Professional Learning

5 Minutes of Daily Reflection, All Year Long

Setting aside a few minutes a day to jot down what went well and what challenges arose helps teachers notice patterns and make positive changes.

May 31, 2024
ljubaphoto / iStock

Teaching is hard work. In my early years of teaching, I would return to my classroom after dismissal and just sit still amid the cluttered mess of broken pencils and papers on the floor, surrounded by disheveled desks and student work. Totally exhausted, I would reflect on the day, grab my journal, and make a list of all the problems. 

For example, I would make notes of times during the day when behavior issues arose most frequently or when students seemed unengaged in their learning. I’d record practical things like traffic jams at the pencil sharpener or kids arguing about getting supplies they needed for lessons. Somehow, these problems seemed less daunting after I put them on paper. From that list, I would begin to problem-solve and find ways to make changes, one small step at a time, until I saw progress in the flow of our day and the quality of instruction in the room. 

Years later, I do the same thing as an instructional coach for a K–6 elementary school. At the end of every day, I sit at my desk and spend five minutes recording my observations from the many classrooms I visit daily. I keep it simple so that it does not become too time-consuming in my day. This reflective document guides my work and helps me create action steps to improve student learning for the students at my school.

My reflection journal 

Over the years, I have refined this practice to include one sentence for each of the following:

  1. Gratitude (for things going well)
  2. Things I am learning (from the principal, teachers, kids, or lessons I observe) 
  3. Questions (for all the unsolved problems) 

Gratitude: Starting with gratitude reminds me of things going well in the building. It is easy to become overwhelmed with the challenges facing educators, but it is also important to remember the good things happening. Sometimes, it can be a positive interaction with a student in the hallway, a successful lesson I observed, or a meeting I attended where all voices were heard. Whether it is a quick interaction with a colleague or a goal long worked for, noticing what’s going well and bringing attention to it is one way to create a positive work environment. This is especially true if you take the time to share those reflections with others through specific compliments or acknowledgments of their work.  

Things I am learning: My favorite instructional coaching leader, Jim Knight, is well known for saying, “I leave every meeting educated.” That is a mindset I carry with me every day. When I walk into a classroom or attend a team meeting with peers, I try to listen and learn from others. What is working? What is it they are trying to tell me? What changes need to be made? Where are the conflicts that need attention? Where might I need to change my perspective? What is a new innovative approach that I can share with others? These are the kinds of things I record so I can reflect on them as I learn and grow as an instructional coach. 

Questions: Working in schools today means dealing with lots of challenges. As I walk the hallways, head into classrooms, or sit at a meeting with colleagues, questions often arise for which I do not always have solutions. Rainer Maria Rilke, my favorite poet, wrote, “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves.... Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

Awareness of the questions and challenges facing our school drives my work as an instructional coach and helps me strive to make improvements. As school leaders, we don’t always know the answers, but being aware of the questions moves us toward seeking clarity, finding answers, and creating systems for change. 

Recording Action Steps in Daily Teacher Reflection

At the end of the month, I use questions I adapted from Elena Aguilar’s work to reflect on my successes and what still needs more attention: 

  • Whom did you make meaningful connections with this month? 
  • When did you feel competent or even masterful in your work? 
  • What do you feel proud of having done or not done this month? 
  • When did you feel like your work was most impactful?
  • What are the unresolved challenges that need more attention? 

From this reflective document, I create action steps on a to-do list that is constantly changing and evolving. This helps me create priorities that guide my daily work with teachers and students. Then, every month, I begin again and start a new list so that this practice becomes a regular, routine part of my day. This cycle of making daily observations, creating a new list of reflections every month, and summarizing it at the end has a tremendous impact on my work.

For example, when I meet with my principal weekly, this list helps focus my thoughts when I add topics to the agenda for us to talk about as we set priorities and plan faculty meetings or staff development. It also helps me keep a balanced perspective, as I hold on to real examples of what’s going right along with the challenges arising. Lastly, it keeps me humble as I realize there is so much to learn from each other as we work together to improve student learning. Our school adopted a new phonics program this year that I was slow to come around to, but the more I observed and noted the successes teachers were having with it, the easier it was for me to change my perspective.  

By the end of the school year, I have more than 30 pages of reflections summarizing the year, which then helps me create a space to take stock, set goals, and find areas of improvement for the next school year. Taking the time to use reflective practice to guide my work each day grounds me in purpose and keeps me connected to the real work happening in classrooms every day.

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