Elul: A time for reflective practice

It is great that Rosh Chodesh Elul (the beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul) coincides with pre-planning week and the official start of the 2013-14 school year. Elul, the month leading up to the Jewish High Holy Days, is a time when Jewish tradition prioritizes the act of self-reflection. Reflection and reflective practice are vital capacities for all educators. Jewish educators are blessed that the start of our school year coincides with Elul. It’s as if our tradition is urging us to be reflective practitioners.

I recently heard a great leader in Jewish day school education, Rabbi Josh Elkin, speak to a small group of Jewish educational leaders. His remarks focused on leadership lessons from his many years in the field. I was struck by the fact that Rabbi Elkin chose to start and end his remarks by focusing on the importance of reflective practice. He argued that reflective practice is perhaps the greatest capacity an educator can cultivate. I agree.

Reflective practice is the what allows us to grow as educators and human beings. It’s what makes the second time delivering a lesson better than the first. It’s what allows us to move from the dance floor to the balcony to take a look at what’s really going on in our classrooms, on our teams, and in our schools. It allows us to step outside of our ourselves by stepping inside of our ourselves.

Sometimes reflection seems like a luxury. Often it’s something that gets sacrificed in the name of putting out fires, or fulfilling our more concrete and tangible responsibilities like grade books, phone calls, meetings, and lesson plans– all essential job functions (and relational in nature). But the further away we get from reflective practice the less intuitive it becomes. It’s slippery slope. Eventually growth stagnates, new ideas and insights dry up. We risk becoming brittle and ossified.

Reflection allows us to greet ourselves anew, to see with fresh eyes, to diagnose clearly and incisively. Reflection also  allows us to generate hypotheses, test them, and assess the data when needed.

Judaism values reflection and the month of Elul is one of the most profound embodiments of this value. Special prayers such as slichot and rituals like sounding the shofar each day are like appointment reminders, asking us to check in with ourselves.

Reflection is both a vehicle for self-awareness and self-transcendence. By pausing to deeply consider the stuff of our lives we can see our patterns and tendencies, our strengths and weaknesses. At the same time, reflection points us towards things beyond ourselves– relationships, commitments, communities, responsibilities. We begin to see our interconnections and interdependence as well as our limitations and ultimately our finitude. As we come home to these existential truths we can emerge with meaningful ways of ordering our time, articulating our priorities, and exercising our talents and abilities.

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