In my 12 years as a school administrator, I have learned to hate the formal evaluation process. I hated it because it was ridiculous and ineffective. I would inform a teacher that it was evaluation time, we would have a pre-meeting, and they would put on a show for me that in no way represented what they did every day. Nevertheless, I would take notes on the show, and then we would sit down and I would give them an evaluation of the show. I always dreaded it.
I wanted the observation process at Howard University Middle School (HUMS) to be a way for teachers to become better teachers, so for the 2016–2017 school year, we started asking them to capture videos of their lessons. The idea was that I could look at a video the way I wanted to: see a piece, stop, go back and look at it again, and then provide feedback that the teacher could use to improve their practice.
Our teachers are excited about using the video approach because, more than anything, it removes the “gotcha” piece of evaluation. I don’t like that kind of atmosphere. I want to create an atmosphere where teachers want to get better at teaching, and where I can be there to help them do their best. Here’s how I’ve done it so far.
We started with the math department, because I was a math teacher before I became Head of School, and because HUMS has a focus on STEM and future STEM careers. Using the Insight ADVANCE platform ADVANCE feedback, all the math teachers took a video of one class, and I used our instructional rubric to discuss different points that I saw in the classroom.
With a video as a common frame of reference, I didn’t have to comment on a show that they put on for me. Instead, I said, “This is what I saw,” then they provided their feedback, and we agreed on what they needed to improve. Some teachers were surprised by what they saw themselves doing. I remember one saying, “I really messed that part up. This is how I usually do it, and this is how I am going to do it differently.” To help guide the conversations in a positive direction, I used some of the techniques in the book Teach Like a Champion, and we talked about how they were going to implement the changes we discussed.
For this year, we are using video observation to focus only on growth. I have been asking the math teachers to capture videos twice a month—not necessarily of entire lessons but of aspects of their practice that they wanted work on. Most recently, I asked them to isolate two parts of a lesson that they wanted to improve. They took short videos aimed at helping us reexamine skills like questioning or transitioning. One teacher wanted to make sure that students were following the systems that she had implemented in class: put your pencils here, put your device here. The video showed us clearly where this was and wasn’t working.
Next year, we are rolling out the video observation system to the whole school, and we will expand our focus to include both growth and evaluation. I have made it clear that I am looking for gradual improvement. I don’t expect that teachers will go from “needs improvement” to “highly effective” in one jump. Based on our experience this year, we’re talking about how often we will ask teachers to capture video next year.
When I’m not working, I love to cook, and right now I am trying to perfect a cheese soufflé recipe. For me, rolling out an initiative like this is like trying to get a recipe just right. We’ll try it, we’ll see how it tastes, and then we’ll adjust it to make it better next time.
To prepare for the 2017-2018 school year, I am asking teachers to pick a lesson that they’re going to teach in the first week or two of the schoolyear, and tape 10 or 15 minutes without the children. I want them to get used to seeing themselves—get comfortable with being on video. Once school starts, I’ll have them tape a full class and I’ll meet with them in the third or the fourth week of September, again using our instructional rubric to evaluate. Most importantly, I’ll be able to ask each teacher, “What did you see that would you like to work on for this quarter or this half of the year?”
Based on our work this year, we are building a resource library of videos to showcase our teachers who are doing something really creative. Those videos also serve as a digital portfolio for the teacher. I hope that all of my teachers stay with me for their whole career, but realistically, they won’t. Having an objective example of their work in the classroom is going to set them apart from any other teacher, wherever they choose to go next.
An added bonus of having video from classrooms is that when I see a teacher doing something well, I can take that snippet and show it to other teachers. I can have internal professional development going on in the building without having to schedule a meeting.
This fall, our video initiative will expand not only to every classroom in the school but across the ocean to South Africa as well. HUMS is on the campus of Howard University, which is where Nelson Mandela got his law degree. Last year, one of Mandela’s fellow freedom fighters in the Soweto uprising, Dr. Jacob Ngakane, came to visit our school. Dr. Ngakane is now the head of a nonprofit that supports education in South Africa.
Like some of our students at HUMS, many students in South Africa have difficulty with mathematics. They get to 10th grade and switch to general math, so when they finish high school they can’t get into college, and very few jobs are available to them. During his visit, Dr. Ngakane and I talked, determined to come up with a way that our children and our teachers could collaborate.
At Dr. Ngakane’s invitation, I went to visit South Africa to talk to teachers, children, and principals. I told a principal about how we do observations with video, and we realized that we can collaborate without traveling. Starting this fall, we plan to share video snippets of good examples of math teaching with each other. As a former math teacher, I am thrilled at the prospect of working with other math teachers around the world. We are a global community, united in our goal of giving students the opportunity to excel and making sure they are ready for the jobs that the 21st century will provide.