Teaching & Technology

Mentorship for the YouTube Generation

At Tustin Unified School District, new teachers and their mentors use video of classroom instruction to find which areas of their practice work, and which need improvement.

Welcoming new teachers is exciting, but bringing these teachers up to speed can be a challenge. You can hire new teachers with a history of academic achievement in college and a sterling in-service record, but in the end, there is no substitute for boots-on-the-ground experience. Educators coming from the best teacher prep backgrounds are still going to need additional mentoring as they begin their careers.

But short of sending an endless string of evaluators to their classrooms — a prospect likely to make anyone nervous and knock them off their teaching game — how can you get those teachers the support they need? More to the point, how can you make sure those providing the support are targeting their mentorship to the facets of the job where your new teachers are most in need of growth?

At Tustin Unified School District in California, the solution we've hit on is to combine in-class video recordings with our teacher induction program. In the end, our newest teachers were saying they grew most by "watching myself teach and watching students respond to the things I said or the experiences I set up in the classroom."

Every Mentor is a Teacher

We were already using professional coaches across all of our elementary and secondary schools.  These individuals had been released from their full-time teaching positions to go into classrooms and offer one-on-one coaching for our teaching staff. In our induction program for new teachers, however, all the mentors are full-time educators.

The induction team wanted to come up with a way to make sure our new teachers were receiving timely feedback aligned to their individual growth goals, and targeted feedback in the specific areas they were trying to improve. That's when we decided to give video a try.

Choosing a Lens

To begin, we developed what we refer to as a "lens for growth" focused in self-reflection. It's a document that our new teachers use to determine what their mentor should focus on during observations. Areas include: physical and social environment, content, instruction, assessment and effect on students.

Once an area of focus is determined, new teachers, referred to as candidates, capture video in their own classroom during a relevant period of instruction, upload it into the software and submit it to their mentor for feedback.

Conversation Is Key

The pre-brief and debrief are the most important parts of the observation. Sitting down with someone after submitting a video and talking through, "What did you see? What did you experience? How did you think it went?" is crucial. Before even watching the video, that dialog is where the important learning begins to happen.

The pre-brief and debrief give our mentors the opportunity to know — before they even watch the video or go into the classroom — what the goals of the teacher they're supporting are and what they should be looking for and offering feedback on. If you're walking in blind, you're looking at everything, and you can't make your feedback targeted.

Naturally, if the conversations are important, so are the people our inductees are having them with. Mentor training is huge. How do they give feedback? How do they have conversations about curriculum? How do they have conversations about moving students forward? How do they have conversations about the classroom environment as it's set up? How do they have hard conversations — because sometimes those have to happen if there are things that the teacher needs to improve on. How do they gently nudge without pushing too hard?

You have to have individuals who can truly support the professional growth you're after, because it's not about just sitting down and making a video. It's the conversation and dialog between candidate and mentor that make all the difference.

Combining Video and In-Person Observation

Of course, this process works largely as well with in-person observations, and we not only tell our induction mentors that they are welcome to go into the classroom, but really encourage them to do so a few times each year. The video is just the nuts and bolts that holds the process together. Video allows for more frequent and less intrusive observations, and the tool we use, Insight ADVANCE, allows mentors to comment directly on the video as they review it.

More importantly, we find that having the video to point to as evidence helps keep the debriefings from turning into evaluative conversations. These are not performance reviews. Our major goal is for our candidates to develop a deeper understanding of what student achievement means and to develop professionally as educators. This is an opportunity for them to build their capacity and become more reflective and collaborative practitioners, to make sure they're aware of social-emotional needs within the classroom, to help ensure they have a toolbox of instructional strategies to use when they encounter difficult students or struggling students.

Another point we really try to bring home for everyone involved, but especially our new teachers, is this: Just because they have a mentor does not mean that their mentor is always the expert in the room. All of us come into our meetings and workshops with experience of some kind. Whatever it is they're bringing to the table, our goal is to build upon that through the induction program and give teachers confidence to believe in themselves and feel successful. Teaching is tremendously hard, and it's stressful, so we want to take care of their physical and social and mental well-being as well as providing them with the academic tools that they need to be professional educators.

Excitement about Video as a Teaching Tool

When we launched our pilot of this program in 2017, I was worried our new teachers would be hesitant to record themselves in the classroom, but many of them told me they'd had similar experiences in college and during their student teaching. I imagined it would stress them out when we asked them to record themselves once a month, but they shocked me when they responded by asking, "Can we do it more than that?"

Several of our newest teachers also mentioned that they often watch YouTube videos to learn to do all kinds of things, and found the idea that they would watch themselves to learn about their own teaching perfectly natural.

After some experience with it, not only were they not stressed about the idea, they were excited about it. They'd tell me things like, "I'm so excited to see myself teach! I'm seeing these things in myself that I want to continue, that I want to set goals for."

About the Author

Amanda Heineman is the principal at Helen Estock Elementary School in the Tustin Unified School District. Previously, she served as the coordinator of elementary curriculum and teacher induction for the district. She tweets via @AJoJ23.