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Careers Café

Taking stock: the importance of teaching self-reflections

Self-reflections are another kind of metric, one that can create space for us to think carefully about our mission and mandates as teachers.

BY ANDREA EIDINGER | JUL 16 2020

The end of the semester can engender a number of complicated feelings. Some of us feel relief at not having to answer quite so many emails, joy at finally being finished our grading, and grief over the fact that we will likely never see our students again. As in the case with transition periods, many of us have our own little rituals to mark this time of year. Some of us pour a glass (or a pitcher) of wine. Some of us conduct a celebratory shredding of documents. And still others turn off all electronics for a week.

For my part, my favourite way to mark the end of the semester is to write a self-reflection. I like to make myself a nice cup of tea, get myself settled someplace cozy, spread a blanket over my lap, and get my thoughts down on my laptop.

I first learned about the idea of an end-of-the-semester self-reflection at one of the institutions where I worked as a sessional instructor. This institution required that all staff complete a yearly structured self-reflection as part of the overall evaluative process. These self-reflections were intended to accompany peer evaluations and student evaluations, and provide relevant information for our performance assessments as educators.

Since that time, I have changed my approach to self-reflections, and worked to explicitly move them away from an evaluative framework. While some individuals can find these evaluations helpful, others actively avoid them. There has already been a lot of work done on the problem with evaluations, particularly with respect to gender bias and student evaluations, so I won’t get into that here. But my main point is that I find self-reflections to be useful in ways that evaluations cannot be.

There are many reasons why this is the case. First, it provides an important sense of closure. I often found myself feeling adrift after the end of class or the final exam, unable to process my feelings, but my self-reflection has helped with this problem. Second, I like to have the chance to write down my thoughts and feelings on the semester while they are still fresh, particularly with respect to certain aspects of a course that did or didn’t work well. I’ve found this to be especially helpful when writing teaching dossiers and/or teaching philosophies, since I have a ready-made list of examples.

But by far the most important reason why I find writing self-reflections to be so rewarding is because they have helped me to learn and grow as an educator. Teaching is such an important part of our work as academics. It is not a skill that can be mastered, but an ability that grows and changes over time – as teachers, we are continual learners, and everything in life is a draft. There is no such thing as a perfect semester or a perfect course. We all make mistakes, and we all fail. And that is (or should be) ok, because every experience is an opportunity to learn and grow. But for this growth to happen, we need to create a safe, non-judgmental, and punishment-free space to think, reflect, and process our experiences. That is the only way that we can make sure that we do better next time. A self-reflection provides just such a space.

At the same time, self-reflections are important teaching tools because they help us to return to the whys of our teaching, to our hearts and minds, away from external validation towards our own self-worth. It is easy to get caught up in quantitative metrics, peer and student evaluations, and just the day-to-day grind of teaching, and lose touch with our teaching values and philosophies. Self-reflections are another kind of metric, one that can create space for us to think carefully about our mission and mandates as teachers, and to ensure that our work is aligned with our innermost-selves.

To be clear, self-reflections are not about evaluating ourselves. Instead, the emphasis is on stories and experience over metrics. It is a space where you get to decide for yourself what worked and what didn’t, without having to answer to anyone else. Self-reflections can be just as critical as evaluations, but that critique comes from a place of understanding and in a loving way, rather than from a place of judgment, fear, or punishment.

There are many ways to write self-reflections, and each of us has to figure out which approach works best for us. I like to have a semi-structured approach, with some guiding questions as well as room for flexibility. Other individuals might prefer a more stream-of-consciousness approach, or a rubric. Some of us may prefer to write our self-reflections, while still others might like to debrief with a trusted friend, family, member, or education developer. Maybe your self-reflection involves the creation of artwork, like an interpretive dance, graphic notes, or a woven tapestry. There are no right or wrong approaches here. But if you are the kind of person who likes to have some kind of structure, here are some of the questions that I use for my own self-reflection:

  • What was the most challenging or difficult situation that you encountered during this past semester? How did you handle it? What would you do differently next time?
  • What was the most rewarding situation that you encountered during this semester? What made it such a positive experience? How can you apply what you learned in future courses?
  • Do you believe that your students achieved their learning goals for the semester? What did you to do enable this, and what else could you do to improve student learning in the future?
  • What are the three most important things that you have learned about yourself this past semester, and why were they so important?

Here are some additional resources for creating your own self-reviews.

Have you ever done a self-reflection before? Have you found them to be helpful? Let me know in the comments!

Special thanks to Mary Chaktsiris and Jessica Knapp for their comments on an earlier draft of this piece.

ABOUT ANDREA EIDINGER
Andrea Eidinger
Andrea Eidinger has worked as a sessional instructor at a number of universities in British Columbia, and is the creator and author of Unwritten Histories, a Canadian history blog.
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  1. Lorraine / July 23, 2020 at 06:17

    Hi Andrea,
    I couldn’t agree more with the importance and value of teaching self reflection.
    This has always been a part of one of several courses I taught as partial load faculty over 6 consecutive years and 10 in total. The teaching of self reflection with a similar rubric for individual student behaviours in group learning spaces was naturally relevant beyond the class. That was the intention. I too would do debriefing and self reflection journaling after a class. I found waiting til the end of the week seemed too long and far removed from emotional awareness attached to situations. For me, the closer it was the better as I had several classes back to back sometimes. I certainly couldn’t tell my students how important it was to complete this self reflective journaling and not do it myself. As obvious as that may seem, it’s not always the case, but we often ask our students to practice self growth awareness activities and don’t practice them ourselves.
    It’s such a powerful tool and in my own case, if a class could have been better I absolutely always looked at myself and what I could improved based on what occurred.
    Although important, I very rarely gave too much weight to the end of year evaluations as I tend to think that timeline is far too long to wait to perform teacher evaluations. I believe this has changed.

    The practice of self reflection certainly made it easier for me to edit, adjust and build what my teaching philosophy came to be over the years.

    Thank you for writing on this.

    Lorraine