Thursday, 22 June 2017

Book Review

A Teacher’s Reflection Book: Exercises, Stories, Invitations.

Jean Koh Peters and Mark Weisberg, Durham, North Carolina, Carolina Academic Press, 2011, 199 pp., US$30.00 (paperback), ISBN 978-1-59460-942-8.

This excellent book should be part of every teacher’s professional library. It is a book pitched at all teachers in higher education and, through the processes of reflection, a book that advances important principles of good teaching practice that are usually introduced all too briefly in the basic texts on teaching in higher education. It is a book that simultaneously challenges and then guides us to be better teachers through the process of reflecting where ‘... teachers remain learners, learning from their rich experience with students, with the academy and with their scholarship’ (p.26).

Several descriptive words come to mind when reading this book. It is a polite and gentle book. Politeness is revealed in the book’s sub-title – ‘Exercises, stories, invitations’. It is the idea of invitation that characterizes much of the book. It is not didactic but rather invites us to use the book and the processes described in it in ways that work best for us. It is also an accessible book. Most refreshingly, it is not burdened with unnecessary technical jargon and convoluted language that cripples too much writing in education today and makes learning inaccessible to many, particularly for those readers whose first language is not English.

The authors, Jean Koh Peters and Mark Weisberg are both Professors of Law, she from Yale and he from Queen’s University in Canada. Both have a strong, practical interest and commitment to teaching that is well demonstrated throughout the book, none the least from accounts of reflection retreats they have led for university teachers. It is in these retreats that this book is grounded and from which it has drawn its inspiration.

The six chapters are designed to help teachers construct for themselves ‘mini-retreats’ for reflection that they can work into their own lives. The book follows a clear, logical sequence that is firmly anchored in teaching and students rather than in the concept of reflection itself. I found this focus on teaching and students one of the most appealing characteristics of the book and one that leads to its very practical and relevant character.

Chapter 1 addresses the question ‘How does a teacher say hello?’ The authors point out that the many hellos we say – when we set the stage for teaching or when we meet students – send out clear signals of welcome or impatience, engagement or apathy, or of simply getting down to the business of learning. To help the reader with the importance of saying hello in teaching, the book then provides examples of hellos and helps us, through a series of questions, to reflect on the messages we send in our hellos.

Chapter 2 describes what the authors mean by reflection with suggestions for practice. Chapter 3 considers the skill of listening and draws the important distinction between the critical and often superficial listening so common in academic life with the deeper, open and less judgmental listening that is sorely needed in reflecting on good teaching and in our personal relationships.  The title of Chapter 4 asks ‘Who are our students and how and what do they learn in the classroom?’ and invites us to reflect on our own experiences as students. Chapter 4 goes some way beyond reflection into consideration of ways of facilitating better learning and it does so in ways that obliges us to reflect on our practice as teachers. Finally, Chapter 5, ‘The teacher and vocation’, reflects on some of deepest and most private fears of being a teacher, such as the fear of failure and appearing foolish.

 A teacher’s reflection book is a very practical and personal guidebook and a rich source of perspectives from which we are assisted to reflect on our teaching and on our personal lives more generally.

By way of conclusion it is important to return to the purposes of the book to assess its achievements. These purposes are to assist teachers in reflection events, either alone or with colleagues, by providing materials for prompting reflection. In my view, these purposes have been achieved very well indeed. I repeat my belief that this book deserves to be in every teacher’s library.

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