Best Foot Forward

Giving teachers camera control in sharing classroom evaluation videos.

GUEST COLUMN | by Miriam Greenberg

CREDIT SwivlTeachers are no strangers to classroom observations, but until recently, they were largely perfunctory exercises, with the majority of teachers receiving a satisfactory rating and very little feedback. Now school systems across the country are implementing new teacher evaluation systems, and classroom observations are being mandated with greater frequency and rigor. Are educators ready for it?

Growing up in a family of public school teachers, the fairness of classroom observations was a regular dinner table conversation. My mother was overwhelmed with anxiety during a principal’s surprise visit, causing her to stumble through the lesson. My father, a chemistry teacher, would deliver endless harangues about his evaluators’ lack of science knowledge. Teachers, like my parents, are unlikely to make instructional improvements if they distrust the feedback they receive from observers.

Teachers, like my parents, are unlikely to make instructional improvements if they distrust the feedback they receive from observers.

Teachers’ skepticism isn’t unfounded. Many districts struggle to monitor the quality of observations to ensure that teachers are getting fair, reliable and valid feedback train principals.  In an already packed workday, principals struggle to find the time to do their newly mandated observations. Most importantly, in order for teachers to get anything out of the process, they need to be able to see their own strengths and weaknesses reflected in the observation process. How can teachers be expected to change aspects of their performance if they don’t remember doing in the first place?

Digital video offers one possible solution.

-Video can make observations more reliable. Districts can audit video observations to ensure teachers are getting fair ratings.

-By focusing on video, post-observation conversations can focus more effectively on growth and improvement, rather than trying to establish what happened in the lesson.

-Video can make it easier for principals to time-shift observations to quieter times of the day or week.

-Video can make it easier to involve content experts from outside the schools.

Using video for observation isn’t a novel idea in other professions. Coaches train their athletes by allowing them to watch themselves perform. They slow down the footage, break down the plays, and point out the unseen obstacles. Athletic recruiters also use videos to assess players’ strengths and draft players for their teams. Medical professionals use video cameras to observe new surgeons and use those films to help surgeons recognize moments of imprecision. Like athletes and doctors, teachers are engaged in a daily, high-stakes performance. It is impossible for teachers to see behind their backs, recall every move and to pinpoint what they might using memory alone.

However, given the lack of trust in many schools, the challenge is finding a way to introduce video in classroom observations, in a manner which is welcomed by both teachers and principals. What if we gave control of the cameras to the teachers and allowed them to choose which of their videos to submit for observation?

At the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard, we are testing this hypothesis in a randomized controlled trial called the Best Foot Forward project. Volunteer teachers and principals across the country have been randomly divided into two groups, one of which is using video observation in lieu of in-person observations. Teachers in our treatment group have complete control of a thereNow camera, which has two moveable webcams and three audio streams or an iPad and Swivl device, which follows the teacher around the classroom. They can videotape themselves as often as they like, and once they find their best lesson, they submit that lesson to their administrators for observation. In other words, teachers are able to put their best foot forward.

We are collecting data to learn about the differences between the selected and unselected videos, to listen to teachers’ and administrators’ preferences for in-person vs. video observations, and ultimately to measure whether students benefit from teachers’ reflective practice in the video selection process. In our preliminary analysis, we learned that teachers participating in the video observations were significantly more likely to report that their observers were empathetic and knowledgeable about instruction. They were more likely to report that the conversation was productive and believe that the observation was fair. Administrators doing the video observations spent more time observing teach than their in-person counterparts but significantly less time doing observation-related paperwork. However, participants also gave a mandate to technology vendors to make market-friendly, easier-to-use devices and online platforms. Above all, this process must be convenient.

We must find a way to diminish teachers’ cynicism about evaluation and allow them to showcase their best work. We must help administrators find time for their observation responsibilities and maximize their conversations with teachers. Video technology shows significant promise. Our first report will be released in February. To follow our findings visit

Miriam Greenberg is Project Director, Best Foot Forward, out of the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University. Write to:   Visit:


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