given me a lot to think about and a good reminder that I need to continue to create formal space for myself to reflect, and invite my colleagues informally to reflect as well.

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