Teacher of the Year, Nancy Flanagan, Touts the Power of Self-Reflection

Teacher of the Year, Nancy Flanagan, Touts the Power of Self-Reflection
The Editorial Team February 12, 2014

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Being a teacher takes more than a passing grade on a skills test. Subject knowledge is important and idealism is great, but neither are enough to get a teacher through a career in the classroom, Nancy Flanagan says.

Flanagan knows what makes a successful teacher. She spent 30 years in classrooms, earned Michigan Teacher of the Year honors and worked as a consultant for others working with students.

Recent teacher-testing headlines — negative ones at that — got her writing about teacher standards and the things they can’t measure on her blog.

The biggest thing often missed in a society where people can “teach for a year” and move on to other jobs is that teachers are professionals who grow and change within their careers.

“When people tell me that they taught for a year or two, I think that they must have only begun to understand how bad they were,” Flanagan jokes.

What she means is that good teachers reflect on their skills — honestly and openly.

“The ability to self-reflect is huge,” Flanagan said. “You need to be able to see lessons that you teach where students just don’t get it as your fault.

“Honestly, I don’t think you can test for that. I don’t think you can observe it. I don’t think you can even do that for a year of teaching.”

It’s harsh, but it is one of the best ways to get better, she says, and getting better means reaching more students and improving learning.

“The worst thing you can do is say ‘I was right. It was the kids’ fault,’ ” Flanagan said. “Once you start saying ‘I taught them but they didn’t learn,’ you are on the path to misery.”

Being open to self-reflection and honest critique is hard. Spending years to develop it sounds punishing. Flanagan talked about the ways teachers at any point in their careers can hone their reflection skills:

Lean on your building

“Hopefully, new teachers are in a school or a building or even a hallway with good, experienced teachers,” Flanagan said.

Talking with others openly and honestly about what you are experiencing is the key to reflecting on what’s happening in the classroom. Don’t be afraid to use their best ideas, she says.

Once Flanagan worked with a group of young people not trained as teachers but who worked in classrooms for a year. The only thing that kept them from leaving in October, she said, was their ability to learn from one another.

Build a network

There’s never been a better time for teachers who don’t feel their building, school or district can provide the feedback they need.

Flanagan urges you to get online and use Twitter or other outlets to build a professional network. Tap into the expertise of retired teachers like Flanagan who have been there and understand.

“I feel like I’m juiced on teaching,” Flanagan said. “Even though I’m retired, I’m connected.”

And there are lots of people out there like her and many groups for teachers who are looking to connect.

Earn national board certification

“It turned out to be one of the hardest things I have ever done in education,” Flanagan said.

She expected it to be pretty easy. At the point she went after National Board Certification, she had already spent 20 years in the classroom and won Michigan’s Teacher of the Year as well as many other awards.

“I was already supposed to be good,” she said. “This forced me to look at all of the ways I wasn’t meeting students’ needs. It was humbling.”

One part of the certification process really required reflection — a videotaped review of herself in the classroom. She had to to the video herself.

It goes deeper than having someone outside critique your classroom presence and style.

“If you do it yourself, you are more likely change. And, you know the background with each student,” Flanagan said.

A teacher working with a student over the year likely knows what they needed in a particular moment and knows if they’ve met that need or not.

Get to know kids before you start teaching

Building the ability to reflect on work can take years of practice, but there are ways to get a jump on it.

“Getting themselves into schools before their universities’ make them do that is key,” Flanagan said. “Volunteering in schools, in day care centers, working with kids, with youth groups is important.”

“Lots of people go into teaching without much contact with kids,” she said. “It’s kind of scary.”

Teaching is a career that takes time to build and perfect, and Flanagan urges all teachers to see their jobs as a “craft, built over time.”

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