Reflection is a critical piece of developing CASEL’s five core competencies. Reflection often leads to personalization and supports a growth mindset. Over the next three weeks, we will look at how reflecting on the last year will help educational leaders move forward with many of the challenges and traumas faced during the pandemic.  

The last year in education has had a significant impact on districts, schools, and communities. No amount of professional learning could have prepared us for the challenges that we all faced as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, when it comes to roles and responsibilities within a school system, we have all experienced the same storm, albeit in different boats. To no one’s surprise, the pandemic has led to concerning reports around school building morale and motivation. As many as 40% of educators have shared these feelings have worsened over the last year (Prothero, 2021). Perhaps, even more interesting is that there is now a term for some of the reported joylessness educators have felt throughout the pandemic: languishing (Grant, 2021). 

According to Grant (2021) languishing may be the dominant emotion of 2021 and it is connected to feelings of stagnation and emptiness. This has been closely tied to grief as we deal with a “loss of normalcy.” I remember the first time I had actually used the word grief to describe my experience to my current principal in the middle of our school year. It felt like I had lost something. Then, I came across a TED Talk from Nora McInerny (2018) on grief that made me think about some implications for educational leaders. While her discussion of grief is more aligned to how we would traditionally discuss it in terms of losing loved ones, she makes a valid point that can help educators as we close one school and move on to another: we don’t move on from grief, we move forward with it. This also aligns well with a recent article about toxic positivity in schools. Prothero (2021) uses this phrase to describe “papering over feelings'' especially when they may be viewed as “negative.” We are often told to look on the bright side or compared with other situations much worse than our own. The problem with this is that it does not allow for us to identify and accept our mental experiences. 

So, what can we do? We know that our experiences will carry with us as we move forward. But, what do we do with our experiences from the last year? If you look closely at CASEL’s Core Competencies and subskills, you will see the importance of reflection across all components. There are a number of activities that support reflective practices; consider taking a look at our top 5 activities for reflection to get some starting points. However, the most important goal should be to provide a safe space for participants to sit with their experiences in a way that is authentic to them. Not to be overshadowed by toxic positivity, but in a way that allows them to feel heard and honored. The benefits of providing opportunities to reflect on this last year are endless, however here are three ways that reflection activities help your team move forward with their experiences from the last year:

1. It builds trust

Taking the time to use meetings or one-on-one conversations to include reflective opportunities around challenging experiences builds trust amongst staff members. It sends a message that it is ok to explore our emotions around a topic, and it creates a place where people feel heard. Investing in opportunities for reflection will help strengthen your school community.

The most important goal should be to provide a safe space for participants to sit with their experiences in a way that is authentic to them. (Tweet this)


2. It honors experiences

Many adult learning theories stress the importance of recognizing the complex experiences adults may bring to a learning environment. If we want our staff to move forward with their experiences, we must first recognize that they happened. Reflection activities create opportunities to name and validate these experiences in addition to sharing them with others.

3. It encourages opportunities for learning during challenging times

A final way that reflection activities can help staff move forward with their experiences is that it can help them with using the experiences as an opportunity to learn. This learning can be about themselves or unique ways to solve new challenges. Regardless, setting up reflective activities allows for participants to explore their challenges from outside of the initial experience to find new ways of looking at it.

Overall, the pandemic has and will continue to change the landscape of education. We will carry these experiences with us and we must learn effective ways of reflecting on the past. Leaders who build in reflective practices as a steady approach to supporting the social and emotional needs of staff are going to develop stronger relationships and methods for overcoming challenges in the long run.

Click here to download a free guide presenting 5 easy activities that promote reflection, to use in your school and district and share with your colleagues. Click me


Grant, A. (2021, April 19). There's a name for the blah you're feeling: It's called languishing. The New York Times.

McInerny, N., (2018, November). We don’t “move on” from grief. We move forward with it. [Video]. TED Conferences.

Prothero, A., (2021, January 6). When toxic positivity seeps into schools, here’s what educators can do. Edweek.

Author: Shawna Jensen

Posted: 12 May 2021

Estimated time to read: 4 mins

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