Field Trip: The Camera Doesn’t Lie

  

When April Strong started teaching, she wanted to be the best. But it wasn’t until she started recording her own lessons on video and watching them back later at night that she was able to see exactly what she wanted to change about her practice.

It was nerve-wracking at first, but over time, April began to love the growth that came from self-reflecting on her videos. “Any serious athlete watches footage of their performances — why not teachers, too?” she asks.

In this interview, April shares why video is such a compelling self-reflection and coaching tool, and how she is using video to support teachers at Martin County School District in Florida, where she is now an instructional coach. And she has practical, simple steps to take for any school that is interested in taking the first step toward using video to support professional learning.

Also, check out our interview with Dr. Jim Knight about using video to support teaching and instructional coaching in our podcast episode, “See Reality, Get Better.”

Further Reading

For more on this topic, check out this white paper: “Ten Strategies to Improve Teaching with Video.” It includes:

  • Ten different ways video can be used to improve teaching practice
  • Best practices for using video as a reflection and coaching tool
  • Real-life examples of organizations that have successfully used video to support educator growth
  • Tips for those new to using video in evaluation and professional development settings

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Full Transcript  

APRIL STRONG: I am learning as I get older that it is so important to be authentic and vulnerable and open about where you are, especially in teaching. I think we are in this unspoken space that — it’s competitive. You want to be the best teacher.

Today we’re exploring a subject that many people just find scary: appearing on video. “Is that really what I look like? Is that really what I sound like?”

APRIL STRONG: There is no athlete out there that wouldn’t use video to see what it looks like. Why not you, too? Your students know what you look like. You think you know what you look like. Why not know for sure what it looks like to be a student in your room?

We’re talking to an educator who really wrestled with these questions, and came out on the other side absolutely sold on the idea of filming her own lessons in order to reflect on them and grow.

APRIL STRONG: So video was — and is still — very clarifying. And I might be doing the most effective strategy ever, But if I don’t actually see it like my students saw it, I’m not growing and I’m not truly clear on if I hit my target. That’s what makes me the most passionate about video in the classroom.

It’s the podcast for leaders in K12 education. From Frontline Education, you’re listening to Field Trip.

Today we’re talking with April Strong. April is currently an instructional coach at Martin County Schools in Florida and spent most of her career in the classroom. April, thank you for joining us today.

APRIL STRONG: Thank you so much for having me. I’m excited.

Let’s begin by looking back to when you first entered the classroom. I think many people don’t realize just how challenging teaching is. What was it like for you that first day that you began teaching, or that first week?

APRIL STRONG: Nothing could have prepared me, I think, for that first day when the door closes and you have 18 to 20 something, for me, elementary students, looking at you thinking, “What now?” I was new to the area, so not knowing how things worked in my small close-knit town was a challenge. I came from a big city. So the way that kids approached school was different.

So the challenge really was learning the community around me and their expectations for teachers, and then also being fresh out of college and having to fight that challenge of being perceived as not seasoned enough or having the experience to give their babies the best school year ever. So it was just for me… I was very hard on myself that first day, that first week, that whole first year. I wanted to be perfect and the best, and there’s just no way that you’re going to achieve that, even years into your practice.

So looking back on those first couple of years, what did you do to get better?

APRIL STRONG: I started by asking all of the questions. I was not afraid to be that person in a room full of my peers that I look up to, and just ask the questions that might seem silly or dumb.

I was very literal, so if I didn’t understand, I would speak up and I wanted models. I wanted to know what it looked like. So a lot of times, I always say the women that were on my team that first year opened up their hearts and their filing cabinets to me, and that was the biggest form of respect that I could have ever received as a professional at the time. Sharing artifacts or examples of what it should look like after you’ve done the activity or lesson was so helpful, because I knew the target that I was aiming at and I knew how to hit it.

And then later on, I started dabbling back into video, which was required in college and I didn’t love it, but I started to hit a point where the filing cabinet artifact or picture wasn’t enough, and I needed to see what it looked like an action.

Now, when April talks about using video, she’s referring to it in two ways. The first is simply watching films of more experienced teachers teaching — watching how they taught, what they did, how they managed a classroom.

APRIL STRONG: So I was watching a lot of videos online and just googling the literal questions that I had. You know, how to make a specific strategy work, and I was coming across videos that other teachers had posted online, so I was intrigued by that and learning a lot, professionally developing myself at night watching these videos online.

The second way is using video to film herself teaching, and watching the footage later on to self-reflect.

APRIL STRONG: One of the most magical days about four school years ago, my media specialist brought in a product that would help video [be] easier for myself in my classroom. And the rest is history. I started recording every single day, and my students were part of the journey, and on the days that I was running late or didn’t set up my camera to record, they noticed and they held me accountable.

So it really started from watching others, and then became part of me, and I couldn’t be without it.

Talk to me a little bit more about recording yourself in those early days. I mean, were you using an iPhone at this point in time? An iPad? What did it look like to record, and then how did you feel as you were watching yourself teach each night?

APRIL STRONG: It made me extremely vulnerable all over again. It was like being a first year teacher on day one, minute one all over. I used an iPad that was borrowed from my media center. I am not an Apple girl in my personal world. So that was something to learn. I was flying the plane and building it all at the same time. I was learning how to pair the iPad with the device that we had at the time to help me record and pick up the audio.

And then I also had to learn where to position it in my room. And that whole first week or so of recordings has become a highlight reel for me in that I captured no audio, most of my back, none of anything that I needed and everything that I never knew I wanted in order to clarify my practice. So it was very clunky, and not a lot of great video product came from the first multiple attempts. But it’s been the most beautiful journey, and most vulnerable journey, that I’ve allowed myself to go on with my students watching.

Tell me about the first time you recorded yourself and watched the video and said, “Aha! I see something there that is helping me.”

APRIL STRONG: I think it came shortly after an evaluation, which I’m sure if you’re a teacher and listening, you probably just had an eye roll at the word “evaluation,” but my evaluator… I really honor the growth in my profession and I want feedback, whether it’s good or not so easy to hear.

So I had received feedback that was not easy to hear and I didn’t believe it, really. And I was in the middle of that first year of really recording myself every day. So my assistant principal made a passing comment that my feedback or my score could have been better or more improved if I didn’t turn my back to the students as often as I did. And I immediately disagreed. Being a dancer, growing up on the stage, I know I’m not turning my back on my audience. There’s no way. So immediately in that moment, I’m not growing, I’m not listening to the feedback. I am totally thrown off of my game, and I’m frustrated like some people may feel coming out of discussions about evaluation.

I went home and I did what any good sportsperson would do. I’ve watched the playback and found that I was wrong. I did turn my back. Whether or not it was too much is still up for debate, I think, if I were able to have that conversation again. But it was a huge “Aha” for me because I had been watching myself on video for several months prior to that evaluation. When the comment was made, I knew immediately, “I have video, I can prove this wrong.” And that was not why I was videoing. So there were so many layers here that I learned in one couch session watching my video from that day, which was, you know, the feedback was meant for me to push and grow me, and I’m not using video as a “gotcha” for myself, for my students or for evaluation with my principal or AP, but it is meant in these moments of playback to improve. If I wasn’t at my best — in this case, I turned my back — tomorrow I’m going to intentionally set a goal not to turn my back, and it’s just improved that practice.

Are you the only one who was doing this, who was filming yourself and re-watching it? I mean, what did your colleagues think as you did this?

APRIL STRONG: At the time I was the only one for several months. And as my colleagues walked by, you know, we have little windows in our classroom doors and, with love, they made fun of me. They didn’t get it. They oftentimes didn’t want to hear about it. It was all I was talking about. I was growing so much. I was so excited about what I was experiencing and how my students were getting involved in a way I never thought possible. But I didn’t feel like they were in a place they wanted to hear about it. If anything, I was like, Chicken Little shouting, “Video is coming and it’s amazing!” And I was definitely all by myself.

I had my media specialist I could talk to, just one tech nerd to another, but she just dropped off the equipment. She was not into the practice herself. It wasn’t until several months later that our district offered an optional program for people to join and record and submit video of instructional practice that I was able to find a tribe. But even still, that tribe was very small. There weren’t many of us getting in front of a camera and willingly sharing our video experience with other colleagues.

What was the group like when you found your tribe, when you became part of this program where other people were doing the same thing that you were doing? I mean, that really, I would imagine, means being pretty vulnerable in front of coworkers.

APRIL STRONG: Definitely was. And we were placed into groups purposefully at all levels, so I was sitting with middle school and high school teachers, so I felt out of my element as an elementary teacher and then to show them who I am as a teacher, before really knowing who I was as a person, was extremely vulnerable.

We all came at it from a different perspective and “why.” So it was an interesting way to grow this tribe. Some of us were in this practice to really improve our practice, and others just saw something to add onto activities or ways they develop themselves with nothing else. And others were voluntold to join the program. So it was really interesting to learn from one another and what I saw in a video and gave feedback on to appear would be nothing that they saw. So it was really hard for us to really prepare for the meetings when we got together. And even still, when we see each other around the district, we just have this unspoken comfort with one another because we’ve seen inside each other’s classrooms during a time when we weren’t really used to doing that.

I know this led to a lot of collaborative conversations, you’ve said. What did those look like? Give me an example of a conversation that happened as you all took a look at these videos together.

APRIL STRONG: I can remember at the time we would bring our laptop where we had stored our video and we all had to lean in to the laptop that was playing the current video. We didn’t have, you know, a port where everyone had earbuds in, it was really raw. So I can remember all leaning into the laptop and feeling like, “I gotta get this volume up. They have to see this part.” And it again, it wasn’t something that they saw. They didn’t see what I thought was the most important thing for them to see or even hear. What they were able to help do when watching my video and what I hopefully did when watching theirs, we saw pieces of the instructional strategy that just weren’t working, or were working really well, but we glossed over. We should have lingered more.

So I was showing off at the time and I was using strategies with my science lessons, specifically, the hands-on lessons. And I wanted to show the engagement strategies that I included with these hands-on lessons and how I managed that. They helped me grow my practice and make my hands-on lessons more manageable than I thought I needed. I was missing some management pieces. I might not have noticed that I could have moved students in a group easier around the room, or if I asked a question and answer response this way I could save some minutes, because I was really struggling to finish my hands-on labs. And I shared that with the team. So as they watched, they were really looking at where my wasted minutes were that I was oblivious to.

I want to think again about this idea of being vulnerable together. Can you talk first about why it’s important to be vulnerable, but also then, how did you promote that? How did you create a safe space in which to do this work together?

APRIL STRONG: I am learning as I get older that it is so important to be authentic and vulnerable and open about where you are. Especially in teaching, I think, we are in this unspoken space that it’s competitive. You want to be the best teacher. You want to be the teacher that all of the parents in the neighborhood are saying, “Did you get Mrs. Strong? Oh my goodness, you’re so lucky.” And for me, in my experience, I’ve run into times where we weren’t open and sharing with one another because of this unspoken competition evaluation or getting the best parents, or getting the best class list, or just being perceived as working well.

I started being vulnerable from day one. You know, I just had so many questions because I wanted it to be the best teacher for myself and my students, and I think that it just really came naturally. I’m not afraid to look silly or feel embarrassed, because I know it could be setting the example for someone else who maybe wouldn’t do that. Coming from my childhood, I was a dancer, so maybe being in that area where growing up and going through all the things — girl or boy, as you’re growing — I’m in a leotard and tights and onstage and in front of all of these people. And I learned that it’s okay to be embarrassed. It’s okay to trip and fall. It’s okay to say the wrong things because people admire the struggle, especially if you’re willing to admit it’s a struggle. And once it gets good, they know the journey you’ve been through.

There’s no pretending. It’s just always been this way. So for me, I approached vulnerability in my instructional practice in a very authentic, natural way. I try to stay away from feeling embarrassed, although that happens too. I know that it’s all growth and if I’m not going to do it, no one will hold hands and skip through it with me. So I generally don’t mind going first, saying too much, being a little too open, because it helps me grow my community and allow others to really collaborate with me on a true, real, deep level.

Well, shortly after you began doing this with this other group of teachers, you then joined the professional development department, is that right?

APRIL STRONG: It’s really what kicked me in the pants to join the professional development department, yes. The director at the time was the one who started the video instruction program where I met my peers that were trying the same instructional practice. And shortly after that, district instructional coaches were going to become part of the professional development department. For me, I always had a five year and a 10 year plan, and at that time my 10 year goal or plan in my career, not knowing what it meant, I wanted to love on and support teachers.

I felt that I was learning and growing so much and doing all of this professional development personally at home and I wanted to give over all of the things that I was learning, mostly through video, mostly through, “Maybe it’s not right at all, but I’ve just had this huge ‘Aha,’ how do I give it to my peers, how do I open up my filing cabinet, in a way, and give over these things that are just making it so much fun to be in the classroom right now with kids?” So once that opportunity opened, I didn’t know what was in store. I had no idea what working with adults could be like, but I knew that I was at a place in my career where I just had to become a partner with teachers, and just help bring joy to the impact that they make every day in their classroom.

Video has been clearly a pivotal part of your own growth. Did you bring that work with video into your work in professional development as well?

APRIL STRONG: Yes. However, just like before, we’ve been, for our school district, getting really into video formally. That program that I was in four school years ago really got us started. And it’s a slow movement, in my opinion, because I of course would like to be somewhere a lot faster along the line with using video, but it is something that when I sit back and actually take stock of where we are with video use in our district, we have come so far in a very short amount of time, and there are so many people in our district using video in different ways and really achieving great things. We already know coaches use them with the athletes, and so when I’m trying to help somebody decide whether or not this is the right practice for them, I always use that first.

“Well, you know, there’s no athlete out there that wouldn’t use video to see what it looks like. Why not you, too? Your students know what you look like. You think you know what you look like, why not know for sure what it looks like to be a student in your room?” So it’s definitely come along with me. It’s something that our former director really allowed for me to explore and discover as I coached teachers around the district. It was always a little nugget that I dropped just to see, “Are they interested? Is this somewhere we could go together?” But really video is… you can’t control the direction it’s going to take. I have some teachers that I support that are doing it for their own personal practice like myself and don’t want to share it. I have others that are willing to share video practice to put online for our in-district video library.

And then I have teachers and coaches that are part of content development for online professional development, and their video is really a key point to the overall course that we produce for others to learn from. So where we are with video, I could have never guessed or imagined we would be when I joined this department, but I am so excited to see where it is and where we’re continuing to go.

April also said that the use of video can extend well beyond teachers. People at nearly all levels of the district are finding it useful.

APRIL STRONG: We’re using video in the sense that now we have different layers. Principals, like teachers, are using video for self-reflection as well as reflection with the evaluation process. If they need to go over professional development or a conversation they’ve had with the teacher, they’re able to use that video and really capture it.

Our deputy superintendent may even ask for a specific example that she needs to see, and the principal is able to capture that using video. We also have…there are times we’re holding a district training of some sort, and just last week there were several people that weren’t able to join, so we’ve also had requests from the top down to record those trainings and make those into webinars and things. What’s cool, what happened last week, I was recording a training as requested, so that anyone missing it would be able to watch it. But the presenters who are in our technology department, who aren’t normally in that position to be recorded, they came up to me in between the two sessions and were asking, “How did I do? What did that look like?” They were more intrigued by how things were coming off, obviously because it’s being recorded, but it was a really cool, authentic coaching moment to help somebody tighten their practice and presentation.

So I think that anyone, deputy superintendent, principal, coach, teacher, tech guy, we’re all learning from video just by getting in front of it and pushing go.

What would you like to see happen next or in the future? What is the next step with video that you would like to take?

APRIL STRONG: Man, I would love if everyone was doing it, which is, you know, unrealistic. It’s not for everybody. I would love to see where our school district is creating the majority of the content that we are growing and learning from. There is such great power in content that you’re able to get outside of your district in terms of courses or videos online, but really seeing something that’s happening in our school district with our students is so very powerful. So I hope that we continue to grow in our district with people that are willing to share their classrooms through video, so we can see what it truly looks like from kindergarten all the way to twelfth grade, all the way to the non-instructional side of the house. So we can help just make our school district better. The power that comes from watching yourself on video, the conversation you have, I think is a deeper way of learning, not just about yourself but also about your profession. So I hope that everyone starts to really embrace it. I still have plenty of people that, with love, would like for me to just stop talking about it.

Over the past year I have spoken with a number of teachers and administrators about the use of video to improve instruction. And two things always come up. One, that it’s a phenomenal idea and incredibly helpful to teachers, but two, that it’s scary at first. So what have you done to build a culture around using video?

APRIL STRONG: I totally agree with those statements. I hear often, video is great but no one’s going to do it. And I want to first start with that, because that’s not true. We make the assumption that no one will do video and so it’s safer to just not do video. For me, I just start with normal conversation, finding out what it is that they’re working on, what is the goal to improve? And video is not even part of the conversation. Once we go through what… you know, in coaching today, I was in a classroom and I’ve been in this classroom for weeks, weeks, every week this school year, just working on instructional practice. Myself, the teacher and the students, obviously. And just last week I happened to mention, you know, when I was teaching I would use video, and told my story but kept it moving. Today I was able to model a specific instructional strategy, and I prepped the teacher and the students and let them know when I’m a teacher, I’m always a teacher, but I’m most comfortable when I record my practice so that I can re-watch it and see, “Was I able to execute the plan that I had hoped for when I planned it?”

And I made sure everyone was comfortable with it. And I went and I recorded myself. And by the end of today, that teacher was a little more intrigued about, “You know, that video really made my students behave better.” And I said, “No, I don’t think that the video made them behave better. I do think you all were thinking about what we would see when and if we watch this video again,” and that’s the power of video. So in one way or another, I try to model it. I try to be vulnerable first. I put it out there when I give staff trainings, I record myself. This is something I’ve been doing since it was dropped off in my classroom four years ago. So I talk about it, but I’m also all about it, and I’m recording myself professionally at all times. So I get people intrigued just because this little device comes with me everywhere. It’s my little bestie, and if you say, “April Strong,” you probably picture me with my recording device in my school district.

So it’s really been a brand for myself and people know that I’m not going to ask you to do something that I’m not doing first. And also we have a lot of video on our online learning platform from other teachers, so if I have a new person who doesn’t really know, they’re seeing me record, they go online and see other teachers have done it too. And then they feel a little more like, “Okay, I guess I could try it.” So it’s a lot of talking, a lot of making them comfortable and it’s all about model, model, model. I have to go first.

Let’s sum up here, if you were to in one or two sentences some of why you’re so passionate about the use of video in teaching, what would you say?

APRIL STRONG: Video brought clarity to my practice so I could bring the greatest work to my classroom for my students. That’s the power of video. Nobody told me I had to do it. There was no other reason other than it was the perfect time, because I was wondering what I truly looked like as a teacher. So video was, and is still, very clarifying and I might be doing the most effective strategy ever, but if I don’t actually see it like my students saw it, I’m not growing and I’m not truly clear on if I hit my target. That’s what makes me most passionate about video in the classroom.

Let’s say I am in a school district working either as a teacher or a coach or in the professional development department, and I’m convinced, “Okay, video is worth pursuing.” Where do I get started? What are the first steps to take in trying to bring a program like this to a school or to a school district?

APRIL STRONG: The first thing, nowadays, all you need is your cell phone really and a place to prop it up and the bravery to literally just push that red button. So to get started with video, it’s just a matter of being brave enough to push record and commit to actually watching, maybe not the full video, but enough of it to realize there’s something to grow from. When building one of these programs using video, I think you have to really follow the path that it’s growing on its own. You can’t contain, in my opinion, you can’t contain this growth. So when I am talking to people into this or when I have the opportunity really to just pour on my passion and tell them where to start, you start with just pushing record for yourself. And not telling anyone else they should do it, but do it for yourself and do it for a while, and whether or not you choose to share it is your personal choice, but if you’re not pushing go, record, then you’re not going to get any further with video for yourself or as a program for your school district.

And then really trying to give clear steps. So once you record, if you’re going to watch it, what are some things you should ask yourself or ask a person if you’re watching their video? So offering sentence stems or question prompts for yourself or for a person you’re watching is a really great resource to really just slowly start to edge into giving feedback. And then of course you’re working on a specific strategy of feedback eventually. But along with pushing go, also having a plan for where to put the video. For me, I pushed record that day because I was assured, in the video that I was using, it would be stored in a place that was password-protected. Only I could see it, and it would not be shared or go live until I was in control of doing that, and I was the only person able to do that. And I think that’s the most powerful piece about a video program is having full control over your video until you’re ready to share it and collaborate around it.

We’ve been talking with April Strong, an instructional coach at Martin County School District in Florida. April, thank you for talking with us today.

APRIL STRONG: Thank you so very much for the time. This has been an honor.

Did you know, we have lots more stories like this one, and we release new episodes of Field Trip every two weeks! You can find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play… pretty much anywhere you listen to podcasts. Subscribe, and you’ll never miss an episode, so whether you’re in your car, at the gym or doing the dishes, you’ll be able to hear the latest from people who doing incredible things in education. And if you like it, we always appreciate reviews on iTunes.

Field Trip is a podcast from Frontline Education, offering school administration software to help you put your plans into action. That includes Frontline Professional Growth, which makes it easier to manage professional learning, conduct evaluations, and provide resources for teachers and employees to learn and collaborate online – as well as share their own lesson videos with colleagues and invite feedback. To learn more, visit FrontlineEducation.com/FieldTripPodcast.

For Frontline Education, I’m Ryan Estes. Thanks for listening, and have a great day.