A Video Camera in Every Classroom II
By Sarah Brown Wessling, 2010 Teacher of the Year.

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.

Lessening Isolation

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.

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