Secrets of Teacher Ed Part 1: A Game-Changing Tool

A couple of years ago as I was observing a student teacher, the often-shared thought that “the school classroom is the only place that hasn’t changed in the past fifty years” came to my mind. I have always disagreed with that statement.

I feel that today the curriculum is much more clearly focused, teachers are better trained, and there is definitely more use of technology. On the negative side, testing is higher-stakes too. But as I sat there, I realized that in most cases we are still supervising student teachers the way that it was done when I was a student teacher decades ago!

It’s always the same routine: the university supervisor shows up, watches the student teacher teach, takes notes, completes an evaluation form, and has a brief conference with the student teacher. This is what I was doing at the time too. I rationalized that I always involved my student teachers by starting with questions like “What went well?” and “What would you do differently?” But this process still seemed like something I was doing to them and not so much with them.

I started to wonder if there might be better ways to supervise student teachers.

The Key to Better Supervision

Around this time, I came across an article about the Best Foot Forward Project at Harvard University.

This project replaced traditional student teaching observations with video observations. The students were required to submit five recordings, but the report stated that most of the participants recorded themselves at least thirteen times. Without fail they would watch the video and feel that they could do better. So they made changes and recorded themselves again.

One section that caught my attention was a quote from a Best Foot Forward teacher from North Carolina:

“The reflection that I did myself when I videoed, offered me more opportunity for growth than anything any outsider could do for me. Watching my kids, what went on in my room, how I handled it, and things I said—that was more important than any sit-down that I could have with anybody else.”

I loved this idea because it made perfect sense. In my days as a high school principal, my football and basketball coaches, my drill team advisor, and my marching band director always recorded games and performances to let the students see for themselves what they were doing. In fact, this past weekend as I was flipping channels I heard one of the announcers for an NCAA softball game commenting on one of the athletes. She had started studying film of top baseball players swinging a bat when she was just 10 years old and continued the practice through her entire college career.

All of these examples got me thinking . . .

Why not use video to observe and evaluate student teachers in the classroom?

Over the past decade, I have required my student teachers to record and observe themselves teaching two times during their student teaching field experience, once within the first couple of weeks and again around week ten.

I provided a couple of basic prompts for them to respond to, but all the students consistently couldn’t believe that was really them in the first video. Their reflection focused on general concepts like appearance, voice, and what they felt were distracting behaviors for their students. The general overall feeling with the second recording was that they were surprised at the growth in their teaching abilities and their increased confidence. When I saw the students seeing the improvement for themselves, I knew that I had finally stumbled across an instructional method that works.

Looking for the Perfect Tool

Emboldened by my new discovery, I started looking for software that would allow me to videotape our student teachers and provide in-line feedback. Many tools allowed me to capture the video, but I had to use a stopwatch to pinpoint my feedback. For example, if I wanted to comment on a teaching strategy used at two minutes and thirty-two seconds, there just wasn’t an easy way to do that. So I kept searching.

Eventually I found an effective program that would capture the teaching and allow me to add instructor comments with a timestamp. But it was also very expensive. I already knew our School of Education wouldn’t go for it.

Around this time, I visited a colleague at another university who recommended a product they used to improve their professors’ teaching skills: GoReact. I was surprised when I started researching this product and found that they were based in the same city where I live. Not about to miss out on the opportunity, I made a phone call and set my first in-person meeting with Glen Thaxton, who introduced me to the GoReact software.

From the very beginning I was impressed. I am NOT a tech person, but I found GoReact very easy to use and the cost a lot more reasonable. Watching a teaching session was incredibly easy, and whenever I started typing a comment, the video paused until I hit enter. The platform also had a marker feature to identify frequently occurring teaching behaviors, both positive and negative.

This was something we could do!

A Solution that Finally Worked

I knew I had to try out this software on my students, and the GoReact team was more than willing to let me test drive the program. Needless to say, I was very impressed with both the platform and the way it solved common problems I had experienced in teacher evaluations for over 30 years.

First of all, GoReact helped the students do their work and their learning simultaneously. When I started my teaching career in the 1970s, I heard a quote that I think was from educational speaker Harry Wong, although I can’t find it attributed to him anywhere online. He stated, “He who does the work does the learning.” That has become a mantra for me in my teaching career and my work with students. Too often as teachers we are doing all of the work, whether we’re preparing the content for the students, giving feedback on their assignments, or even summarizing the day’s lesson. If we do the work as teachers, we do the learning. If the student teachers do the work, they do the learning.

As I started using GoReact, I had my student teachers record themselves in the classroom and give feedback on their own teaching before I reviewed the footage myself. Just like the participants in the Harvard Project, some of my student teachers recognized approaches they could do better and recorded a second time when they taught the lesson to another class.

Sometimes I would give them prompts on what to watch for, like specific skills they had been practicing. Other times they were to pick out 2–3 things they felt they were successful at and 1–2 things they needed to practice and improve.

But who was doing the work? My student teachers were watching their own teaching and then providing their own feedback, identifying what areas they had improved in and what areas still needed improvement. And they were learning much more about effective teaching simply by increasing their own self-awareness. I was then able to coach them on how to improve in specific areas, and I found that these student teachers were far less defensive of my feedback because they had already seen the recording.

The Proof is in the Footage

The second problem that GoReact resolved was misunderstandings about what actually happened in the classroom. In traditional observations, the university supervisor makes notes that a certain behavior was exhibited. In the follow-up, the student teacher may question whether the reported event occurred as reported. The result is distrust and slow improvement.

Video completely resolves this issue because the recording allows both student teacher and observer to see the exact same event and eliminate possible misunderstandings. In my experience, having student teachers video themselves creates teachers that are more reflective of their own teaching practices and far more effective teachers. I’m positive this is why the late Grant Wiggins shared the recommendation that “teachers videotape themselves teaching at least once a month to see how clearly they are coming across to students.” I have no doubt that he was right.

Reaping all the Benefits

As a result of my experiences with GoReact, our School of Education has adopted the platform for many other observation purposes beyond student teaching evaluations in the classroom. In Part 2 of this series, I will share my experiences dealing with out-of-state observations of student teachers and how GoReact provided a solution.