Reflective Practice: An inside job - Teaching Empathy Institute
Teaching Empathy Institute works to establish emotionally and physically safe learning communities for elementary, middle and high school students and the adults who work with them. Working in the Hudson Valley of New York, TEI creates tailor-made programs designed to foster dialogue about social culture building while strengthening the capacity for the infusion of empathy and compassion into all aspects of the learning experience.
Teaching Empathy Institute, SEL, Social and emotional learning, mindfulness, diversity, education, bullying, anti-bullying, k-12, learning, david levine, school of belonging
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Reflective Practice: An inside job

A school that is working with the principles of social and emotional learning,  promotes an inner journey by the professionals who teach there. The late Donald Schön, an organizational learning theorist, professor, and author, in his work posited that a healthy learning organization is the outgrowth of reflective practice. He defines reflective practice as “the capacity to reflect on action so as to engage in a process of continuous learning”. The focus on continuous learning is key because it represents the challenge of doing things differently if current practices are not working as well as they could be.

A reflective practitioner will step back mindfully, seeking unique responses to every day challenges and learn from this reflective mindset. The field of education is one of the only professions where practitioners are not provided on a regular basis with opportunities to reflect on their practices and share with their colleagues what they have discovered. In the field of medicine for example, if a discovery is made or a frustration is felt, doctors come together to explore what can be done and how things can be done better, collectively seeking to serve the greater good. This practice might serve to save a person’s life.

Teachers, who come together as reflective practitioner teams, might also be saving the life of a student, or at least helping to create a happier and more productive one. Reflective practice is the foundation of Teaching Empathy Institute and  it serves many functions. Whether in the classroom with students, team room with committee members, or faculty room with colleagues, reflective practice will enhance the quality of the school experience, making it more positive, efficient, and effective.

Changing the response

The first step and probably the most challenging one to take for the reflective practitioner is to look within at our tendencies and the internal struggles we have with students, colleagues and parents. We will start by looking at the relationships a teacher has with students.

Answer this question: What do kids do that drive you crazy?

This question is framed in this way because there are times when a student’s behavior is confusing, frustrating and emotionally draining. It is in these times when it is critical to analyze what responses are not working. In 1987, long before the best-selling book Chicken Soup for the Soul was created, I heard Jack Canfield, one of its editors, speak at an educational conference in Vermont. In his talk, he presented the equation:


The event plus your response equals the outcome

This little equation has had great impact on many participants in TEI training experiences. The critical practice is to focus your energies on the R of the equation. The only thing that will happen if you try to change the event or blame the event for what is happening is to feel frustration and eventually burnout. It is far more empowering and less stressful to articulate what you have control over in your life.

In the life of an educator, if you can determine what you do have influence over, and focus your emotions there, you will not only be more effective but happier as well. At TEI, E + R = O is a symbol of the work we do every day.  We can make a difference in the lives of our students. What derails us at times is when we take the behaviors of our students personally. Once this happens, our effectiveness wanes and our energy for the work is lessened.

Let’s return to the question: what do kids do that drive you crazy?

Driving you crazy is another way of saying that you react emotionally rather than rationally. Emotional reactions to the behaviors that push your buttons can be traced back to some of the personal values that direct our lives.

Emotional Imprints

One’s personal values are learned at a very young age from the people and events that surround us. These experiences are known as emotional imprinting and they lay the architecture for the emotional structure of our lives. An imprint, like a tattoo is a forever phenomenon. Imprints are non-negotiable (Edwards) and are most profound in the first 15 years of life. They come at us as value statements or family mores and belief systems. Through the years, our imprints are embedded on our psyche and we are often unaware that they even exist.

An example of an imprint is punctuality. If it was instilled into you that you better be home for dinner on time or you would be in trouble, the imprinted value is that being on time is important and a message that punctuality is a sign of respect. A second imprint from this example is that it is important to eat dinner together as a family. Many years later, this trait of punctuality is a good thing. People know they can count on you as someone who will always be on time. Additionally, if you have a family, you most likely hold the belief that it is important to have dinner together when you can. You place a high “value” on this. However, as with all things there is the other side as well. The polarity experience plays out when a student arrives late to class or hands a paper in late. If your imprint is strong enough you might react from an emotional and irrational place and damage the relationship in the process. It is not about being right or wrong or letting go of the things important to you. More so, it is about knowing not only what is important to you but why you value this so much and even deeper, what are the imprints of your students?

A quick litmus test for what your imprints are is to identify what your buttons or trigger points are. In other words, what do your students do that drive you crazy and in the process, makes you react in irrational or destructive ways?  This same reflection can be applied to your professional relationships with colleagues, supervisors and parents. If you are unconsciously driven by your imprints, you might not get the desired outcome from your professional relationships. This is not about changing your imprints, but to make yourself aware of them. Even if upon reflection you reject certain imprints or belief systems from your childhood, in times of stress you often will return to what is most familiar, not necessarily what makes the most sense. When this happens, acknowledge the imprint and strategize ways to manage your emotions and by doing this, you will become more adept at teaching your students to do the same.