In schools, observations and evaluations of teachers and principals can be a contentious event rather than a productive process. Watching someone teach or facilitate a meeting changes the event being observed. Observing something, for the most part, involves the conditions of the observed to change. For example, how a teacher interacts with students may be different if a supervisor is watching. This can be a good difference or a bad difference, but it is different. The same goes for students. Behavior in a classroom may be radically different from behavior in the hallway, the bus, or neighborhood based upon how observed they are. What would we learn if we could observe ourselves? And how much more powerful would that reflection be if a skilled partner could observe along side of us?
Capturing actions and being able to reflect upon them offers a growth experience. Jim Knight, Director of the Kansas Coaching Project, studies factors related to professional learning and the improvement of academic outcomes for students when teachers have access to instructional coaches. At a recent Learning Forward Conference, he reported on his positive experiences videotaping teachers as a part of his coaching relationship with them. The basics of safety and trust were key factors in the success of the use of videotaping. But the value of sitting together and watching a lesson both the observer and the observed, changing the dynamic to create two observers, offers an unusual opportunity. We do not have the ability to observe ourselves, truly. Video can offer that to us and also gives us the opportunity to share an observation of ourselves with a coach, colleague, supervisor, friend, future employer...anyone.
In the “olden days” when there was less mobility, people lived in the same towns their entire lives, people knew each other and each other’s children, grandparents lived near or in the same house as the following generations, more people felt attached to their religious communities, our relatives, friends, and community members acted as our conscience and our camera. It was as if we had a parent or grandparent, aunt or uncle, neighbor, or God on our shoulders watching over us, as the overseers, the mirror we used to arbitrate and make decisions about our behavior, our conscience. For those who lived in the city, even there folks moved less frequently, extended family was near, but there was a bit less visibility, and a greater sense of autonomy that may have contributed, for example, to the rate of crime in the city as opposed to in the suburbs or rural communities. We did “good” because we knew what “bad” was. Anthropologists like Ruth Benedict have called this the guilt culture.
Now extended family is spread out over the country...and for some, over the globe. Connection to religious practices and faith communities has diminished. Communities and friends are online and in social media rather than next door or around the corner. Benedict calls this contemporary condition a “shame culture”, wherein good or bad is determined by whether the community includes or excludes you. And, remember, communities are much more amorphous and fluid than the physically limited ones of old. Allowing video to take the place of the touchstones previously offered by our communities, families, and religion is a serious consideration. There are also some serious safeguards to consider before even experimenting in this arena.
Safety and Privacy
Begin by using the recording device that is owned by the observed. In that way, it remains the choice of the observed as to whether to save or delete the video. It remains the choice of the observed whether to watch it alone or with a trusted colleague, coach, or supervisor. And it remains the choice of the observed whether to keep or delete the video after the viewing and learning from what is observed. It is best to have to opportunity to observe the video with someone other than oneself because that becomes an added advantage. The view of the other, and their reflection back to the observed, can open valuable growth opportunities. That said, never post videos to sites like YouTube or any fileserver. Never share videos through any digital means. If there is a decision to post a video for some reason, never post videos without the written permission of the parents of the students who may have been captured in the video. Once a video is “out there” it takes on its own life that can last forever. Observing yourself on video is a powerful experience. It provides a mirror like no other. So being sure that it is not going to show up somewhere outside of your control is essential. Trust grows between the observed and those with whom he or she shares the experience only if that video remains within the observed’s control. Smartphones are great for this.
It seems that the changes in our society have upped the ante. We need more help seeing our behaviors and the values we demonstrate as we live through our days. If we truly want to be aware of what our behaviors look like to others, video is an exceptionally easy, and free way to capture those behaviors, allow distance from the moment, and see what others see more clearly. The value of a good coach, an informed and trusted colleague or supervisor is their ability to see and ask good questions that inform our reflection as both view the video.
To lower the stakes, it is worth trying on ones’ own. Don’t wait until it becomes a requirement or a negotiated addition to the observation or evaluation process. It is easy to set up a Smartphone and videotape yourself, on your own and take a look at what you look like to the audience, whether it be a board meeting for superintendents, faculty meeting for principals, lessons or presentations in a classroom for teachers...anything done in the course of your work. Experience the power of watching yourself, the openness it unearths, the view of you in your work, and the ability to see and confirm you strengths, your places of vulnerability, your growth and the places calling for change.
Begin by looking for a specific question that troubles you, nothing too complex or overreaching to begin. For teachers, questions like:
- What patterns are evident in my choice of which students to call on?
- How do I utilize higher order questions and basic questions?
- If I focus on wait time after questions, what do I notice?
- Does the work I ask from students require listening, constructing knowledge, performing knowledge, or assessing knowledge?
- What do the faces of the students reveal?
For school and district leaders similar questions serve also.
- How do my actions, answers, and patience vary among people?
- Where does my tone and body language indicate a reaction that surprises me?
- Are there places where I see the skills I used as teacher: wait time, listening and assessing for understanding?
- What are the faces of the audience revealing?
As we write this, it is abundantly clear to us that we also need to be teaching our students about the valuable and the dangerous uses of video. We think about their need for community and for peers, for validation, and for belonging. They do need, as perhaps we all do, a supportive and truth telling community who will reflect with us on our good work and our growing edges. There is an advantage for the leaders who are willing to engage in this video-reflective practice. Their authenticity will be greater as they consider asking faculty to buy-in. And, authenticity keeps leaders’ work true to the plumb line of their values. That’s good for them, for their followers and for the students in their schools.
Photo by Tyler Olsen courtesy of 123rf
The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.