Secrets of Teacher Ed Part 3: Putting your Best (Tech) Foot Forward

There are a lot of opinions about using tech in the classroom. Not all technologies are created equal, but personally, I’ve found that one in particular has risen far above the rest in education: video.

To explain why, let me tell you a story. Many years ago, one of our cooperating teachers submitted an evaluation that was . . . the tiniest bit awkward. She was reflecting on a lesson that featured one of our female health student teachers explaining the reproductive system. The cooperating teacher’s first written comment was pretty general, addressing the off-task talking of the students during the lesson. But her second comment said, “I liked the visual that you did with your body to represent the female anatomy.” As I reviewed this evaluation I was speechless. I didn’t dare ask either the student teacher or the cooperating teacher about the “visual” they were referencing.

This experience got me thinking: how is any teacher supposed to explain visual feedback through words alone? If you’re talking about something you can see, the only real way to communicate is to have the footage right in front of you. If only that health student teacher had been videoing her lesson!

Learning Right Before Your Eyes

In my previous posts, I have referenced the Harvard School of Education’s Best Foot Forward Project and their use of videos in evaluating teacher performance. In this blog I want to share some of the results of the Best Foot Forward Project, a reflection on this project by Leila Meyer printed in The Journal, and my own reflection having used videos as part of an evaluation approach.

The idea behind the Best Foot Forward Project was to let the teachers put their “best foot forward” by changing the perception that observers and evaluators are trying to catch student teachers doing something wrong. Here is a summary of the report by Leila Meyer:

The report, “The Best Foot Forward Project: Substituting Teacher-Collected Video for In-Person Classroom Observations,” summarizes the findings of the first year of implementation of the Best Foot Forward Project. The researchers studied 347 teachers and 108 administrators at schools in Delaware, Georgia, Colorado and California. Participants were randomly assigned to a treatment or control group. Those in the treatment group received a video camera and access to a secure site to store and view recorded lessons, and those in the control group continued to use in-person classroom observations.

Initially, teachers in the video group were reluctant to record themselves in the classroom but acquiesced when they were given the option of controlling the camera and choosing which lessons would be submitted for review. At the conclusion of the first year, the researchers found that allowing teachers to control the video observation process did not affect administrators’ ability to identify stronger or weaker teachers because “teachers who were stronger (or weaker) in their submitted lessons also tended to be stronger (or weaker) in the lessons they chose not to submit.”

Power to the Teachers

Meyer goes on to explain,

“Giving teachers control over the video observation process resulted in numerous benefits for both the teachers and the administrators, according to the report. For the teachers, it increased their perception of fairness and made them more self-critical of their classroom instruction. For the administrators, it enabled them to shift their observation work to quieter times of the day or week and resulted in reduced teacher defensiveness during post-observation conferences.”

How did my own experience with teacher-controlled video observations compare with those in the Harvard study? Here are seven different insights I stumbled across:

1. My student teachers were not as hesitant to try the video observation approach as I feel veteran teachers would be.

The student teachers had no experience with either model of evaluation, which made them surprisingly accepting of this new model of observation. The comfort level of this generation of teachers with technology is also much higher than older generations of teachers. Today’s teachers are used to taking pictures and videos of themselves and sharing them through social media. In fact, a reader poll from SmartBrief Education reveals that 91% of teachers believe that filming their instruction would help their teaching improve.

Try Part 2 of this blog series: Secrets of Teacher Ed Part 2: Training Out-of-State Student Teachers

2. My experiences reinforced the findings after the first year of the Best Foot Forward Project: that these teachers were more self-critical than teachers that are not viewing themselves.

The original study stated, “At the end of the year, they (teachers that were videoing) rated their own instruction lower than the comparison teachers, particularly in terms of time management and their ability to assess student mastery during class.” It also reported that “Roughly one-third (37%) reported they ‘quite often’ or ‘extremely often’ saw student reactions or behaviors in the video that they had not noticed while teaching the class.” My student teachers were also more self-critical. In fact, they initiated the evaluation process by posting their comments first. Traditional student teacher conferences usually consist of the observer providing most of the dialogue about what needs correcting.

3. The student teachers liked the approach of choosing which lessons they wanted to video or re-videoing for themselves.

Giving them control over their own submissions really changed the whole approach from a “gotcha” exercise to a cooperative effort. My student teachers genuinely felt that I wanted to see them at their best, not catch them doing something wrong.

4. I had the opportunity to observe my student teachers through video AND in-person observations.

As a result, I did not see differences in what I had observed on the video and what I had observed in traditional in-person observations. Experiencing both evaluation methods was truly enlightening for me because I found that my perceptions of the teaching were the same both ways. Whether I was observing through video or direct observation, I consistently identified the strong teaching episodes every time. This only proved to me that video really is a reliable method of evaluating teaching ability.

5. My student teachers never expressed strong feelings regarding the fairness of this evaluation approach.

They knew they were being evaluated differently than the other student teachers but seemed open to the new approach. One teacher in the study reported, “It was so nice to have somebody else be able to actually see it instead of just my perception of what happened.”

6. As an evaluator, video assessments allowed me much more flexibility in viewing the lessons.

There’s very little wiggle room in the in-person model. I was always confined to a certain day and time when the observation was scheduled, but video footage can be reviewed any time or place. I could also rewind if I wanted to see something in the lesson a second time, an opportunity I didn’t have during in-person observations at all.

7. I found there was less self-defensiveness with the teacher-controlled videos than with in-person observations.

This happened for two reasons: First, my student teachers got to choose what lesson they videoed and could video a second time if they wanted another shot. Second, I had the teachers watch the video and reflect on it before I observed their lesson. This only reinforced the feedback I gave them since the teachers had already seen everything for themselves. It also really helped the two of us get in sync and work together to improve their teaching.

Want to Empower Teachers? Try Video

In summation, I think the concluding paragraph of the Best Foot Forward Project really says it all:

“Our evidence suggests that video does improve a number of dimensions of classroom observation. Teachers believed using video for observations resulted in evaluations which were fairer. Both teachers and administrators reported that post-observation discussions were less defensive and adversarial. At the same time, treatment teachers were more self-critical, especially with respect to time management and questioning, and they were more likely to be able to identify a specific change they made in their practice as a result of observation and feedback.”

My own experiences using video in our student teaching program have been nothing but positive. When I first approached the tool, it was only with curiosity, but the clear results that have emerged really have changed the way I would choose to interact with new student teachers. Beyond that, using video to observe classroom teaching—whether it’s happening right in your backyard or hundreds of miles away—really empowers young student teachers to become better and understand their performance more intimately and effectively than many other methods I’ve tried.

One last quote that I love comes from Miriam Greenberg, project director at Harvard’s Center for Education Policy Research and an author of the Harvard study. She said,

“[Best Foot Forward] provides a possible solution to the teacher evaluation debate plaguing . . . education right now: How do you empower teachers in an evaluation process? How do you make evaluations actual occasions for improvement, rather than just punitive exercises? When teachers get a first pass at watching and sharing their instruction, they reap much more from the experience of evaluation overall.”

I hope that everyone in my profession gets a chance to use video assessment and feedback. They’ve made a huge difference for me, and I know they can for other supervisors too.

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