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What you might learn from watching yourself teach

Reader Submission / Long reads
What you might learn from watching yourself teach

It was an indescribable mix of fear and curiosity that gripped me when I was asked if I would mind someone filming me teach.

Later, I would watch the footage with 160 of my closest colleagues under the direction of a noted teaching and learning expert consulting to our school. Right before we watched the footage in our whole-school professional learning session, I felt entirely vulnerable and not a little nauseous. It was the diplomacy of our teacher-consultant, Glen Pearsall, and the collegiality of my colleagues that made it a positive experience for me and I am grateful.

The purpose of the session was to encourage teachers to see the benefit of examining teaching and learning in their classrooms through the analysis of video. To illuminate the capacity of video to capture the moments in our classrooms where we succeed and fail, so that we can get better, frame by frame.

It is easy to lament that a lack of funding or opportunity in some schools inhibits professional learning, but watching yourself teach is well within your control. Any teacher with a smartphone and a willing colleague or student can capture moments in their own classroom.  Teachers with well-established PLNs (professional learning networks) and a desire to improve teaching and learning will already be accessing videos of teachers sharing relevant and effective instructional strategies – online resources include The Teaching Channel and Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion clips.

The move to film ourselves teaching is perhaps less appealing, in part due to fears of an administrative ‘gotcha’ approach to teacher evaluation and mandated teacher benchmarks. When a teacher is evaluated by a supervisor, they don’t always receive the kind of feedback they need to improve teaching and learning. The supervisor may offer vague platitudes and encouragement which may feel good to the teacher at the time but offer little opportunity for professional learning and growth. Worse still, the feedback might be critical but irrelevant to teaching and learning. Formal feedback to teachers via the observation and evaluation process is not always timely and constructive, but a teacher who videos their own practice and examines the footage for explicit evidence that a teaching strategy is or is not working, has a valuable and flexible tool at their disposal.

My experience

After viewing the footage of my own teaching, I was tough on myself in my self-reflection but I knew that I could and would improve. In some ways it was easier to critique myself than it might have been to decipher the more gentle, diplomatic feedback that often comes from others. In our whole-school session, Glen showed two to three minutes of my teaching (we filmed about 40 minutes) that involved students engaging in a microlab thinking routine. Glen asked the question: What does the teacher (Rachael) do to make this routine work for students? The question was designed to elicit affirming responses and I was relieved. That doesn’t mean that I didn’t register the myriad responses if the question had been ‘What could have been done differently or better?’.

The first five seconds of the clip were particularly excruciating. As the video sprang to life, with me calling the class to attention, the volume was still being adjusted. The shrieking call for attention that ensued was every bit as mortifying as you might imagine and I shrunk in my seat as the volume was (oh so) slowly adjusted, unable to stop myself from audibly begging ‘turn it down’. A sympathetic quip from Glen about the discomfort of first seeing yourself on film did little to allay my horror and I promised myself in that moment that I would establish non-verbal cues with my class that would enable shriek-less transitions. The first time I saw the class the next day, I delivered a heartfelt apology and we agreed to find non-verbal signals that worked for our class and didn’t make them feel like primary students. 

It took all of five seconds of watching myself teach for this epiphany to strike, 10 minutes to search for non-verbal attention signals and 10 minutes to discuss them with my class and settle on one or two that we think will work for us. It’s not that I didn’t know about non-verbal attention signals prior to this moment. I did. But I didn’t really think I needed them until I heard how my screechy calls for attention sounded from the perspective of a student.

An opportunity to reflect and learn

I wondered what else I could learn from watching all 40 minutes of footage. If my first observation lead to an immediate improvement to my classroom practice, what else might I notice and how might I use that observation to become a better teacher? Watching myself teach was quite honestly an uncomfortable experience, akin only to reading the diary I kept as a teenager, both fascinating and excruciating in equal measure. The good thing is that the discomfort gradually subsides and you have the opportunity to reflect and learn. Here are three things I think you might learn when you watch yourself teach.

Your worst moments might not be …

As I was being filmed, I was conscious of the camera in the room. I think in time, I could learn to ignore it and there were moments when I forgot about it but, generally, I was aware that at some point others would watch me teaching. So when I gave the instructions for the microlab and two students were not paying attention, I thought, ‘wow this looks terrible – what will people think when they see that the students in my class are not even listening?’. Later, as I moved around the room, stopping at each table, one student was clearly off-task. Again, I thought ‘What will people think of my teaching ability if a student is off-task?’.  However, when we watched the clip under Glen’s direction, it was these moments that he wanted us to discuss. What did the teacher have to do to make this thinking routine work?  The way I responded to the students who were not initially paying attention and later to the student who was off-task became the teachable moments.

Miriam Gamoran Sherin and Elizabeth Dyer (2017), based on their experience with teachers who use video as a professional development tool, suggest that the most effective classroom videos do not share only exemplary practice but instead offer examples of real, high quality teaching which can be both complex and messy. Watching clips of ‘perfect’ teaching in ‘perfect’ classrooms with ‘perfect’ students will not help us to become better teachers.

You need to talk less

This is not necessarily a revelation. Most teachers know that they should talk less, but there is something compelling about actually watching it unfold on camera, sitting and listening to yourself repeat instructions in four different ways and take five sentences to say what could have been said in one.

California high school teacher and author Larry Ferlazzo (2011), asked students to watch videos of lessons in his classroom and reflect on his teaching and their learning. Among the constructive feedback that he received was the request to stop over-explaining and talking so much. How many students in classrooms everywhere might say that? James Beane (2005) wrote that he once made a sign for himself that reminded him to stop talking and placed it where he could see it while he was teaching. Even when he had an important point to make, Beane said that if he waited long enough, one of the students would make it. As teachers, we often carefully plan what we will do or say in a lesson but underestimate the time it will take us to do or say it, leaving students with less time to get on with the business of active learning.  Watching video footage of myself teach made me realise that carefully thinking about the teacher script for a lesson, including when to talk and when to keep quiet, can allow more time for students to talk and more time for you to listen.

You are a learner

One of the most surprising outcomes of watching myself teach came from the conversations I had with students afterwards. The students laughed when I shared the nausea I felt right before the clip was shown and my horror at those first few shrieky seconds. And afterwards, my students saw me as both a teacher and a learner and know that I have teaching and learning goals that I am working towards. It is important to me that students understand that I expect their very best effort in the classroom and that I expect no less of myself. That they, and I, will make mistakes but we will work together to learn from them.

References

Beane, J. (2005). A reason to teach. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Ferlazzo, L. (2011, January 12). My Students Help Assess My Teaching. Education Week Teacher. Retrieved from www.edweek.org

Sherin, M. & Dyer, E. (2017). Teacher self-captured video: Learning to see. Phi Delta Kappan, 98(7), 49-54.

How often do you reflect on your own classroom practice and what review formats do you find to be most helpful? How does this inform your future practice?

As a school leader, do you provide regular opportunities for staff to observe others teaching?

Rob 26 February 2019

Great stuff here! I’m actually the guy in charge of all the video for Teach Like a Champion. If you ever wanted to share your footage with us, we’d love to see it. Thanks for writing this.

Gary Simpson 26 February 2019

An impressive contribution, Rachel - I particularly loved your raw honesty and your openness to learning. Did you need to have a camera person, or would it be possible to set up a stationary camera and just let it run? I’m keen to give it a go - I know I talk too much, but it would be great to see whether it is all unnecessary, or if some of it is good and other bits could be done with small groups or one on one.

Rachael Williams 26 February 2019

Thanks, Rob. I love the specificity of the ‘Teach Like a Champion’ clips. So helpful to focus on a specific strategy and see it in action. Not sure I’m ready for the ‘Teach Like a Champion’ audience. That is another level of bravery entirely 😉

Rachael Williams 26 February 2019

Thanks so much, Gary. For the session I have written about in the article, a colleague filmed with a tripod. Since then, the school has purchased equipment that doesn’t require a camera person. The camera can follow the action or capture the whole space. You make a good point about teacher talk - it depends on the lesson goal and instructional strategy. What I found was that I hadn’t thought enough about when I needed to talk and when I didn’t.

Julian 05 March 2019

Hi Rachel - do you know how teachers (and teacher educators) can get hold of videos of other teachers teaching?  Have you found any libraries?  Do you ever share the videos that you have made of yourself?

It would be great to encourage more sharing in order to help teachers to learn from other teachers..

Julian

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