Mine is only one opinion among many, but I honestly do believe that lesson planning and teaching time without effective reflection is potentially time wasted - like watching fuzzy bubbles disappear on the wind before we have time to see any real colour or texture in them! Image credits: istargazer
When I started out in TEFL many years ago, my lesson plans were hastily scrawled notes on loose leaf blank paper snatched from the recycling box in a corner of the teacher's room. They mostly documented the page numbers I needed to teach from the coursebook, extra notes about how to teach particular items of grammar, and perhaps a couple of game instructions.
That was all the school I was working for at the time required of its teachers. So-called lesson plans were collected up at the end of the day, stapled together, and whisked off to the principal's office. Occasionally there was feedback, but I never got any. My handwriting was too neat to attract criticism. No doubt another recycling box in the principal's office was happily fed each night, too.
Pretty soon I decided it was time to take this TEFL gig a little more seriously. My lesson plans were doing the job as far as the school was concerned - documenting evidence that I was following the schedule and covering the book - but I was getting tired of plans that dried up 15-20 minutes into a 45-minute lesson. "Guess what, everyone? How would you like to play hangman... again!"
I had a TEFL certification and the precious Ps (six of them, actually: presentation, practice, production; and procrastination, pretence, and prayers). I could do this lesson planning thing better.
Soon I was delivering beautifully word-processed one-page lesson plans for each of my classes each day. Given I had 8-10 classes to teach per day, I often came into the school 3-4 hours early just to make sure the lesson plans were produced to my new standards of TEFL professionalism.
My classes improved drastically. There was structure, organization, nifty supplements and extra activities- lessons full usually to bursting point. The principal was almost apoplectic in her praise, and three months into my first ever TEFL job I was offered a generous wage and the coveted (but never actually previously awarded) title of academic coordinator - which I later became sure was a term synonymous with "fastest way to lose former buddies in the staff room"!
For six months my lesson plans got prettier and prettier. The classes themselves began to resemble something more like Toyota-style EFL lean manufacturing. The efficiency, quality and reliability were there. There was minimal waste.
Pretty as the lesson plans and the actual classes were becoming, I eventually had to admit to myself that this was a rather superficial beauty. Prettier teaching didn't necessarily mean more beautiful teaching.
This is not to say that I wasn't reflective. I was. I would reflect for at least a minute before beginning my work of art lesson plan for each class in the mornings. I would also reflect over beers and dinner with the other teachers most nights once we'd finally knocked off at about 9.30 pm. Strangely, the reflection in both situations mostly ended up with remembered snippets of the most annoying or charming students, and quick recollections of activities that had worked (= use it again) and those that had bombed (=forget that one).
I didn't really begin to grasp the idea of reflective teaching until I began to read up on this thing called Action Research. It did sound a bit too technical and involved for a novice like me with a 6-day work week, but the idea of actually thinking and reflecting about my teaching in a disciplined way finally began to dawn on me.
Armed with my newfound Harmerian talismans in ESA and EASA (and assorted boomerangs), plus this idea of reflecting about each class, I revamped my approach to lesson planning. Over the next couple of years, my approach evolved constantly, until I finally began to settle on a lesson plan format that looked more like this:
My general teaching journal format, described as being "Lesson planning / Documentation / Reflection" - click here to open a full-size version in a new browser
This format, designed to open as a double page in a ringbinder or actual printed book, has three clear sections:
1. A half page section for a lesson plan, including practical and administrative details
2. A half page section following the lesson plan labelled "Reflective Teaching Notes"
3. A whole page facing the lesson plan and reflective notes, to either do more reflection (particularly with a variety of different classes at the same level using the same lesson plan - which of course would then require certain adaptations and would usually get different reactions) or complete brief lesson planning notes for other levels/classes taught on the day.
So what do I mean by reflective teaching notes?
Basically, these notes are just observations and questions and ponderings. They are inevitably personal, so will vary by teacher, but here are some of the questions I used to ask myself to get the reflective bubbles rolling:
- What happened in the class today?
- What went right? Why was it "right"?
- What went wrong? Was it "a little" wrong or "catastrophically" wrong? Does it belong in the "too hard" basket, or on the "re-tweak" bench?
- How did I feel? How did the students appear to feel?
- What language appeared to be learned? What was learned beyond just language items?
- What might I have discovered today?
- What can I try to discover next class?
Sometimes it's hard to think in these terms, and sometimes there isn't enough time to do so properly. The reflective teaching notes I've presented above also have a simplified teacher self-evaluation table next to the writing notes section, inviting the teacher to rate various aspects of the lesson according to a grade. This can be done before or after the note-taking process, or not at all.
In any case, with this format the reflective side of my teaching took off in a big way. For any given lesson, I was dedicating at least as much space to the reflective thoughts following a lesson as I was to the actual plan that preceded it.
There were some interesting early lessons learned once my reflective teaching habits became a regular part of my teaching day.
For one, with so many classes to teach each day, I quickly realized that it wasn't possible to reflect deeply about each one (even if it had previously been possible to plan for each of them in detail). I decided to plan and reflect in more detail about one particular class or group each day, and do very basic planning with little or no reflection for my other classes. Later I discovered how to rotate this focus on a daily, weekly or monthly basis across all the different levels and groups of students I was responsible for teaching.
Secondly, in the early stages, the reflection was rather like a pendulum from one extreme to the other (gloating with self-praise over really successful lesson experiences, then a sort of self-flagellation with some of the most extreme "you're not good enough to do this job!" self criticism possible). It took some time to learn to be fair to myself, and make reflective teaching notes that were both personal and constructive.
Also, some days were better for reflection than others. Basically, some days I had the time and the temperament to complete really dynamic and effective reflective notes, while other days were ridiculously hectic, too emotionally draining, or full of external distractions that would then impose themselves on my reflective processes. Coming back later to read pages full of sometimes venomous, by-the-by waffle convinced me pretty quickly that this wasn't going to be very helpful.
And finally, I began to notice a big difference between "hot" (within 5-10 minutes of finishing the class) reflections and "cool" (later in the day or even the next morning) reflections. Both sorts could be useful and interesting, but put together they could be absolutely fascinating!
When I was having a day conducive to good reflective notes, I filled the facing page to the brim with all sorts of recollections and questions about what had happened in the classes and why. On the days that reflection wasn't possible or wasn't going to be fair/valid/helpful, I used the facing page to put a little more time into lesson plans for the other classes of the day.
For me, this worked.
Not to say that my teaching was now "beautiful" (compared to my earlier endeavours), but the process of teaching and learning to teach had certainly become more attractive. It was staggering to compare six months of planning and reflective notes using this approach to the method of meticulous lesson plans (only) I had been using previously. There were many more failures and successes. There were (what felt to me, at least) some momentous changes in the way I was teaching. More than anything else, there was a rich cycle of observing, pondering, questioning and challenging myself - all shot through with some of the most unexpected discoveries.
Generally speaking, I got the feeling that I had finally "arrived" into genuine teaching, because I finally realised there were always going to be more questions than answers, that answers often turned out to be either deeper or shallower than they at first appeared, and this whole process of discovery was just so downright interesting!
Later, I faced the challenge of making this sort of thing work for other teachers as well - whole teams of them. I also looked at and tried out ways to collect and sort all the daily reflections and then triangulate them in various ways to arrive at richer reflective conclusions (or challenges) at the end of an extended term or session of teaching.
But those are discussions and posts for another day... I've already taken up too much of your very valuable time already!
Let me just finish by saying that if you haven't been much of a reflective teacher in your daily practice, it might be worth looking at it differently and giving it a try.
Start by making sure you dedicate at least as much time to reflect about your lessons as you do to plan them. Even if this means halving the amount of time you dedicate to planning!
Think of it this way: what's the use in putting a lot of effort into planning something that you'll probably never remember?
And always write your reflections down somewhere (and somewhere you can find again). I can guarantee you that they will look/feel/sound different every time you re-visit them, and if you don't make an effort to grab hold of them, they'll just be those fuzzy bubbles drifting off into your teaching past.