Teaching Strategies

4 Questions to Ponder Before School Starts

Thinking deeply about the previous year before the new one begins can help set teachers up for success.

August 3, 2023
FreshSplash / iStock

Many of us educators are still in summer vacation mode, but at some point, we will start to think about the coming school year. These thoughts can be overwhelming, and it’s hard to even know where to start. This is where reflection can help, and it can give us a moment to truly think about what needs to be done.

Reflections can and should be a means to plan, and it’s hard to do this when you are exhausted. I am personally emotionally exhausted at the end of the year, and it’s nearly impossible for me to reflect in a useful way. I find that before the start of the school year can be a good time for reflection and gives a fresher perspective on all that happened the previous year.

Creating Purposeful and Actionable Reflections

So, how does one begin to reflect in a way that is purposeful? As with many things in education and life, simple is most effective. I suggest a simplified and purposeful reflection approach. With this approach, we can celebrate the wins, recognize challenges, identify contributing factors, and set goals for the coming school year that feel attainable.

Here are the steps you can take to help create purposeful and actionable reflections. First, set the scene. I find that reflection is far more effective when you are not in an anxious state. Find a time when you can relax and think.

Second, give yourself a specific amount of time to complete this task. I find 15 to 30 minutes works best. You do not want to overthink the process and should instead go with what comes to you the most easily.

The third step is to ask yourself each of the four essential questions below.

4 Key Questions for Purposeful Reflection

1. What went well this year? Identify two or three things that went well during the school year. Make these specific and actionable for the future. An example could be “My Google Classroom organization was clear to my students, and I didn’t have to explain it” or perhaps even “I did not bring grading home on the weekends, which helped me decompress better.” We are starting on a positive note, but we are also identifying the practices we would like to continue in the new year.

2. What was a challenge? Pick two or three things that made your year more challenging. Be specific, and do not place blame. For example, “It was a constant cell phone battle in my classroom” or my personal favorite, “I was always overwhelmed with late work at the end of the term.” They can also be instructional in nature, such as “Students did not have a strong foundation in X starting the year.”

3. What factors led to these challenges? Aim to keep the same observational control without placing blame on anyone. Here are some examples with the challenges mentioned above.

  • “It was a constant cell phone battle in my classroom.” There was not a clear posted policy about cell phones in my classroom.
  • “I was overwhelmed with work at the end of the term.” Class rules accepted work until the end of the term.
  • “Students did not have a strong foundation in… which led to my not getting quite as far.” Students did not fully understand X concept from the previous year or forgot the material.

With each factor, no blame is placed. Even if you feel that someone or something is to blame for a problem, this will not help you right now.

4. How can I address these challenges for the coming year? Keep these specific, concise, and relevant for your practice, and create specific attainable actions you can do to address those challenges—such as a checklist.

  • “It was a constant cell phone battle in my classroom.” I will have a phone caddy in my classroom that students use when they enter the classroom.
  • “I was overwhelmed with work at the end of the term.” I will accept late work only up until the assessment on that concept. After that, late work won’t be accepted.
  • “Students did not have a strong foundation in…” I will do a preassessment of student knowledge on X topic and then build in extra review appropriately.

Now for the final step: You put the plan into motion. This framework gives you starting points for the coming school year. You pick the items that went well and make those your continued practices for the next year. Your new goals should come from the actions you identified in the final reflection question. If these still seem too big, just pick one or two.

Overall, I find that this streamlined approach helps me stay focused at the start of the year when it’s easy to get distracted by doing all the new things. I hope this process can help you as well.

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