The end of every school year leaves a gnawing feeling of self-doubt: What more could I have taught my students? How could I have developed their skills further? Did I truly inspire anyone? Did I change how they view themselves or the world?
As I sit in front of empty chairs and desks I’m trying to channel this self-doubt into self-reflection and identify what I did well and what I need to improve for next year. Although these reflections are primarily for my own growth, I find that sharing it with others pushes me to think and write more clearly.
Here are 3 of my takeaways from the year:
#1: Be Present
Like many teachers, I often find myself replaying how I handled a tough incident earlier in the day or mentally crafting an email I plan on sending to teachers on my team after school. It’s difficult to be totally present.
To help alleviate this, I have tried to make mindfulness a more regular practice in my classroom. What started with a daily quote, led to Mindful Mondays, and this year, mindful minutes at the start of nearly every class. These daily activities included short breathing exercises, stretches, or reflection questions.
Although I didn’t collect empirical evidence, noticing my own mental state before & after mindful minutes along with anecdotes from students, I am convinced that taking just a couple minutes to breathe, reflect, or move can truly help us be more fully present with the people and work in front of us.
Next year, I plan on researching more effective mindfulness activities and practicing them more regularly so it becomes a consistent habit for myself and my students.
#2: Really Know Your Students
When I’m interacting with nearly a 100 students over the course of a school year, it’s often easier to get excited about trying new tech tool or lesson than trying to get to know each and every student. However, I have never regretted the time I invested building relationships with students while I can’t say the same about the former.
For example, this year, I had a refugee student in my U.S. History class who has lived in 3 different countries in the last few years, and for whom English is her 3rd or 4th language. To make matters worse, she had an ongoing medical condition which made her really tired and miss a fair amount school. Despite all of these challenges, she worked harder than nearly all of her peers and earned a scholarship to a solid 4-year university.
Hearing her story and observing her determination daily helped me get perspective on my own life. It also reminded me that students are the best source of inspiration. While I do spend time getting to know all my students, too often my knowledge of each student stays at the surface level—interests & hobbies—instead of life stories.
Next year, I plan on making more time to regularly chat with individual students whether it’s during passing periods, conferences during class, and by using online tools.
#3 Break Free from Technology Addiction
This year I became more keenly aware of the harm technology can do to our minds. As an enthusiastic user of technology who helps other teachers innovate while utilizing technology this was hard to come to terms with. However, I believe, integrating technology effectively requires me to be clear eyed about its potential & pitfalls.
Watching videos like these helped me realize how social media is designed to leverage weaknesses in human psychology. Specifically, variable reward schedules via dopamine hits get people hooked which fuels social media companies’ ad-driven business model.
Also, reading books like Deep Work made me realize how the immediate bite sized rewards from technology has rewired our brains and made it much more difficult for me to work on challenging, thinking-intensive activities for long, sustained periods of time.
Finally, a couple months ago I read this blog post by Pernille Ripp, a middle school teacher from Wisconsin who I really respect, on how she is trying to get her students off cellphones during class. I have started to make similar changes with my students.
This summer, I want to make sure I’m using technology more deliberately by not tweeting and mindlessly reading articles while surfing the web. Instead, I want to spend more time reading books and re-reading all the ideas I ‘liked’ on Twitter and planning how to apply them to my classroom.