Looking Back to Move Forward

I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting on past practice lately. As part of that process, I’ve been revisiting old lesson plans, activities, report card comments – essentially, everything that goes into being an educator.

Part of this has been borne out of necessity. This is a year unlike any other I’ve experienced and I’ve regularly found myself needing to find new and forgotten ways to keep students engaged, which has led me to look for ideas from previous years.

The larger reason for this, though, is to confront the necessary but harsh truth that I have not always been the most responsive or informed teacher when it comes to equity and creating safe spaces in the classroom.

I have always done what I thought was best for my students. I have never intentionally done something that would cause them harm. But looking back like this, I can see places where my practices weren’t what they are today, and that’s an important thing to acknowledge so that I can remind myself both of how far I’ve come and how much learning I have to do.

For example, at the beginning of my career, I segregated Health classes for units on puberty/sexual health. I thought I was creating a safer space for my students, but in actual fact, this practice is harmful in many ways. I wasn’t educated enough on trans, non-binary, and intersex identities. I know better now.

Another example of past mistakes is my participation in and promotion of spirit days at school. At the beginning of my career, I didn’t understand how problematic most (if not all) spirit days are. I have pictures of me proudly participating in “crazy hair day”. I cringe at them now, but I keep those photos tucked away in a folder on my computer specifically to remind myself that I am not infallible and I am always learning.

I’m writing about this tonight not to dwell on past mistakes, not to overthink or express regret over my earlier ignorance. I’m writing about this to hopefully let you know that many of us – especially white educators – have made and will make missteps in our careers. We will do what we think is right and it will not be right at all. 

When we make missteps, it’s important that we be able to reflect, recognize that we’ve made a mistake, acknowledge what the mistake was, and commit to doing better. If we never look back, if we never acknowledge that we have caused harm, then we won’t be able to do better in the future.

You may feel discomfort and embarrassment as you look back on your past practice. Don’t run from that discomfort. Sit with it, think about it, let yourself feel it. This discomfort is an important part of learning. Recognizing your past mistakes is the only way to truly move forward with your practice.

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Updated: June 1, 2021 — 8:09 pm

The Author

Shawna Rothgeb-Bird

Grade 4/5 Middle French Immersion teacher from Ottawa. Passionate about teaching (naturally!), board games, video games, music, and TTRPGs. Former member of the ETFO New Members provincial standing committee. Current member of the OCETFO Collective Bargaining Committee, among approximately one thousand other things that I am always doing. No, I do not actually have spare time, I am just perpetually putting off things that I *should* be doing. @rollforlearning on Twitter.

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