Breathing space and thinking time – tips on creating the space and time to self-reflect during the day
“We do not learn from experience; we learn from reflecting on experience” (John Dewey).
This quote from Dewey resonates with me. How many things do we do every day on autopilot in the classroom, that if we looked back upon with a critical eye, we would change? A lot I would say from experience. From explanations to difficult conversations, there’s been many a time, especially when dealing with situations that require decisive action or that are of high emotion, that after I have taken action, I haven’t properly taken the time out to reflect later on in the day. We are all regularly quite emotionally and physically tired at the end of the working day after doing our best for the children in front of us; but this act of self-reflection is so important, especially when dealing with charged situations. I’d like to think that having previously reflected on a similar situation to the one I have faced with earlier in the day, I would over time be more likely to take the right action in a future recurrence. One of the sad things I feel is that, sometimes, taking time out during the school day to self-reflect can feel like you’re wasting time. I’ve been there. However, those minutes of self-reflection and question asking are vital to improve our classroom practice and professional conduct. Here are some of my ways to take time out to self-reflect through the day.
- Locate where the quiet places are in your school
In order to self-reflect, a quiet, calm space is essential. At my first school, I used to head to the smaller playground picnic benches during lesson time. In my current school, I head to the garden space. There are also several classrooms that are regularly only used for Sixth Form lessons so can often be found completely empty. Take the time during your first weeks when wandering around your school to suss out the quiet spots and use them.
- Go for a wander
Sometimes, fresh air and going for a wander can help get into the right frame of mind for reflection. Not just that, if you have an office or a classroom and someone wants to speak to you, their initial search will often lead them to try and find you in your natural habitat. Going for a wander not only will allow you to get some air; but will help you avoid any unwanted interruptions whilst you consider issues that you want to reflect on.
- If you have a photocopying room as well as printing machines on the corridor – go to the photocopying room and don’t do it on the corridor.
From experience, colleagues tend to not like to travel far to release printing. I, however, do. Not only do the photocopiers in the photocopying room tend to be faster and less likely to have a queue than those on corridors, you also find that you are less likely to bump into other members of staff. For some unknown reason in the schools I’ve worked at, the photocopying room often seems to be at the complete opposite end to school to where most people work. Running off a set of booklets during the day makes me feel like I’m doing something productive (I gain a resource that I need for future lessons) whilst being sufficiently out-of-the-way and alone in order to take some time out for me to think.
- Take your things to the library.
If your school has a library, it can often be a haven of books and tranquillity, with little corners in which you can quietly plan or mark. Most of my marking gets done in the library when I need to focus – especially with A Level essays. But what’s also nice about the library is it is the perfect setting in order to sit down and do some thinking and often, especially during lesson time, as it can sometimes be completely vacant.
- Tea/coffee/beverage time is important.
Sometimes, the physical trip to the kitchen to fill up the kettle, then boil the water in it, followed by pouring the water on top of the teabag (Yorkshire Tea, if you must know!), waiting for it to properly brew then adding the milk gives me 6 minutes of switch-off time after a lesson. It might not seem much time at all; however, it can sometimes be enough to take my mind off the situation, enjoy the taste of a good brew and to calm down by letting my adrenaline levels drop to a lower level so I can think in a clearer way.
You can make the space, find the quiet spots and believe that self-reflection is not a waste of time – but somehow it still can feel like you’re not getting anywhere. In this case, do not be afraid to enlist the help of others to help you reflect, through coaching. I know when you’re new at a school, or an NQT/ITT, building up the trust to confide in someone that they are not going to judge you; rather support you, is a difficult thing to do. I started my first school and very much kept my head down and didn’t allow myself to confide in anyone until at least the end of my second term. But I knew I had my mentor and my Head of Department who would take that time out to ask me non-judgemental questions and to coach me – believing I had the answer myself and just needed to arrive at that point. The same can be very much said about my current school and having this kind of relationship is a very special thing that ought to be greatly valued – and probably the reason I would find it very hard to move on from my current school.
The following quote from Jamie Thom in his article: The first five years of teaching: motivation, CPD and retention (found here: http://www.slowteaching.co.uk/2019/05/24/first-five-years-teaching-motivation-cpd-retention/) really stood out to me:
We all feel more motivated and encouraged when we feel we have someone we can speak to and be supported by. All my interactions with teachers highlighted just how much they want to continue to want to learn and improve what they are doing in the classroom, they just need to be given the time and breathing space to do it. (Jamie Thom).
If you’ve found the time and breathing space to do the self-reflection are finding it difficult to do on your own, make sure to reach out to find someone to help you do it. It’ll pay dividends in your levels of happiness and motivation. Ask if there’s coaching available at your school. It has helped me through some of the most difficult times that self-reflection on my own didn’t help me with and will result in you feeling more confident, valued and will help with your wellbeing in school.