Douglas Petrick
Douglas Petrick
Physics Teacher, Pittsburgh, PA


camera lens.jpgThe late-autumn timeframe provides a good window of opportunity to zoom in, zoom out, and reflect on your progress toward achieving your personal teaching goals this academic year. Let me clarify by stating that the goals and objectives I am referring to are not necessarily your course-specific objectives. Examining those is crucial as well, but in this article I want to focus on top-level outcomes related to teaching and learning, in general.


You may be asking, ‘why now?’ Conducting a self-assessment before you get too deep into the academic year is beneficial for two reasons: 1) should you need to modify direction, you have the time to effect a change; 2) if you wait until the end of the year, (which is sensible since you can see the whole scope of the term), you may find yourself too distracted and/or too busy with other end-of-year activities. The schema I provide below comes from the world of Physics and the work of Sir Isaac Newton. Newton is best known for his work in gravitation, but Sir Isaac spent considerable time researching prisms, lenses, and reflectors and their effect upon light.  In fact, our modern understanding of light comes from publications Newton submitted to the Royal Society in 1672. So, standing on the shoulders of this scientific giant, let’s employ metaphorical lenses and mirrors to shine light on our progress as educators since the start of the new academic year.

The Telescopic View

Telescopic lenses reveal objects at a distance. While we often think of the type of telescopes that peer into deep space, I want you to consider a smaller telescope, such as the kind used by sea captains.

As the captain of my classroom, I am responsible for plotting safe passage through the course material. Along the way, there are potential hazards. The rocks or shoals my classroom could easily flounder upon loom in the foggy distance. But through my telescope, I see the dangers--mandated state standardized tests, mid-term or final exams, lab practicum tests, AP Tests, IB Tests. As captain, am I taking the right tack in my decision-making. Am I setting my students up for success on the high-stakes challenges that lie ahead? If, as I scan the horizon, I see that if we’re sailing off-course, I take the helm and adjust the sails to correct our heading.


The Microscopic View


During the late-16th century, Zacharias Jansen and his father Hans, placed a few eye glass lenses in a tube and then took a look through the opposite end. A whole new world was discovered.

Early in my career, I was very concerned with teaching my students how to manipulate physics equations to solve problems.  I assumed teaching them practical methodology was of greater importance than providing a glimpse of the elegance and intricacy of a derived expression. I did not include the warp of humanity or the weft of history into the overall tapestry of learning.  It took me time to understand that details lend black and white concepts color. Over the course of the intervening centuries since the invention of the microscope, humans have come to know that very little things make an enormous difference. The questions I ask when self-assessing using a microscopic view are as follows: Am I introducing the fascinating stories that exist in my discipline? Am I inserting historical details that will resonate with certain students?  Am I attempting to take the drier procedural aspects of certain topics and turn them into something unique and special for my students—like a snowflake underneath a microscope.


The Periscopic View


Telescopes enable us to see what’s ahead, microscopes allow us to marvel at details, but a periscope is quite unique in that it provides a view over, around, or through an object or obstacle to see something that is out of our direct line of sight.

A periscopic view, when used for self-assessment, is about problem solving.  I utilize this lens to see around corners, peer above or below the surface, or over the crest of a hill. I have found this lens to be helpful when working with students who are struggling in class. I consider the collisions that can be avoided and the floating mines I must navigate carefully through with an underperforming student. It is only then that I am able to be proactive, develop a plan with all stakeholders represented, and steer the student into the clear.


The Flat Mirror


The flat mirror is the most common mirror. We peer into flat mirrors everyday, but the image reflected back, while crystal clear, is often viewed subjectively.

When you look in the mirror what do you see? Do you see only your flaws? What about your mental mirror? Same thing?  The truth is most of us are comfortable picking apart that which we don’t like about ourselves. Self-praise feels egotistical. Applying a flat mirror during my self-assessment can reflect back my strengths. Maybe it’s the way I am able to connect to students, or how I helped take a struggling student and gave him confidence. I take a look in the mirror and assess the things I do well with a particular goal in mind—growth. Once I have identified my strengths I am able to play to them, and they serve as the foundation upon which I try new things.


The Rear-View Mirror


Einstein’s Theory of Relativity posits that an object’s frame of reference specifies the relationship between a moving observer and the phenomenon or phenomena under observation. Assessing yourself using a rear-view mirror allows you to see the past, as well as potential futures.

Let’s pretend I am driving a car on a freeway. I am zipping along; I got my favorite tunes playing. A police cruiser races past me.  I let out a sigh of relief because I had not been checking my rear-view mirror. Luckily, while I was technically going over the speed limit, it wasn’t enough to catch the officer’s attention; otherwise my future would have contained an expensive ticket. But now, the cruiser is a safe distance away and my frame of reference of the incident is in the past. But I can see the police car speeding up to pace a fast moving car in the distance. I know what that driver’s future holds. Let’s bring this example home to teaching. If I rush headlong into a new teaching strategy and don’t take time to check my metaphorical rear-view two things can happen: 1) A bad future awaits because I am not paying attention to what is happening behind me; 2) A bad future awaits because I did not learn from the past—which is still very visible and recent. As an educator I need to be constantly checking to see what’s sneaking up behind me—maybe the students didn’t get the material because I went too fast, maybe they did understand the material and I am slowing them down by covering stuff that doesn’t need to be rehashed. As part of my self-assessment, I have to apply what I learned to future—while it’s still fresh and visible in my consciousness. In the words of the immortal Ty Webb, “See the future, be the future.” (But check your rear-view first.)


The One-Way Mirror


This specialized mirror is partially reflective and partially transparent. Arrangement of lighting on one side of the mirror can permit the observation of behavior without the observer being detected.

Have you ever taken the time to observe educators in their natural habitat—the classroom? Like a behavioral scientist observing subjects from behind a one-way mirror, you might encounter some extreme tendencies. That guy is always angry while his neighbor in the next classroom is always happy. Hmm…this one acts like a dictator. Oh, my—that classroom is bedlam! I try and put myself behind the one-way mirror and think about how I might be observed by others. I’ve learned a great deal about myself by observing the extremes of others and then turning the mirror on myself. Through such musings I have discovered that I am an extremist at times. I will do too much of one thing, not enough of another, and my students pay the price. Quietly observing others should not be about passing judgment; rather it should part of self-discovery and self-reflection. Extremes do not have to be bad, after all.  A teacher who readily praises her students consistently, or one who demands high-quality work while remaining fair, are good examples of extremes to be emulated.


What are some of the techniques you use to evaluate your progress throughout the school year?   Perhaps you use a variation of some of the concepts listed above.  I would love to hear your suggestions and feedback.  Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.


Image credit: Vladimir Arndt/Shutterstock