Creating a culture of reflection

In the hallway of an elementary school run by the University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute, a little boy zooms past me, eager to return to class after a bathroom break. The laces of his pint-sized tennis shoes flail wildly in all directions. I stop him as he runs.

“Is it safe to have untied shoes?” I ask.
“No,” he responds, looking down at the mess of nylon between his feet.
“Do you want to be safe?”
“Yes,” he replies.
“Do you know how to tie your shoes?” I ask, having seen that some students have shoe-tying buddies.
“Yes,” he says.
“What do you think we should do?” I ask.

In response, he kneels down and ties his shoes before scampering off. It was, I hope, a small moment of reflection for the student — a recognition that in order to be safe, he has to have tied shoes.

The boy and his wayward laces proved to be a small example of a much larger trend at the Urban Education Institute – a culture of reflection. John Dewey, education reformist and one of the first University of Chicago professors in 1894, said, “We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.” The Urban Education Institute’s Urban Teaching Education Program (UTEP), which we visited in late October, embraces Dewey’s sentiment and pushes it even further: reflection is not just done at the end of the year, it’s done in every class, every lesson, every classroom. (UEI is led by Sara Ray Stoelinga, one of Deans for Impact’s member deans.)

UTEP teacher candidates are introduced to reflection in a series of scaffolded experiences over the five-year program(two years of a residency program and three years of post-graduation support). These reflections are both formal and informal, professional and cultural.

Through observations, direct coaching, and peer feedback, UTEP creates for candidates a cycle of feedback, reflection, and improvement – and also empowers candidates to conduct their own self-reflection cycles. UTEP staff formally observe candidates three to four times a month in a candidate’s’ first year, twice a month in their second, and at least once a month after graduation. These observations and subsequent feedback sessions are one of many ways candidates reflect on their work. In year one, candidates start tutoring and ramp up through small group and full classroom takeover. UTEP staff monitor tutoring sessions and provide in-the-moment coaching by asking teacher-candidates to change tactics or by directly modeling a technique. Candidates are also required to record video of two tutoring sessions per quarter, which are reviewed by faculty and by their peers.

During small- and full-group teaching, UTEP staff observe candidates using a candidate assessment form, a rubric of different competencies key to teaching. Each quarter, these forms, which also include evaluations from candidate’s mentor teachers, are reviewed with the candidate. These forms are also reviewed regularly by staff to make program-level adjustments and changes, creating a productive loop of self-reflection on the micro and macro level. UTEP keeps all of the forms for every candidate dating back to the program’s first cohort. This historical record allows UTEP to compare performance across the cohorts.

In addition to this formal feedback, candidates meet monthly to discuss and reflect on their experiences, be it teaching techniques, behavior management strategies, or just how bad the coffee is in the break room. These structured dish sessions are essential in creating a sacred area for personal and group reflection, the faculty told us.

Equally as important as the instructional feedback is the focus on cultural reflection. UTEP trains teachers specifically to teach in Chicago Public Schools, and it thus soaks its candidates in the context of the Windy City and all its economic, political, and racial intricacies both current and historical. Teaching in Chicago as a white male is an entirely different experience than teaching in Chicago as a black female. UTEP not only acknowledges that distinction but encourages its candidates to reflect on, wrestle with, and understand it.

This all culminates in a culture of reflection that has become the lifeblood of the UTEP program. The goal is not only have a reflective culture in their own program, but to have it trickle down into candidates’ practice as well, so they create students who are themselves reflective and armed with a growth mindset.Feedback and reflection is not just a box to be checked at UTEP. They have woven reflection into every aspect of their program, creating a genuine desire from candidates, faculty, staff, and students to step back, analyze their performance, and then improve.

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