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It’s hard to be humble

October 5, 2013

I’ve spent most of my career thinking I do a pretty good job. I’ve successfully completed a number of academic and professional qualifications which prove my knowledge and skills. I generally receive positive feedback from my students, and manage to help them make tangible progress in their English. In terms of teacher development, I think I’ve provided a lot of people with skills that allow them to become good or better teachers. As a manager, I have a decent track record of developing successful programmes and creating a positive working environment for my staff.

Recently, though, I’ve been reading quite a bit about critical reflection. I started off thinking “Yes, I do that” and generally thinking that I’m not only fantastic at my job, but I’m really good at reflecting on it so I can constantly develop. But then I started reflecting about my reflection. If, by reflecting, I just conclude that I’m doing a great job, then that’s not critical reflection at all. All I’m doing is re-affirming my existing beliefs. If I look back at previous posts on this blog, there is a lot of criticism of ideas I disagree with, and a lot of calls for action that tie in with my own preferred practice. There are very few examples of me writing about problems I’m having, unless I go on to describe how wonderfully well I’ve overcome them. I seem to be cruising along in the comfortable belief that I’m right, and everyone else is only right if they agree with me.


Critical reflection is difficult. As Brookfield puts it, “…we’re using our own interpretive filters to become aware of our own interpretive filters – the pedagogic equivalent of trying to see the back of one’s head while looking in the bathroom mirror.” (Brookfield 1995:28).

I am basing my opinion of myself on what I see, but I am only seeing the bits I want to see. What about the students that don’t do well in my classes? Or the trainees that responded a lot better to the other tutor? Or the member of staff who never seems to be happy with his timetable?

It’s possible that part of my reluctance to address the negative aspects of my performance are related to the culture I’ve created. As a line manager, I tend to try and lead by example. If I’m setting an example then I should set a good one, meaning I’m more or less obliged to be good at what I do. As a result, I’m afraid to show my faults and I do my best to present myself as being good at everything. Over time, I’ve managed to convince myself that I am good at everything. I frequently tell my staff that they’re really good as well (and I genuinely think they are), but perhaps there’s an implication here that they’re only good because I’m good; that’s not fair on them.

Not only that, but my efforts to create a good example are actually creating a bad example. If I don’t openly reflect critically on my own practice, I’m not encouraging my staff to reflect critically on theirs. And not only my staff – the same applies to my students. To quote Brookfield again: “A teacher who models critical inquiry in her own practice is one of the most powerful catalysts for critical thinking in her students.” (ibid: 25).

Of course, maybe I am as good as I think I am. But at the moment I can’t be sure because I haven’t been reflecting critically enough to really know how good I am.

So, from now on, expect to find more posts that critically examine my own practice rather than other people’s. I won’t do this all the time; there will still be the occasional rant where I rail against something external that I’m finding particularly irritating. But I will also try to ask myself why it irritates me so much, and maybe I’ll find that the problem lies more with me than with the thing that irritates me.

This isn’t going to be easy for me, by the way. I am well-used to finding fault in others and a lot less experienced in addressing my own weaknesses. So if you see me displaying any signs of arrogance or lack of humility, please let me know – I can take it. I think.


Brookfield, S. 1995, Becoming a critically reflective teacher, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

  1. This rings sooooooo true Steve! Best of luck and I’ll try and join you 🙂

  2. Thanks, Neil. I’ll be interested to find out how you get on as well.

  3. swisssirja permalink

    🙂 congratulations! And I mean it! This post here is an enormous leap into critical reflection. Am curious to read more!
    Ps- but it’s okay to be good;-)

    • Thanks, Sirja. I hope to share my experiences as a more critically reflective practitioner over the next few weeks. Please feel free to chip in at any time with your own reflections.

  4. Rock on! And I second what Sirja said, too. I hope you find your reflections meaningful and powerful.

  5. Thanks for the encouragement. I’m looking forward to seeing what conclusions I come to.

  6. Richenda Askew permalink

    Critical reflection is very hard to do and like with most hard things in life we usually don’t do them (or not very well). So good luck with your new path of discovery and reflection, hope it is not too painful. Don’t try to only look at the negative, remember critical reflection can be positive and negative. I’m just reflecting on the fact that I suffer from Imposter Syndrome – any helpful suggestions for that?

    • Thanks Richenda. Of course I will try to look at the positive sides of my practice as well, though I tend to have no problem with this 🙂
      I think imposter syndrome is one of those things where you need to acknowledge it and then discuss it with peers so they can convince you that you are where you are on merit – so you’ve already made steps towards overcoming it. I’m surprised you feel you’re suffering from this though. I don’t know much about what you’re doing now, but when you worked with me I always thought you were capable of much more than you were doing.

  7. Very powerful reflection and an excellent reminder to be critical.

  8. ClaireC permalink

    Steve, I’ve been reading Brookfield too and am so glad you’ve articulated my thinking!! This critical reflection business is hard work- especially when we actually do everything so well 😉!

    • Hi Claire,
      Yes, I suppose it’s easy to justify whatever it is you do, and I think that’s what my usual reflective strategy was in the past. Now I’m trying to be a bit more analytical and look for alternatives. I’m also finding though that many of the problems, as Brookfield points out, are related to power and hegemony, a lot of which is imposed from outside rather than coming from me. Still, it’s useful to identify the sources of these issues in order to know how to address them.

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