Home LearningDid You Know? The power of reflective practice in educational leadership

The power of reflective practice in educational leadership

by Eddie Rayner

“I don’t have time to think!”

How often do we hear these words from our educational leaders? Principals and SLT are constantly under pressure to meet the ever-changing regulations of COVID demands, the relentless streams of data that flow from every corner of the school and the ferocious flow of student concerns.

Recently a YouGov survey, as part of the Teacher Wellbeing Index, found that over half of teachers in the UK say their mental health has declined significantly during the COVID pandemic revealing a profession feeling unsupported and unappreciated (EducationSupport.org.uk, 2021). USA Today (Jan, 2021) reported widespread concerns headlining that “teacher’s mental health suffers in ways they’ve never experienced”. The Bastion, in 2020, reported the hidden threat to teachers across India; as declining mental health during the Pandemic – there is little time to take a breath, pause and reflect but it is something that we need to do, it is essential.

So, what is reflective practice?
Reflective practice is ‘learning through and from experience towards gaining new insights of self and practice’ (Finlay, 2008)

It is the act of periodically stepping back to ponder the meaning of what has recently transpired in our schools, our teams and our environment. It privileges the process of inquiry leading to an understanding of actions and experiences that may have been overlooked in the process of change.

Reflection is a basic part of teaching and learning and of whole school development. It aims to make you more aware of your own professional knowledge and action by ‘challenging assumptions of everyday practice and critically evaluating practitioners’ own responses to practice situations’ (Finlay, 2008).

Associated with learning dialogues, or communities of practice; it is the exchange of social political and emotional data.  It is opening discussion with your team in a safe environment of trusting peers to address premises and assumptions behind our educational leadership and practice.  These learning dialogues are concerned with creating mutual caring relationships to eliminate blocks to operational effectiveness.

How can schools foster reflective practice?
Just as a teacher uses reflective practice in class to self-appraise, we can expand this to a whole school macro level where staff are engaging in professional learning dialogues.

There are strategies that a school can endorse to encourage the use of reflective practice. According to Joseph Raelin, author of Work Based Learning, there are five key elements which support reflective practice.

Reflective actions;lead by even one person can stimulate reflective action in others. Journaling, learning histories or learning forums are a good way to start.

Building communities; encourage teachers and leaders to network around common topics or areas of interest. Encourage sharing and testing of ideas, facilitate this through setting up meeting spaces and allowing time, in the day, for teachers to come together.

Process improvement; reinforce the value of learning from experience, highlight the value of quality improvement approaches.

Learning teams; create supportive task teams to work on meaningful action learning projects. For example, ask a group of teachers to pilot a trial such as flexible seating, facilitating them to work together in testing and trialing and reflecting on their challenges and success.

Culture of learning; senior managers have a particularly important role in modeling learning dialogues, where everyone feels confident to challenge ideas, discuss pitfalls and requirements.

How can we, as leaders model this culture of learning and reflective practice?

Through open enquiry and free discussion, testing and uncovering possibilities in school practice. Speaking with teachers and staff to stimulate discussion, find and characterize a collective voice of discourse. Sharing our own doubts about our practice and allowing for vulnerability as a leader. Voicing passion and demonstrating our own excitement. Probe and enquire with all staff, ask about their assumptions, reasons and consequences. Be present, listen actively, be inquisitive and be vulnerable. Being vulnerable, as an educational leader, builds group cohesion and affiliation.

By engaging reflective practice in a school we can support teachers and leaders in growing and improving their own practice in a meaningful and structured way.

“Reflective practice enables the practitioner to ‘remove’ themselves from the immediacy of being directly involved in the decision or action and to put their actions into a ‘context’ that provides a fuller appreciation of all the circumstances that led to that decision or action.”(Baker, Cathcart, & Peach, 2017).

As an educational leader, facilitating structured time, where teachers and school leaders can take a breath, self-appraise and reflect, we can promote calm and wellbeing. Approach challenges in a collective manner and accept pitfalls and failures as learning opportunities.

Reflective practice is a powerful tool and one that can be implemented relatively easily – if we just take the time -take a breath, step back and be in the moment of learning.

There are a  number of websites that can guide you on reflective practice from a micro teaching level to a macro whole school level.


Catherine is the Head of Student Services for Bloom Education in the UAE, she also hosts a fortnightly Inclusion & Wellbeing Forum for practitioners, sharing practice and knowledge from Singapore to Ireland. She is a teacher, psychologist and engineer and is passionate about combining practice from all three areas to develop effective leadership strategies in educational organisations. She is a regular conference speaker and media contributor and always keen to share freely and connect like-minded practitioners.