When nothing seems to work

As a novice teacher there will be days when it seems the world is working against you at every turn. Indeed, I believe that feeling is a constant throughout a teaching career, just that it happens with less and less frequency as experience is gained. At these times we are presented with a choice. We can choose to make accusations or learn from the experience.

As an avid believer in reflective practice I believe the former is not only an unhelpful option in terms of development, but it’s also self defeating and a negative way to go through your day to day. Keep it up long enough and burnout is not too far on the horizon.

The Experiential Learning Cycle:

Reflective practice centers around the idea of learning through experience. The ELC (experiential learning cycle*) focuses on four distinct categories of reflection. First, experience. Second, description. Third, Interpretation. Fourth, action plan.

For the purposes of this blog post I will focus on the area between experience and description. That area is taken up with emotions, and unless we are able to find a way to cleanse emotion from our description, teachers will find reflective practice far less useful, and possibly even counter-productive.

A few months ago, while at a reflective practice meeting in Daegu, South Korea, we focused on the description aspect of the ELC. How do we describe what we see. Are we being subjective or objective? Our group facilitator for the day, Josette LeBlanc ( http://tokenteach.wordpress.com/), had us break into pairs and work on objectively describing photos from books and magazines. It sounds easy, but in practice, we found that it takes real and concerted effort to separate emotions from our descriptions.

The classroom is an incredibly personal space and when things don’t go well a whole gambit of negative emotions can take hold. How much harder it is  when dealing with emotions from our own classrooms and not dispassionately describing magazine pictures!?!

(I would like to note, that it is just as important to separate positive emotions from our description as it is with the negative kind.)

The Coffee Filter

During that meeting in Daegu we discussed how emotion enters into our reflection and where exactly it goes once it’s recognized. I suggested that we conduct the ELC in order to send to emotions out of the cycle, kind of like an emotional off ramp. However, as we discussed it further we decided that one cannot simply shed their emotions and send them on their merry way. What was important was that we recognize the emotions exist, acknowledge them, and then to make sure we set them aside (like a coffee filter filters the coffee grinds so that the coffee can pass through unadulterated). Only after doing so could we hope to be successful in describing our experience effectively and moving on to the following steps of the cycle.


My final point rests on the idea of space. Before we can begin reflecting effectively we need to give ourselves the appropriate amount of space. How much space? There is no set answer. Some need to reflect immediately, some need to wait. Every person, experience, and situation will dictate its own needs and only you, the teacher, can appropriately judge how much space is needed before reflection can be conducted effectively.

It is on those days, when nothing seems to work, that reflection can save us from the negativity failure in the classroom can create. Find your coffee filter. Take the time that is required to give you the space needed to reflect effectively. Then get on with the ELC. In doing so you will go back to class with an action plan in hand and the confidence of better understanding what exactly is happening in your classroom.

Interested in learning more about the ELC and how to reflect more productively?

*Check out Josette LeBlanc’s excellent blog post on the subject of ELC at http://tokenteach.wordpress.com/2012/05/07/an-image-of-reflection-learning-from-my-rp-workshop/


3 thoughts on “When nothing seems to work

  1. John, I’m very happy to see this post out there in the world. I’m happier to know you wrote it. 🙂 I learned so much on that day with you and the rest of our RP group.

    The topic of emotions and teaching is one that I hold dear. So much of ourselves go into our craft and it can be difficult to sift out feelings when they are so close to the surface. However, as you explained, those feelings can sometimes cloud our ability to truly see the situation. At this time it may be better to get some space. It just dawned on me that this space you referred to could be the same as self-empathy or self-compassion. Before I can care for others I need to care for myself. Once I am empty of my emotions I can start caring for yours. I can start seeing you, or the situation more clearly. Check out this site for more info on self-empathy http://www.befriendingourselves.com/Self-empathy.html

    Loving these posts!


    • Hi Josette,

      I love your point about taking care of ourselves first. As I was writing I knew I was brushing over the whole recognition/acknowledgement part of it. What you said is exactly what I was feeling but could not find the words for!

      I definitely will check out the site, thanks for the info, and as always the continued support.


  2. Hey John. Much insight here and from Josette as well. I find a point of entry with the idea of creating space.

    When I was a young teacher, I wasn’t good with criticism because I attached an emotional connotation to what was being said meaning I created a dialogue that wasn’t being spoken. Let me explain. Criticism, for me, at that time meant failure, deep and dire failure. I was letting people down and in this case, I was failing my directors, my students, my colleagues, the school, myself, my family and on and on. I went beyond the criticism and created a dialogue in my head that was more or less saying “You failed” and so, I felt isolated, inadequate and well, not a good teacher. I had attached negativity to the idea of criticism because of my past, my childhood and such until I taught myself to go behind the emotion, find the space and really comprehend the words being said.

    I met a host teacher during my second year of teacher’s college who really changed my life. He would preface his critiques of my teaching with “You can learn from this”, “You’re getting there”, “What did you think of that lesson?” or “Try this out instead”. I never forgot how he helped create a space for me to rethink my work and to allow me to develop what I know rather than what I think I know based on exogenous influences. He wanted me to find my way to teaching and not his way, nor the way of readings, other teachers or my evaluators from the program.

    Recently, I had a few moments of criticism from my current learners (teacher trainees) and I listened to them. They were concerned about the amount of work I was assigning and rather than feel as I did many years ago that I know better or that I am failing them, I went behind the criticism so that I could see it as constructive. I talked about it with Josette and then wrote about it in my journal. As I wrote I described the moment and not the emotion. When I reread it, I realized there was no emotion attached to the trainees opinions nor to the thoughts on the page. I emailed the students that night and we’ve been melding my course goals with their abilities and so far, so good. It’s too soon to tell but the experience is where it needs to be.

    Creating space, finding space, building space – these are co-created. Being reflective, seeking advice, analysing actual dialogues, doing away with fabricated inner dialogues and perceptions – these are within the space. And as you say, only the teacher can know how much space is needed.

    A recent space building tactic is replacing “What do I know?” with “What am I learning?”.

    Cheers Folks. “Gnothi Seauton”

    “The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation but thought about it. Be aware of the thoughts you are thinking. Separate them from the situation, which is always neutral. It is as it is.” – Eckhart Tolle

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