Invitation to Reflection

Invitation to Reflection

Mark Weisberg
1995 3M Teaching Fellow


It requires a long time to take in a few words.

On either side of the word we need a patch of white, of silence, like the white space that defines a Chinese painting, or the rests in music that permit the notes to be heard.

By and large, our students are relentlessly over stimulated. They sing the body electric: plugged in, tuned out, motorized. And we are over stimulated, too. Many of us hate silence, especially in the classroom. It is the teacher’s ultimate nightmare: what ifi can’t fill fifty minutes? And yet, if students spend twenty minutes in silence looking at ten lines of Homer, it can be time well spent.

I heard a student talking the other day about the difference between two sociology professors. “I love Professor Jones. He lectures from the moment he enters the room, without ever looking at his notes. You really get your money’s worth in there. I don’t know about Professor Smith. Sometimes you ask him a question and he looks out the window for a while before he answers.”

-MARY ROSE O’REILLEY, Radical Presence

In our busy lives, are we like Professor Jones, never stopping to look at our notes? At our teaching? At our lives? Do we leave ourselves enough white space? Do we make time to reflect?

However busy we are, by not reflecting, I think we’re missing a significant dimension of our professional (and personal) lives; for me, moving from experience to reflection to experience constitutes an essential educational rhythm. That doesn’t mean that people who don’t reflect must be poor teachers; however, I do think reflecting increases our chances of being both effective and fulfilled.

There are no formulas for reflecting, but here are several strategies that individuals have found helpful:

1. Keep a log in which you observe your teaching activities, and visit it periodically to see what you discover. Pay attention to the feelings that accompany those activities and to the assumptions that seem to lie behind what you do. Explore whether your experience supports those assumptions.

2. Note and examine several critical incidents, both high and low points, in your teaching: a time when you felt YES, this is what teaching is all about, and a time when you wondered why you were in this profession.

3. Exchange classroom visits with a colleague and discuss what you have observed.

4. Read thoughtful and possibly provocative books about teaching, such as: Don Finkel’s Teaching With Your Mouth Shut, Mary Rose O’Reilley’s Radical Presence: Teachina as Contemplative Practice, Jane Tompkins’s A Life in School: What the Teacher Learned, and Peter Elbow’s Embracina Contraries: Explorations in Learning and Teaching. Discuss them with a group of interested colleagues.

5. Respond to Mary Rose O’Reilley’s provocative question: “What are you doing? What are you really doing? What is your deepest sense of call? Your true vocation?” Put what you write into an envelope, address it to yourself, give it to someone you trust, and ask them to mail it back to you in three months.