Left Wondering, “Am I Getting Better?”

This morning, I read a recent blog post by Sue Dunlop called Two Essential Questions For Reflection. In this post, Sue talks about her reflection process. She shares two questions that Steven Katz, a psychologist, teacher, and researcher, uses to measure improvements.

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I attended EdCamp Mississauga with Sue and some other educators and administrators in our Board, and I remember her speaking about these two questions during one of our conversations there. For weeks, I’ve been mulling them over. My problem is that I’m very conflicted on the answers.

I think that I’m struggling the most because for 14 years, I judged my improvement/growth/success almost solely on a child’s attainment of academic skills. I focused on school and Board benchmark goals. I knew them, and I worked hard to get children to meet them. Some years, I was more successful than others, but almost always, I saw tremendous growth in the students. Almost always, the scores made me happy

Then in my fifteenth year of teaching, something changed. After conversations with my teaching partner, curriculum consultants, and school support staff, we realized that academics couldn’t come first. Our students needed to develop social skills (including self-regulation) and problem solving skills, so that they were ready and able to learn. This didn’t mean that we ignored the academics, but we reinforced a lot of these literacy and math skills through play, while also modelling and reinforcing the other skills that are essential for children to become learners and leaders in school and in life. 

By the end of the year, overall the students made great gains in our areas of focus.

  • The classroom was calmer.
  • Students engaged in tasks for longer periods of time.
  • Children started to share materials and interact with each other.
  • Students began to problem solve independently, instead of just with adult support.
  • Many children learned how to SELF-regulate (e.g., noticing that they needed to calm down and choosing a book to look at in a quiet area, a song to dance to on the SMART Board, or the Theraband to pull on the door).

Observing this growth in the students, helped me believe that I was “improving as a teacher,” as it was due to many of our changes and supports in the classroom environment that impacted on this student success. Or, at least, student success in social skills and problem solving …

Then comes the part that makes me uncomfortable: what about academic growth? Overall, the students improved in their understanding of phonemic awareness skills and the alphabetic principle. Some made very significant gains. A few students even exceeded expectations. But what about those students that didn’t meet the benchmark? Is there more that I could have done? I sit back now and think about what we did throughout the year.

  • I think about our small group instruction.
  • I think about how we developed phonemic awareness skills during transitional times.
  • I think about the resources we accessed: print resources and people resources.
  • I think about our focus on oral language skills and developing these skills so that students were ready to read and write.
  • I think about the feedback that we asked for and got all year long, and the changes we made as a result. 

While I think about what we did, I also wonder, is there something I missed that would have improved results? 

This past week, I attended a two-day inservice on emergent and early reading. I heard many ideas for developing oral language, reading, and writing skills in the classroom. Some ideas are new ones and some ideas reinforce what I’ve heard before. This September, I will be teaching Kindergarten at a different school in a very different area of our Board. While I’m hoping that my interactions with the new Kindergarten team, various educators online, and my new professional learning (through reading and inservices) will help me continue to improve, I wonder how to judge this growth. Do different results in a different environment truly equate to an improvement in skills? Even as you examine your growth, how do you know that you’ve achieved “your best?” How do you determine what else you could have done and/or what to do next? Our students all deserve our very best, and as the summertime starts, I keep thinking about what this looks like and what my next best move could be.


6 thoughts on “Left Wondering, “Am I Getting Better?”

  1. Why does the question “could I have done more?” have negative connotations? My goodness you have done a lot! Aviva, I have only been following you for a short while and I see your evolution unfolding. I don’t know your students or their parents, but I am sure they have positive things to say.
    Of course we all ask this question when we reflect and set future goals. We beat ourselves up asking the question, when we don’t feel that we’ve accomplished the best outcomes.
    Sometimes there are factors beyond our control. We do our best and give our best, all for the kids. Looking forward you may wonder what those challenges will be. Every child is unique. The physical classroom may lack something. How new colleagues relate to each other may differ etc.
    I think we just need to focus on the kids. They will let us know what they need. A dear friend once told me, it’s not about the curriculum. It’s about the relationship between the student and the teacher that is important. He is now retired and taught high school English. It’s a very Zen lesson, but a good one.

    • Thanks for your comment, Donna! I’m not sure if, “could I have done more?,” needs to have a negative connotation. I can see why it does, but as we continue to look to improve, this is a nagging question that I have this year (but have also had other years). Sometimes I wonder if it’s what pushes me to try different approaches and look at things differently. I think this is a good thing.

      I absolutely agree with the idea of putting kids first, and all those years that I focused on academics, I wonder if I spent more time looking at expectations that at children. This doesn’t mean that considering expectations is a bad thing, but I do think that I learned a lot more about children this year than maybe I have any other year. I really observed them, worked with them, listened to them, and learned from them. This is something that I will take with me to my next school. You’re right: every year in education is different, and I hope that each year, I continue to “improve” (looking at my starting point and ending point).


  2. Aviva, this is such a timely post for me. While a majority of my evaluation is based on students’ test scores, I am so in agreement with your statement, “we realized that academics couldn’t come first.” I strongly, strongly believe that by making kids into test scores instead of little people we are damaging them. I want my classroom to be so much more than that, but it’s very scary to not focus on those test scores. I’m hoping the emphasis on the little people in my classroom will lead to academic gains, but it’s a scary step to take. It’s nice to know others are there with me.

    • Thanks Becky! This is definitely a scary step to take. While in Ontario (at least in Kindergarten), the focus isn’t totally on test scores, we still have school and Board benchmarks. It’s definitely a challenge when the needs of the students seem to be beyond academic ones, and we’re left questioning if we’re making the right choices. I do think that we can’t focus on academics until students have developed social skills (including self-regulation) and problem solving skills, but this is the first year that I’ve really considered these different needs and made the choices that I made. Good luck as you contemplate a similar approach! I understand your concerns. I am curious to know what others have tried and what they noticed as a result.


  3. Aviva, I’m glad that you have embraced these two questions. I truly think they are a focussed way to think about our professional growth. I think you’ve hit upon the other important thing, that is, what to measure to know? I know you reflect constantly and have very high standards for yourself. Perhaps setting a small number of measures, two or three, that you will look at over the next few months might be useful? When we have too many goals, we really don’t accomplish much. What do you think?

    • Thanks for the comment, Sue! I really like your idea. Maybe, in the end, I will find this to be a better way to measure success. I’m going to do some thinking about these couple of measures, and I have a feeling that I’ll be blogging again soon.


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