When Bill Gates talks, people listen. When Bill Gates talks education, people get serious about listening. Last week, TED launched a new series of talks focused on education. We heard from teachers, from researchers, from prominent thinkers and then we heard Bill Gates offer a slightly different proposition for helping teachers to get better: rather than only focusing on evaluation, look at growth models where video is in the center of self-reflection.
As I listened to his platform, I was reminded of an ECS (Education Commission of the States) conference last July where we shared a stage to discuss teacher evaluation and whether or not that system alone can help teachers nurture the kinds of dispositions needed to always improve. While the merits of current evaluation systems can be debated, what Mr. Gates suggested in his latest talk is undisputed: teachers can't get better as long as they are in isolation. Then he suggested that the fastest way out of isolation is with the lens of a camera perched in every classroom. That's when he cued up a video of my classroom, courtesy of Teaching Channel, featuring the way I use a simple video system to improve my practice.
Elevating the Practice
Sometimes people hear the phrase "video cameras in classrooms" and automatically start thinking about other places we have perched cameras, like parking garages or day care centers. It's just this kind of thinking, where video is about surveillance, that we get confused notions of why having classroom cameras can make a difference for teachers. First, let's get clear on why these aren't "surveillance" cameras in either the literal or figurative sense.
• They aren't there to "catch" teachers making missteps
• They aren't there to judge
• They aren't there to feed into an evaluation system
However, cameras are there to help teachers ground their self-reflection in empirical evidence. See, this is one of the toughest facets of growing as a teacher: getting past our natural filters that can prevent us from seeing what really defines our practice. Since the earliest days of my career, I've used video to help me see the difference between what I thought happened and what really happened. And seeing the difference helps to know what getting better is going to look like.
If there's one thing I could change for teachers, it's the inherent isolation of the profession. Sure, we have great colleagues - who often also work behind their closed doors. Certainly we form teams and committees, where we can collaborate. But collaboration generally happens in the abstract part of the teaching process: where we plan, imagine, envision what it will be like. The teaching is where the rubber meets the road, where we must shift and improvise, recalculate and riff. And this ability to pay close enough attention to the students in order to make those shifts comprises the most invisible work of all. Yet, it's the very work that we need to make most visible to each other.
When we use video to anchor conversations and generate thoughtful questions about our practice, we contribute to a culture grounded in continuous growth. Instead of keeping our most intricate work behind closed doors, video helps it emerge as the most important way we can learn to get better by watching others. In other words, teachers get better by watching themselves and other teachers do the work that requires both precision and fluctuation.
Garnering Teacher Enthusiasm
Even given all of the reasons to engage in video-centered reflection, many teachers still are hesitant, nervous, even resistant to an initiative like this. Unlike what some outside of the profession might think, this hesitancy comes not from a stoic sense of professional growth or an unwillingness to look closely at strengths and weakness. Rather, this mentality grows out of environments where evaluation systems create fear and unease.
If we want video to be an effective tool for teacher growth, here are some ways to help shore up enthusiasm.
• Keep evaluation and exercises for growth separate. As soon as evaluation becomes part of this process, the process changes. Teachers are far more likely to go into compliance mode, fearful of making mistakes. And when fear prevails, authenticity loses. So, instead, make the purpose of using video very clear: for self-reflection and growth.
• Cultivate trust. I see it in my students' faces when I ask them to share their writing for the first time. Their eyes shift quickly back and forth, they start looking at their work and mumbling something about, "Well, it isn't very good" or "I didn't spend enough time on it." Perhaps what I tell them is helpful for all of us putting our work out there: "All I care about right now is that you learn something about your writing from sharing it. We can always be better or spend more time. Today we don't worry what the work isn't, we care what it is."
And if you are an administrator, team leader or facilitator: go first and not with your best stuff. Be vulnerable; be willing to show how this process isn't about being perfect, it's about getting better.
• Empower teachers in the process. There are some important ways to help teachers grow trust in this process. One way is by empowering them with some choice in this process. Maybe they can choose the lesson or the class period. Have them determine the kind of feedback they want to receive from their video. Do they want feedback on strategy, on questioning, or on classroom management?
• Observations not judgments. Once you've established a learning purpose behind the videos, cultivated trust and empowered teachers, be sure to also prepare the discussion team. Because it could all be undone if colleagues inadvertently start judging rather than reporting and making observations. Let the observations spur questions and dialogue. More than anything, the filmed teacher needs to learn how to think about her video, not to be critiqued.
In the end, getting better is never about a silver bullet or a panacea. Getting better is about the gritty work of looking at the difference between what we perceive about our teaching and what actually happened. What I learn from the lens in the back of my classroom isn't always what I'd hoped, but it most certainly helps me navigate the never predictable, always changing landscape of learning.