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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

If Video Is So Powerful, Shouldn’t Principals Use It Too?

By Peter DeWitt — May 07, 2017 7 min read
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We need not look any further than the video of a passenger being dragged off a United flight to understand how powerful video can be these days. A few minutes can provide us with a powerful story that resonates long after it was taken. It may have always been that way when we had VHS recorders or Flip Cameras, but the ease in which we can take out our Smartphones has definitely helped video become more impactful than ever.

Over a year ago I wrote a blog about using video to enhance instruction, which you can read here. The blog was inspired by the work of Instructional Coaching expert Jim Knight, who I work with as a coaching trainer. Knight has a powerful book on using video called Focus On Teaching. In the opening of the book, he writes about how he videoed himself for the first time after asking coaches to do it for years.

Knight writes,

I wasn't happy with what I saw. I left the meeting thinking that I hadn't had enough time to say what I wanted to say, yet the recording showed that I spoke more than anyone else. And worse, I looked rude. When others were talking, I looked bored. I interrupted people while they were talking. I didn't listen."

Using video is not new. Athletic coaches have been reviewing tapes for football, baseball, hockey and track for decades. Drama coaches and news anchors have been using it as well. Lately, due to courses and certifications like National Board Certification for Teachers and instructional coaching, teachers are beginning to video themselves much more than ever. Even instructional coaches video their coaching meetings (Knight) and watch it later on to make sure the meetings with teachers went as well as they thought.

For many teachers and coaches, video really helps them change their practice for the better.

Is There Really Power to Video?
Truth be told, I was not an early-adopter of using video to enhance my own practice. Actually, it was the last thing I wanted to do. Back in the mid-90’s when I was applying for permanent teacher certification in New York State we were required to videotape ourselves teaching. We had to use a VHS recorder and videotape ourselves (unedited) teaching in a large group. During the 30-minute video we had to break into small group instruction to show how we would go from large to small group learning.

After spending time thinking I was supposed to be Steven Spielberg, I finally came to the conclusion that I wanted to just get it done, so I taped it and sent it in. I received my P for pass a few months later. I walked away from the experience wondering if the New York State Education Department really had enough people on the payroll to view every video being submitted or whether this was just a practice in compliance? I believe it was the latter.

However, over the years I have been convinced of the power of video. I used to do segments on our NBC affiliate, and when I had the burning desire to improve how I looked on the news, I began getting recordings of the interviews I did with Elaine Houston, and watched my body language and listened to my words. Elaine told me that if I truly wanted to improve, I needed to watch myself. It was horrible.

As Jim Knight says in trainings, no one watches themselves and says, “Gee. I look younger and thinner than I thought.” Add to that the number of “uhms” that come out of our mouths, and the understanding of whether we truly answer the question being asked, video can make us feel very uncomfortable because it gives us true insight into how we look and act.

And that’s exactly why we should use it.

Should Principals Video Themselves?
Too often principals ask teachers and coaches to do something that they aren’t going to do themselves. It’s easy for leaders to walk into a faculty meeting and cite the research around using video, but it’s a whole lot more difficult to walk the talk. An example where this practice could be done is in teacher observations. And yes, I know this is a sensitive one in many states.

During collaborative leadership trainings we focus on these following steps:

  • With the teacher, co-construct a goal that becomes the focus of the observation.
  • Decide on the learning intentions and success criteria (Hattie) during that pre-conference, so both the teacher and leader have a common understanding of what needs to happen.
  • Go through the collaborative cycle together.
  • Video the pre-conference or post conference (teachers are a willing participant). Leaders need to see if their questions were on target and whether they listened to the teacher as much as they think they did.

There are many additional reasons why leaders should use video. The most important reason is to see whether what they think they do is actually what they really do. The following are some other reasons leaders should use video:

Model for everyone else - If leaders really want their teachers and coaches to use video, they need to model it from the top. Let’s stop asking teachers to do something we aren’t willing to do ourselves. A leader who videos themselves sends a powerful message to everyone else in the building that they practice what they preach. And plus, it may make the process a little less scary for everyone else if the leader shows the video at a faculty meeting (with participant permission of course!) and discusses the pros and cons of the process.

What does our body language say in faculty meetings or observation conversation? Does the leader lean in and engage with teachers they enjoy talking with and lean back and cross their arms with those teachers who are not always their favorite? What does the body language of a leader look like when we get asked a question at a faculty meeting? It’s not that leaders should fake engagement, but they should at least watch to see if their bias going into the meeting gets the best of them during the meeting.

Do we really listen as well as we think we do? Many leaders think they are excellent listeners. The problem is that they may not listen as well as they think they do, like Knight wrote in that quotation from above. And to quote Stephen Covey, do leaders listen with the intent to understand or with the intent to reply? Leaders can learn that about themselves on video.

Are the good questions leaders ask...really good questions? Do leaders ask high quality questions where they are learning as asking...or are they going through the motions and asking compliance questions to get the process done? We should approach every meeting with the hope that we learn something new. When we don’t do that, we become stale in our role.

In the End
The first experience I had with video did not go so well, but over the years using video has been powerful. Not only have I seen it in my own practice, but research shows that video can be powerful. John Hattie, someone I work with as a Visible Learning trainer, has research that shows using video can have an effect size of .88, which is more than double the hinge point (.40) that equates to a year’s worth of growth for a year’s input.

Hattie refers to using video as micro-teaching. When we use the concept of micro-teaching we video ourselves for about fifteen minutes and watch it about three times. The first time we have to get over how we talk and what our hair looks like; the second time we focus on how well we listened and whether we asked good questions; and the third time we figure out how we can approach the next conversation differently...more open.

And shouldn’t we always be more open when we approach conversations?

Things to think about when using video:

  • Why are we using it? What do we hope to learn?
  • Does your school climate foster it?
  • Find a colleague who trusts us. Make sure the person we are talking with is a willing participant.
  • Video a faculty meeting and watch it. Was the meeting as good as you think it was? Who did most of the talking? If we want students to be able to ask more questions in class, shouldn’t we want teachers to ask more questions in a faculty meeting?
  • What tool are we using? Are we using our Smartphone or do we have access to the brilliant tool known as Swivl? Make sure the tool is set before the conversation begins, because the last thing people will want to do is stop the conversation because of the tool.
  • Use the micro-teaching philosophy when necessary. Video the conversation for fifteen minutes (or at least only watch fifteen minutes of the conversation at the most). View it three times keeping in mind the examples from above.
  • Do it once and then try to make it a natural and consistent part of your practice.

Photo taken at a Collaborative Leadership 2-day workshop in Fon du Lac, Wisconsin. Thanks to First Educational Resources and the awesome Wisconsin leaders and teachers for being willing participants (especially Rick Dobbs and Bridget Mowbray who are pictured).

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (2016. Corwin Press/Learning Forward), and the forthcoming School Climate: Leading With Collective Efficacy (Corwin Press/Ontario Principals Council. August 2017). Connect with Peter on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.