If you’re a teacher, then you’re probably familiar with the idea of teaching being compared to acting. On any given day, teachers may be tired, depressed, anxious, or generally unhappy, but when the students walk in, they have to be “on.”
You might hear the teacher’s voice and energy go up, a smile plastered on his or her face, and arms gesticulating to make a point.
Some are more skilled at this than others, but in general, presenting an engaging lesson requires a degree of theatrical prowess that most people are unaware of. And as we teach longer, the expectation is that our performance will continue to improve.
- But what if it doesn’t?
- What if certain parts of our delivery are lacking in such a way that we lose control of the classroom, students fail to learn and understand the material, and eventually realize that we’d rather be anywhere else than in that room?
- What if, year after year, we become more and more frustrated, and less and less passionate about teaching?
We choose the blue pill
In a famous scene in the 1999 film, The Matrix, the character Morpheus offers our protagonist, Neo, two options: to take a red or blue pill.
- The red pill offered knowledge, freedom, and the (often painful) truth about reality.
- The blue pill promised security and blissful ignorance.
Our hero selects the red pill and is plunged into a sci-fi series of movies to save the world.
Here’s why this matters: most of us are taking the blue pill. We stay isolated in our classrooms, chugging along each school year, patting ourselves on the back for surviving another year, and ultimately convinced that we’re on the right track.
- However, within the four walls of our classroom, how do we REALLY, TRULY know that we’re improving?
- What does improvement look like anyway?
- Which benchmarks are we using to measure our success?
- What if we graded ourselves using a rubric – what grade would we earn year after year?
Fine, then give me the red pill.
Are you sure you’re ready for it? Because to take the red pill, you’ll have to face the truth about your teaching. Of course, you’ll get to celebrate your many wins since you started, but your flaws will be glaringly and embarrassingly obvious.
Also, if you choose to take the red pill, you can’t go back and unsee the truth. It’s okay though because once you take it, your teaching will transform. You’ll improve at a pace unheard of.
The single most effective thing that you as a teacher can do to improve is to observe…YOURSELF. In other words, video record yourself teaching.
Are you still there? Or are you still moaning and groaning about it?
Look, I know it’s not fun. We dread and avoid it with a fierceness only known to toddlers when you try to feed them kale.
For many of us, video recording ourselves brings us back to when we were required to do it as an assignment in our credentialing programs. One of the many consolations about earning that credential was knowing that we would never, ever have to video record our teaching again. Yet here I am, suggesting it.
The alternative is to never quite reach your potential in teaching
Have you ever seen Youtube videos of famous actors and actresses auditioning for a major role? Did you know that they watch those videos to analyze their performance? Did you know that athletes spend HOURS watching videos of themselves playing, as well as their opponents?
There’s SO MUCH power in watching a video of ourselves in our profession, especially if we watch it with another objective (and hopefully kind) colleague.
Most of us know when a lesson went awry, or when we reacted poorly to a situation. We know when we nailed a lesson or blew it.
However, in the moment, we can only notice so many aspects of our teaching because we’re actively engaging. It’s when we step back, look at the video, take notes, and then reflect, that we truly see our areas of strength and weakness.
Your administrator shouldn’t be the only one observing you
Teaching can be very isolating, especially if you’re the only one teaching your subject, or you’re new to a school. Chances are the only person giving you feedback is your administrator.
If all we do is teach in our classrooms, in our little bubble, without ever knowing how we’re progressing, then we set ourselves up to keep running on the hamster wheel.
Over time, we become more experienced at teaching, however, we may not actually become a better teacher.
- Without taking a hard look at our own teaching, how else would we know why a lesson worked so well with one class, but not another?
- Which part of delivering that lesson can we repeat over and over again for constant success?
- Which part can we improve upon so that it will be even better next time?
How to make the most of this experience
I know your time as a teacher is limited, but can you really afford to make the same mistakes over and over again? Are you even aware of the mistakes you’re making? Even if you only do this once a year, you’ll see immediate gains in your teaching.
Here’s the workflow:
- Video record yourself teaching, but don’t inform your students. They’ll behave differently, so you won’t get to see them “in real life.”
- Put the video recorder in a discreet place so that it won’t distract you. Smartphones and tablets will do the job just fine – no need for a fancy set up.
- Leave the recorder on for a while. In the beginning, you’ll be awkward, but after a while, you’ll forget it’s on, and your true teaching persona will come through.
- Watch that video and take notes (I’ve included a guide at the end of this post).
- EXTRA CREDIT: Ask someone you trust and respect to watch the video and take notes. Don’t ask them to come in and observe you, since they’ll probably have to give up their valuable prep time. Have them watch it with you or another convenient time. It’s important that they see the same video for the most accurate feedback.
- Focus on your teaching, but don’t get hung up on a student bottle flipping in the corner. Instead, observe how long it took you to notice, and how you handled it. Remember: students will come and go, but the one constant in the classroom is YOU. You can only control and change so much in another person, but you can definitely enact change in yourself and your teaching.
- Be kind but real with yourself. Identify one aspect of your teaching that you’re proud of and one that you can immediately work on.
- While it’s fresh in your mind, plan out the changes you’ll make for the next few lessons. Don’t wait until the next week, the next unit, or next quarter. Fix it as soon as possible, and be intentional.
- After you feel you’ve improved in that area, video record yourself again.
- Lather, rinse, repeat.
You’re modeling lifelong learning
Don’t we ask students to evaluate their work all of the time? To look back at a test and do error analysis, reread their essay and find areas that need revision, look at how they solved a math problem and identify which step they did incorrectly? What better way to practice what we preach than evaluating our own teaching!
You don’t have to tell anybody that you’re doing this. I actually do this frequently, and until the writing of this post, nobody knew about it.
In fact, I recently recorded a lesson that captured my reaction to a disruptive student. In the moment, my frustration felt justified. However, after watching the video, I realized that what he did wasn’t really that bad.
I had to sit and reflect on why that student’s actions on that day triggered my response. I’m not excusing his behavior, however seeing it objectively without emotion really helped me figure out what I will try next time it happens.
Don’t leave it up to someone else
You might argue that it would suffice to just have another colleague observe you. I would argue that while it will definitely give you more insight into how you can improve, the fastest and most direct way to being a better teacher is to see yourself in action. Plus, we tend to change our teaching when another adult is in the room.
As I mentioned above, you can amplify the effect of self-observation by comparing notes from the video with a colleague. But it won’t be as impactful if you only have someone else critique you without taking an honest look yourself.
This practice, along with being highly self-reflective, has definitely improved multiple areas of my teaching in a relatively short amount of time.
Yes, it pains me to see how messy my hair is that day or hear my voice, but I don’t let my vanity and ego get in the way of my own learning process. I’ve had so many epiphanies, such as how I finally learned how to properly scaffold a lesson, which aspects of my classroom management need reworking (and seeing the positive results of those changes), and how my pacing has different effects on learning and engagement.
Which do you choose: the red or blue pill?
As teachers, we have so much responsibility and are accountable for the education of our students. This means that we don’t have time to perseverate or defer to ignorance about our practice.
No, I’m not saying you’re a bad teacher, nor am I judging your teaching. However, we’d be lying to ourselves if we ever, even at 20 years of teaching, proclaim that we have no room for improvement.
Every teacher would benefit from some honest feedback about how he or she delivers a lesson, runs a classroom, or interacts with students.
- The ones that seem to be head and shoulders above the rest of us are the ones with an insatiable need and desire to improve.
- Those that end up crawling to the bitter end are the ones that refused to make even minor adjustments.
Let’s do this!
Take your metaphorical red pill, grab your smartphone or tablet, press record, and dive in!