Guest Viewpoint

How to Plan and Run a Pilot for Video-Driven Teacher Observation

A superintendent and an instructional coach share five best practices for getting started.

Talk to any teacher, and you'll soon realize something surprising: they're lonely. No, not in the typical sense of craving social relationships. Teachers are lonely in the sense that they do most of their jobs as the only adult in the room, without interaction or feedback from peers or coaches. Many educators crave genuine responses from experienced colleagues and administrators. It's one of the best ways to improve.

But of course, there's a massive roadblock preventing teachers from receiving consistent, ongoing feedback: time. With the many hats that teachers and administrators wear, it's often impossible for them to develop a collegial observation schedule. Furthermore, once teachers earn tenure, these observations become less and less frequent, leaving them to do more and more of their work with no feedback and no opportunities to share examples of what works with newer teachers.

Dr. P.J. Caposey knows that this is a problem, and is dedicated to solving it. He's the superintendent of Meridian Community USD 223 in Illinois, and also the author of Making Evaluation Meaningful: Transforming the Conversation to Transform Schools. "When I was a principal, evaluation was the best and worst thing that happened to me," said Caposey.

Leveraging the Danielson Framework led to a 20 percent turnover in teachers at the school. While Caposey was confident that the appropriate personnel decisions were made, the school's culture was compromised. "So now," he said, "I'm passionate about using evaluation the right way: to inspire teacher growth."

With that goal in mind, Dr. Caposey and his team recently started a pilot of video teacher observations using a platform called ADVANCEfeedback from Insight ADVANCE. The experience his district gained reveals five practical insights for other districts considering a similar solution.

1) Start small: Running a small pilot, as opposed to a building-wide or district-wide initiative, is an essential part of successfully implementing a cutting-edge program like this one. Finding teachers to participate in the pilot, though, may not be easy.

Instructional Coach Deanna Simpson is part of the teacher-evaluation committee at Meridian 223 and has been the leader of the pilot. After Dr. Caposey mentioned that the district had the opportunity to test out a video observation and feedback platform, Simpson and her committee brought the idea back to their individual schools, seeking teachers who were "already very reflective in their practice; they're not intimidated by a video [camera] being in there."

She eventually found a group of volunteers. Within the initial group, several teachers were already consistently reflecting on their teaching practice, and they looked forward to integrating video into their reflective practice. Another teacher took the idea even further, using the videos with students by asking them to reflect on their engagement in class.

2) Be clear on the purpose of videos: Context is key when it comes to institutional change within schools and districts, and given his history as a principal, Caposey was determined to use the pilot to empower teachers and principals. "If principals don't believe they're going to add value for the teacher, the process is over before it's begun," he said.
Among teachers, Simpson explained, "People wanted to know, 'What's the take on this? What's it really going to be used for?'" After discussions with both teachers and principals, the district decided that for the pilot, teachers' videos would not be tied to evaluations. Simpson also noted that some teachers were happy to use video for recording classes, realizing it could eventually limit potentially disruptive administrative observations. Simpson and Caposey made sure that teachers knew that their videos would be used to support the growth of their practice.

When deciding who would see the videos, Simpson said, "We don't even have principals in our pilot, because that way nobody has to question the intent of where this is heading." Self-reflection, as opposed to formal evaluations, is often the first stage of integrating video observations into a district.

3) Make sure all the tech talks to each other: Another logistical piece in any technology pilot is ensuring compatibility of and access to devices that participants use. At Meridian 223, teachers are using a variety of devices, from a single laptop or tablet to multiple devices capturing multiple angles. Insight ADVANCE allows multiple devices to capture video from the same sign-on simultaneously, and also offers a mobile app for iOS devices, so teachers can capture video with their phones.  

4) Build a support system in advance: With any pilot program, challenges will arise with technology and implementation. The proactive step districts can take is to determine a plan of action for tracking and addressing these challenges. Simpson and the piloting teachers used a shared spreadsheet to provide each other with ad-hoc support.

5) Get permission from parents: When it comes to recording students, it's important to be very clear on privacy permissions in your district. Meridian 223, like many districts, uses a release form that determines if students can be featured in district media. According to Simpson, even though one student in a pilot class was not permitted to be filmed, the teacher was mindful of this situation and found it easy to work around it. Simpson emphasized the importance of teachers respecting a parent's choice to not have their child on camera.

A few months into their pilot experience, Simpson and Caposey have been impressed by the video-based collaboration among teachers. "The results came from the teachers who were brave enough to take a chance on something new during the last month of the school year," said Simpson. "The feedback among those teachers, although brief, provided insight into our practice and each other—and most importantly, added value to each other in the process."

 "We have teachers driving their own sense of feedback," Caposey said. "I can't create change in anyone, but with video I can create conditions for change." As he considered the wider purpose of the pilot, he concluded, "Evaluation isn't to fix teachers, it's to help them grow. I don't want principals to spot something and say, 'Fix this.' I want them to ask, 'What happened there? What can we do to grow there?'"

About the Author

Gerard Dawson is an English and journalism teacher at Hightstown (NJ) High School, the author of Hacking Literacy: 5 Ways to Turn Any Classroom into a Culture of Readers and a contributor to The Best Lesson Series: Literature. Follow him on Twitter: @GerardDawson3.