A few years back I knew that it was time for a career change. Really, it was time for a change in the trajectory in my life. I just didn't have the confidence that if I continued down the path I was on that I would find fulfillment, and I knew I needed a shift. But, to what direction, I had no clue. Sure, there were paths I had crossed off- I knew I wasn't going to be an engineer or a zoologist, but I was open for anything else. Go into healthcare? Sure. Pursue a career in human resources? Why not? Go get an MBA and then into sales or management? Yeah- I could see that. The world felt expansive and the opportunities all seemed like genuine possibilities. But I knew I didn't want to just experiment with my next step, and I didn't want to waste time down the wrong path. I wanted to be certain that it was a direction consistent with my true nature. The anxiety that I felt through that time in my life was intense. The curse of too many options, perhaps. I knew I needed to narrow it down, but how? I'd already taken every personality or talent assessment under the sun, all of them confirming what I already knew but none illuminating the right direction.
That's when I figured it out. I didn't need to focus my energy on exploring the options, and I didn't need to waste time having other people tell me who I am or what to do. I had all the answers within myself. There were very real and very important parts of me I hadn't integrated yet. There were moments from my past that could be used as signposts for insight into who I really am in my core and show me the right path for my life. I needed to explore my past, search my memories for key moments that stuck out, lay them all out and find where the dots connected. I started journaling and daydreaming, recalling different memories and writing everything down, even if it didn't seem relevant at the time. At the end of that long exercise, I took a step back to look at it all, and there it was, staring right at me: my path.
Nowadays I get the privilege to work in schools with groups of teachers, or parents, or students and guide them to recall different memories from their past. Every time, no matter the context or if they're adults or teenagers, the first reaction I get is like I'm an intruder. Most people are initially defensive, shut down, or closed off.
I've been thinking about using a more direct approach when I get started, something like, "We interrupt this regularly scheduled broadcast to invite you to break out of your autopilot mode, stop and actually think about your life." Self-reflection is a disruption into their normal routine and the status quo, and I can always feel their resistance. I've learned to anticipate in any group about half who are open, ready, willing, and able to be guided through such exercises. They're the students who whisper to each other: "Would you rather be doing this, or another worksheet or boring slide presentation?" Then there's a quarter of the crowd who have no idea what I'm talking about and need to be convinced that self-reflection is relevant or valuable. And then there's the rest- the ones who see no need and no value for self-reflection, at least at that moment. They're the trickiest, the ones with their heads down or frowns on their faces. A couple of weeks ago a student raised his hand and said, "Is this some kind of trick or something? Why are you making us think about things?"
I'm absolutely convinced now that we need to guide students to take frequent steps back to reflect on their lives. To remember, recall, and retell the moments of their lives that stick out to them as important, unique, odd, or meaningful. In today's education climate with a deadly cocktail of extreme academic pressure and insanely competitive college admissions, everyone is seeing the spike in mental health problems, social and emotional breakdowns, and not nearly enough balance. When students are tasked to only stay focused on the present moment and fixate on academic success, they will miss out on the richness that is adolescence, a necessary and beautiful season for reflection, maturation, experimentation, and discovery. If we don't dedicate significant, frequent time to guide students into reflection, we're going to keep heading down the path to a cultural implosion of our own making.
If we don't guide students to reflect, they’re going to miss significant opportunities.
- Without reflection, they can't see what path their lives are on
- Without reflection, they miss out on opportunities to connect the dots from their childhood
- They won't become self-aware about their life story, personal beliefs, natural talents or interests
- They won't be able to organize their lives well to include what's most significant or meaningful
- They won't be able to speak confidently about their own convictions or make difficult choices when values collide
- They won't be able to celebrate meaningful moments
- They will carry into adulthood unresolved wounds
- They will march forward on someone else's direction about what makes for a happy life
We have an opportunity to create space in every subject and learning environment for students to reflect on their past, present, and future. To remember and recall and retell the moments that have shaped them and through structured conversation learn how to make sense of who they are, how they're wired, what motivates them, and to see what story they find themselves in.
We can even do it in math class. Yep, and let's throw science in there, too. Math and science teachers can thoughtfully prompt meaningful self-reflection for students. They can take a few minutes to ask students to remember moments that have shaped their attitude and mindset towards math. Think back about the grades they've received, comments that have been made to them or about them in math, how they've felt as they worked out a more complex application of concepts. We can give them prompts like:
"When it comes to math, I…"
"When I am working through a complex math problem, I feel…"
"One time, in math class someone said to me, you…"
"Compared to other subjects, in math I…"
From a personal, human standpoint, when a teacher takes the time to guide students through reflection exercises like these they are creating space for them to be real and present. To acknowledge that at least half of what happens in math class happens underneath the surface- it's about self-confidence, mindset, your identity and how you see yourself and want to be seen. From an academic standpoint, teachers who carve out time for reflection like this will see grades improve. If you help students be more aware, more present, more vulnerable, and more mindful about their inner lives and inner voices they will be able to be more attentive, take more risks, and engage more fully. You can flush out limiting beliefs, fixed mindsets, bruised egos or unhelpful competition.
I remember a student who admitted through an exercise like the one above that he felt like "the dumb one" in the room. Math didn't come easily to him, his parents had recently arranged a private tutor for him, and he needed extra time to finish his tests. He felt ashamed and dejected, and what do you think happened to his motivation to push harder? It was in this exercise as he opened up and shared about how he felt that his peers and his parents validated what he was going through. They reminded him of how he had worked hard in the past and figured out the difficult concepts. He felt the shame dissipate, heard from the other students that they all struggled in different ways, and didn't feel so alone. A few weeks later his parents told me that his attitude had completely shifted, he was self-motivated, and doing way better in the class.
The moments we've been through and the things we've seen and heard have shaped our understanding of ourselves. Putting those moments together and they become a story. Recalling those moments gives us an opportunity to examine that story, perhaps to reinterpret it and even tell ourselves a different one, a better one.
If you're a teacher or an adult who works with students, you can build self-reflection moments into your lesson plans and guide students to make more sense of themselves. You can model it for them first, and show them that vulnerable self-discovery is key to wellbeing and balance. You can carve out time for these moments and know that the time you spend is never wasted, but stored up as growth and emotional health.
How many times have you struggled to clearly answer the question: Tell me about yourself? If you're like me it’s Every. Single. Time.
For years we’ve been studying what a young person needs in order to transition into a healthy, thriving adulthood.
They're uncommon sense ideas, really.
Download this checklist and use it with your students (or kids).