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Self-Reflection as an Element of Professionalism

by Barbara T. Bowman - 1989

Professional practice in early childhood education is enhanced by self-reflection. This article argues that a blend of scientific and personal knowledge is essential for sound professional practice in early childhood education. The need for empathy, subjective understanding, compassion, feeling, and self-knowledge is emphasized and implications for teacher education discussed. (Source: ERIC)

Bowman argues that a blend of scientific and personal knowledge is essential for sound professional practice in early childhood education. She emphasizes the need for empathy, subjective understanding, compassion, feeling, and self-knowledge in the professional education of reflective practitioners.

In recent years increasing attention has been devoted to the advantages of professionalizing teaching so that it can enjoy the status and autonomy of the other learned professions.1 Professionalization has been seen as a way to identify, improve, and protect the quality of teaching practices and as the basis for increased status and wages for teachers. These benefits are particularly compelling for teachers of young children and have given impetus to a movement to professionalize the field of early childhood education.

One of the most important attributes of a profession is that it have a coherent knowledge base. The discussion about the best base for early childhood education has been lively, but has primarily focused on the formal knowledge system—the theories, experiments, and statistical evidence that have served as the basis for practice.2 Less attention has been given to subjective or personal knowledge as a foundation for teaching. Along with many early childhood educators, I contend that the theoretical underpinning for early childhood education must not be restricted to externally validated knowledge. A number of years ago, I outlined the Erikson Institute’s approach to teacher education.3 The institute’s position is that the teaching/learning paradigm is best understood by taking into account personal as well as empirical knowledge. Teachers filter formal theories and ideas regarding practices through their own values, beliefs, feelings, and habits, sometimes expanding and changing their personal knowledge to accommodate new ideas and new experiences, sometimes restructuring it to fit their current needs.

There is no inherent contradiction in having two knowledge systems for teaching: a formal one that includes information about human beings, and a subjective one that includes experiential knowledge of self and others. Early childhood education has a rich history of valuing the second type of knowledge,4 and I shall refer to many of the proponents of this point of view in this article. During the past twenty to thirty years the objective sciences—the formal knowledge system—have occupied the attention of early childhood educators. There is some reason to believe that the pendulum swing of theory and research is ready to move back once more to an appreciation of the relationship of personal experience and feelings to ideas and behavior.5

What is personal knowledge and is it respectable enough to be considered professional? It is not as easily described and examined as is formal knowledge, and teachers themselves are often poor guides to it, showing inconsistencies and disagreement between their expressed ideas and their feelings, between their formally stated beliefs and their actions in their classrooms. Yet it is this “implicitly held knowledge”6 that undergirds teachers’ actions.

Reflection has been recognized as a useful technique for helping teachers integrate the scientific and personal knowledge systems.7 It is assumed that if teachers reflect on their practices, they can make their understanding of classroom events more explicit, and therefore more amenable to control and direction. Teachers who reflect on how they feel and why they feel the way they do are in a better position to understand their interactions with others. The purpose of this article is to point out how professional practice is enhanced by self-reflection.


Barbara Biber, in Early Education and Psychological Development, describes a scene from her childhood to exemplify her school experience. Now in her eighties, Biber writes about the New York City schools of the early 1900s and of one of her first teachers. This teacher was prone to loud and histronic outbursts in class. One day, before the class began, Biber did an imitation of her teacher to entertain the other children. What she did not realize was that the teacher was in the cloakroom listening. The teacher’s response to Biber’s childhood prank was so painful that she still remembered it more than a half a century later. The teacher called her a bad girl, and moved her to a seat directly in front of the teacher. Biber says that this experience made a lasting impression on her and affected her feelings about school.8

Biber’s remembrance struck an empathic chord in me because I had a similar experience. Mine happened in nursery school. My first memory is of noticing that my snow suit was around my ankles and that something was not quite right. I evidently realized as I was tugging away that my suit was on back to front. For some reason I elected to pull the suit on, put my arms in, and present myself to the teacher. I do not know what I expected but my teacher responded, “Look at Barbara, she can’t even put her snow suit on right.” She then zipped me up the back. Biber’s story brought this event back to me. Shock, outrage, and shame are as clear now as when it happened.

The ability of humans to connect their experience to that of others, and through that connection gain understanding of the feelings of others, is a vital component of interpersonal interaction. The empathic capacity to feel with others, to sense the personal feelings of another, is at the heart of human understanding. Empathy is critical if adults are really to understand young children. Anna Freud has said, “We have, indeed, to rely upon the capacity of the normal adult to remember things, upon his interest in the investigation and upon his willingness to overthrow all those barriers, erected by a sense of shame, which prevent the revelation of himself to others.“9 It is through the teacher’s own prior experience, intuitive human knowledge, and subjective understanding that a great deal about the child is revealed.

Understanding the meaning of experience for young children is so important because some of their memories will be lifelong ones and will affect how later experiences are interpreted. The great black poet Countee Cullen wrote:

Once traveling in old Baltimore

Heart-filled, head filled with glee

I saw a Baltimorean

Kept looking straight at me

Now I was eight and very small

and he was no whit bigger

And so I smiled but he poked out

His tongue and called me nigger

I saw the whole of Baltimore

From May until December

Of all the things that happened there

That’s all that I remember10

Teachers may overlook childhood pain if they have not been sensitized through reflection on their own childhood and its pain. Access to these feelings is an important dimension of teachers’ self-knowledge and an asset in understanding their students and interactions with them. Sykes contends that the ethos of science-driven practice encourages detached personal relationships between the worker and the client, resulting in less sensitive and compassionate interactions.11

Nancy Balaban says in the dedication of her book Starting School, ‘When my youngest daughter went to kindergarten an event took place that caused her daily distress. The teacher, it seems, put Willie in the coat room every morning because he cried for his mother. He was permitted back in the classroom when he stopped crying. Eventually he learned not to cry for his mother.” Balaban goes on to say, “This book is written in the belief that other solutions to Willie’s crying can be found.“12 Teachers may ask, why worry about another solution? Willie stopped crying. Was it not good for him to learn he could not disrupt the class? The teacher’s idea of success might have changed if she had reflected. Balaban reports that when she conducted workshops with teachers and got them to think of words they associated with separation, they listed such feelings as fear, anxiety, pain, alone, angry, out of control, help, and unhappy. They had clear memories of the pain that can accompany separation.13

Teachers create emotionally stressful experiences for childen, perhaps because they do not remember their own childish passions, misunderstandings, and errors in judgment. Reflection on their own personal past can break teachers’ concentration on formal goals and objectives and focus attention on children’s “gut-level” experience. When teachers recognize at a personal level how a child may feel, they are more willing to take his or her feelings seriously and make supportive arrangements. Whether the teacher sees a child’s crying as behavior to be ignored or as an indication of pain to which he or she should respond depends on the meshing of personal and formal knowledge. Basch summarizes well when he notes that empathy leads to knowledge.14

Painful experiences do not have to constrain the rest of a child’s life. Adults can buffer children’s experience so that potentially devastating events become facilitating and growth producing instead of constricting and regressive. Some of the experiences that are apt to cause lifelong painful memories for children are well known—the death of someone important, rejection by a loved one, and violence are almost always traumatic. There are other experiences that stand out as strongly for young children, experiences like the first day in school, failing a test, or being called “nigger.” By remembering their own needs and vulnerabilities during childhood, teachers can learn to recognize when children are struggling with an experience and need help. They can then give comfort and support and teach children effective strategies for coping.

It is not just with strong emotions that memories can help teachers better understand children. Teachers’ memories help them to understand children’s sensory experience. Teachers who do not permit themselves to remember and still enjoy the texture of sense experiences, who are unable to reestablish their connectedness to the feelings of their own childhood, will not grasp the significance of sense experiences for children. Teachers who retain their own joy in the senses can use their knowledge to plan curriculum for children.


The responsiveness of the young child to adult perceptions and expectations is well known to teachers in relation to parents. Teachers usually see the relationship between parents’ behavior and attitudes and a child’s feelings, but often are less sensitive to their own effect on children. They are less willing to see how their past experiences and present concerns affect children’s feelings and behavior. Requiring teachers to look inward at themselves, at their fears, anxieties, disappointments—even looking inward on what makes them happy or satisfied—can make them uncomfortable. People create defenses against knowing about themselves when self-knowledge is too painful. Is it fair to ask teachers to put themselves in the position of feeling personal discomfort or pain? Yes. Is it not enough for them to just do the job? No. Should their personal lives be involved in their work? Yes.

This was brought home to me while observing a teacher trying to teach young children a unit about sexual abuse. The teacher abruptly told the children that there is “good touching” and “bad touching,” without making clear what makes a touch good or bad. Her hurried and embarrassed presentation made clear her discomfort with the topic. Many adults in our society feel uncomfortable about the fact that young children have and enjoy genital stimulation, with the fact that children are sexual beings. Much adult discomfort is caused by guilt and shame residual from their own childish sexual interests or activities. The teacher I observed was unable to discuss sexuality with the children because her feelings got in the way, and her lesson served little purpose. When teachers are able to admit to and discuss their feelings, shame and guilt may be relieved through the recognition of the universality of these childhood feelings.

Teachers can also gain valuable understanding of a child’s problems by attending to the feelings that the child evokes in them. Children often behave in ways that provoke adults to validate the child’s understanding of the world. For instance, children who have experienced abusive relationships with adults may be extremely provocative, trying to prove their wickedness or to duplicate the earlier relationship. Teachers who deny the anger and rage the child’s provocativeness elicits lose the insight into the child’s issues that knowing their feelings can reveal. Similarly, children having difficulty with establishing a clear and separate identity may hang on the teacher constantly. Teachers who do not recognize the discomfort this clinging makes them feel may reject the child’s overtures without insight into the cause of the child’s behavior.

Conflicts between formal and personal knowledge frequently go undetected because of the tacit nature of the latter. These conflicts can be addressed if teachers’ past experiences, their residual affects, are articulated and made respectable components of professional knowledge. Self-reflection and self-knowledge can be antidotes to exploitive and callous relationships.


Teachers who recognize and accept their feelings as part of a legitimate knowledge system set a good example for children. Two of the criteria for staff-child interactions of the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s Center Accreditation Project are “Staff help children deal with anger, sadness, and frustration” and “Children are encouraged to talk about feelings.“15 There is no better way of learning about feelings than having adults model for children. Children will learn about the importance of their inner selves through interaction with adults who recognize the importance of their inner selves and by identifying with those adults. Barbara Merril says in Learning about Teaching from Children, “All day, every day, the children study the behavior of the people who care for them, and learn to talk that way to one another and to US.16

Learning to talk about feelings with young children is not always easy. Sometimes the reasons for adult feelings are beyond the understanding of a young child, as when adults are disappointed in love or scared of losing a job, Self-reflection coupled with good supervision and team work can inform teachers when they are not being good models for children; colleagues can take over for the teacher when feelings get out of hand and the teacher can no longer control them; they can listen as teachers talk through why a particular child is so difficult; and they can reassure a teacher that everyone has feelings that are not helpful to children and that these can be controlled. When teachers recognize the need to support and help one another deal with feelings, they are good models and are being professional.


In 1955, Jersild said that teacher education had hardly begun to explore how to help teachers develop self-knowledge.17 This is still true today. If one looks at teacher education curricula, one rarely finds much emphasis on self-understanding. Teachers are generally given very little help using reflection and self-knowledge on behalf of children. They do not learn to talk professionally about feelings so that they communicate without invading each other’s privacy or exposing more about themselves than they are comfortable telling. The organization of trustworthy environments and the development of professional attitudes about the expression of feelings must be part of the teacher education curriculum.

Elizabeth Jones has described how she arranges a trustworthy environment for her students at Pacific Oaks. Memories from childhood are an integral part of her course in child development as a way of helping teachers discover the essence of childhood. Students are expected to participate in small-group discussions and to prepare journals in which remembrance of feelings is an important component.18 Through talking with others, teachers can learn to deal with their early experiences—some of which have been painful. Erikson says, “It is in certain phases of his work that the adult projects past experiences into dimensions which seem manageable. In the laboratory, on the stage, and on the drawing board, he relives the past and thus relieves left over affects; in restructuring the model situation, he redeems his failures and strengthens his hopes. He anticipates the future from the point of view of a corrected and shared past.“19 With skilled supervision, teachers can encourage each other to step back from their distinctly personal issues and see the developmental similarity of their own experience with that of others.

The experiences and feelings of childhood endure. Teachers have a responsibility to help shape children’s experiences so that they are growth-producing and self-assuring rather than constricting and self-doubting. Learning to use self-reflection to improve teaching deserves greater attention than it is currently receiving. By helping teachers get in touch with their own feelings, both past and present, another dimension of knowledge is activated, a dimension that should have a high priority in the profession of teaching. At the same time that this dimension of knowledge is more fully recognized in teacher education, it can be articulated with the existing formal knowledge base, so that the two together can form the coherent base to ground and shape future practice in the care and education of young children. Reflection, again, is the key to the process.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 90 Number 3, 1989, p. 444-451
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 484, Date Accessed: 5/24/2022 5:32:33 PM

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