Magic Mirror, on the wall, how does one become the greatest teacher of all?
Arguably, this is the idealistic aspiration of preservice teachers on entry to an Education degree, and indeed, a large portion of inservice teachers; though many would settle for the less subjective ‘effective teacher’ title. It is difficult, however, to pin down exactly what an effective teacher is, and how to become one. Specific attributes, like being ethical, professional, caring; even consideration of particular teaching philosophies and methodologies come to mind. Others claim that it is simply ‘experience’ that propels a preservice teacher to become proficient in practice. While it is true that teachers are made through a combination of these factors, they are not sufficient to elevate a teacher from ‘ordinary’ to ‘extraordinary’. The ability to teach effectively does not simply come from ‘experience’; it is the ability to learn from this experience, by reflection, critical questioning and informed decision-making that makes the difference. Through an investigation into the qualities of effective teachers, an understanding of the reflection process, and the benefits to both teaching and learning this difference will be demonstrated.
Qualities of Effective Teachers
There is difficulty in definition and measurement of the qualities held by effective teachers. The qualities usually cited are professionalism, ethics, resilience, commitment, enthusiasm, and motivation (Sammons et al., 2007; Whitton et al., 2010). These are then amplified by requirements to be positive relationship managers, who create an environment of trust and respect, and assist to build their students’ self-esteem (Sammons et al., 2007; Whitton et al., 2010). Due to these problematic characterisations, and inability to accurately rank teachers by these qualities, education departments often fall back on ‘years of experience’ as their quality measurement (EDNSW, 2011; EDQ, 2011; EDWA, 2011a). The expectation here is that experience is primarily responsible for creating effective teachers; however, as a recent study found, “the best teachers are not necessarily those with the most experience” (Sammons et al., 2007, p. 698). Instead, they found a small, but significant decrease in relative effectiveness in teachers’ “later years” (Sammons et al., 2007, p. 698). So if effective teaching isn’t derived from years of experience, how is it obtained?
Reflections, Questions, Decisions
Dinkelman reports that “Experience teaches nothing to the non-reflective practitioner” (Dinkelman, 2003, p. 9). This would suggest, in combination with the findings of Sammons et al., there is considerable support to the negation of ‘experience as a measure of effectiveness’; however it does support reflection as an integral feature in effectiveness. It is therefore argued that effectiveness is significantly reliant on a teacher’s willingness to undertake this process of reflection. To support this, the details below will discuss what reflection is, and outline the basic process, which can be summarised as ‘reflections, questions, and decisions’.
Reflection is the act of looking at an event, and examining it critically, towards a deeper understanding of processes, preconceptions, and influences from outside factors. It is a cyclical “process of thought that is active and careful” (MOSEP Consortium, 2006-2008), which provides the ability to problem-solve teaching, recognising opportunities for learning and development; it also promotes a constructivist approach, by encouraging the ‘self-construction’ of knowledge from their experiences (Copeland et al., 1993, p. 348; Loughran, 2002, p. 38).
The first step in the process entails description of the scenario, paying particular attention to salient events, decisions and outcomes. It should include perceptual thinking, feelings and both verbal and non-verbal feedback from students.
Critical examination of the scenario is then undertaken. The event is carefully examined, highlighting why certain situations were encountered, examining the beliefs behind reactions, querying the underlying motivation for making particular decisions, an exploration for alternative solutions, and connecting to alternative actions and hypotheses.
The culmination of the process entails decision-making on areas identified for improvement. Decisions must be made on what to change, and how to implement that change. Once this cycle is completed, action is taken, and then the cycle begins anew.
This process is highly individual, and will be based around an individuals’ past and present, as well as their attitudes and beliefs (Butler, 1996, p. 275). This was recognised by Dewey, who stated that a teachers “actions, attitudes, habits, and thinking are inseparably intertwined” (as cited in Birmingham, 2004, p. 319). The process is also highly critical, requiring “systematic [and] rigorous” thinking combined with an ethos for continuous improvement (Lee, 2005, p. 700). These can be significant barriers to engagement in the reflection process.
Barriers to reflection
Both new and experienced teachers can find this critical element a significant barrier to engagement in the reflection process. Many teachers have a reluctance to expose oneself to criticism, even in the context of ‘self-improvement’, as it has the potential to damage self-esteem, and affect their personal and professional identity (Cattley, 2007, p. 338; Wildman & Niles, 1987, p. 28). Since this is an area that is considered to be a strong indicator to a teachers overall effectiveness (Sammons et al., 2007, p. 699), it is important that teachers have a supportive environment, and reliable support systems to be able to participate in the reflection process effectively (Wildman & Niles, 1987).
Another barrier, specifically identified in beginning teachers, is inhibiting preconceptions of teaching (Butler, 1996, pp. 274-275; Hatton & Smith, 1995). Smyth understands this dilemma, and informs that the way to overcome this is by opening up “dialogue […] in a way that enables questions to be asked about […] cherished assumptions and practices, the reformulation of alternative hypotheses for action, and the actual testing of those hypotheses” (Smyth, as cited in Smyth, 1989, p. 5).
Time factors, along with the related relevancy issues are also perceived as significant barriers to reflection. Teachers expend a considerable amount of ‘non-teaching’ time, and ‘personal and family time’ on teaching related activities; This is illustrated in EDWA’s statement that “During school hours set time is allocated for you to teach and complete some of your non-teaching duties [3 hours and 40 minutes]. You are given the choice of when and where you complete the rest of your non-teaching duties. You have the flexibility to complete them before or after school, at weekends or during school holidays” (2011b). With ‘non-teaching’ responsibilities including marking, report writing, writing Individual Education Plans (IEP’s), developing lesson plans, and designing assessment and homework tasks, and seeing that the allocation for all this work is less than 4 hours, it is not difficult to see why comprehending the relevance of reflection, and finding the time to reflect can be difficult. It was also noted by Wildman and Niles that some teachers may not be willing to “use free time […] when it is made available” for themselves (Wildman & Niles, 1987, p. 30), preferring to use the time for other non-teaching duties.
These points suggest that instead of seeing criticism as a threat, teachers need to see weaknesses as opportunities to improve; As Butler tells us, “Learning is and should be, on some occasions, a disturbing and unsettling process” (Butler, 1996, p. 275). Teachers must also be open to trialling alternative approaches, and need to be willing to “take time for themselves” (Wildman & Niles, 1987, p. 30). Learning and experience must be combined with reflection in order to provide the opportunity to develop skills; this will produce a teacher with an increased ability to apply their skills to analogous situations (Copeland et al., 1993, p. 354), and also during a situation rather than after it. This latter application of reflective skills is known as reflection ‘in’ action.
Reflection in Action
Schon uses the term “Reflection in Action” (as cited in Birmingham, 2004, p. 315) to describe the ‘same’ reflective process happening within the situation. This ‘reflection’ has an immediate effect on the situation, and ‘dictates’ the actions that follow (Del Carlo, Hinkhouse, & Isbell, 2010, p. 59; MOSEP Consortium, 2006-2008). This is often seen as a teachers ‘tacit knowledge’, however through reflection, this knowledge and understanding can be made explicit, then questioned and evaluated as for any other knowledge.
Benefits of Reflection on Teaching and Learning
Reflection is the tool allowing effective use of learning and experience. It allows the “transforming [of] experience” (Dewey, as cited in Clarke, 2004, p. 2), makes ‘tacit knowledge’ explicit (Loughran, 2002, pp. 34-35), and enables us to “direct our activities with foresight and to plan” accordingly; enabling attainment of “future objects” and to develop into “what is now distant and lacking” (Dewey, as cited in Birmingham, 2004, p. 320). Through reflection, teachers develop those skills required to “[propel] people along the journey from novice to expert” (Butler, 1996, p. 279; see also Pultorak, 1996, p. 291).
Expertise is not the only gain. Cattley proposes that the “development of professional identity” (Cattley, 2007, p. 339), considered by Sammons et al. to be a significant contributory factor in effectiveness (2007, p. 699), can be promoted through reflection. This is considered likely to lead to improved morale and retention, especially in beginning teachers. By inducing a greater understanding of “ourselves as teachers”, and our styles of teaching, we gain understanding that ultimately leads to increases in teacher effectiveness (Butler, 1996; Yost, Sentner, & Forlenza-Bailey, 2000).
This increase in expertise, along with the development of professional identity and resilience affects not only teachers. Students also receive benefits from their teachers’ development, and not only in ‘better instruction’, but also through their teachers increased ability and motivation to foster reflective skills in their students (Wildman & Niles, 1987). This encouragement can assist students to get the most out of their learning, making “learning real” (Yancey, 1998, p. 17). As Yancey noted, “evaluation pervades our lives invisibly, […] from cradle to grave” (1998, p. 13); when teachers assist their students to develop the skills to reflect and ‘self-assess’ their own work, they are promoting the students personal development.
A large percentage of pre- and in-service teachers are expected to have a desire to become ‘effective teachers’. In the explanation showing the qualities of effective teachers, the difficulties in ascribing a definition, and measuring ‘effectiveness’, showed that ‘experience’ often becomes the default measurement tool. However, with many writers suggesting that experience alone is not sufficient to claim effectiveness, and research finding contrary evidence to this ‘experience as effectiveness’ claim, it was theorised that the ability and willingness to reflect was the deciding factor in taking a teacher from ‘ordinary’ to ‘extraordinary’.
By outlining the reflection process, and the barriers perceived, reflection is shown to be an easily understood process; however the barriers to be negotiated create considerable complexity in its execution. This complexity is overcome by knowledge, a collegial environment, and the use of time provided. With this understanding, it is expected that teachers will find it easier to overcome these obstacles.
It is also shown that there are significant benefits to overcoming these obstacles, including, but not limited to the primary goal of ‘expertise’. Improvements in other areas already noted as ‘key factors’ in effectiveness, such as professional identity, and resilience are also demonstrated. Finally, it is shown that it is not only the teacher who benefits; students can benefit in a variety of ways, but particularly by having a teacher able to pass these skills on to them.
The understanding developed here shows reflection to make a considerable difference to the effectiveness of teachers. It is expected that a ‘reflective’ teacher can reach the ‘effective’ title earlier than would a ‘non-reflective’ teacher, due to their increased ability to learn considerably more from the experiences they have, and apply that knowledge to a wider variety of situations. This puts the determination of the ‘greatest teacher of all’ into the hands of those who know; the students.
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