We turned an underperforming district around with video coaching

We had teachers create videos of their own practice and used exemplar videos from other districts to increase our coaching capacity.
Errick Greene
Errick Greene
Dr. Errick L. Greene was appointed superintendent of Jackson Public Schools in October 2018, shortly after the state had announced its plan to take over the persistently failing school district. He quickly led his team and the broader community in developing a bold new vision and strategic plan for the district. He restructured the central offices to better support schools and increased overall efficiency. Under Greene’s leadership, the school district improved two letter grades on the state’s accountability system, increased private funding to support the strategic efforts, and made significant strides in resolving the numerous state standard violations. He can be reached at [email protected].

In the 2017-18 school year, Jackson Public Schools was facing a takeover by the state following some pretty striking studies and reviews that revealed several major issues, chief among them poor student achievement. As part of the effort to improve student outcomes and maintain local control, the district engaged community members and stakeholders to begin laying out a path to address issues such as district culture, staffing, and instructional practices.

Most school districts, and especially those facing state takeover, have limited capacity for instructional coaching. The highest-performing teachers can give their colleagues only so much hands-on help before their own practice begins to suffer.

As a result, we decided to have teachers create videos of their own practice for coaching purposes and to use exemplar videos of teachers from within Jackson Public Schools and from other districts to increase our coaching capacity. Here’s how we did it.

Video turbocharges coaching

Approximately 40% of our teachers are new and novice, so we need to be intentional about providing professional development and coaching that will help them become better teachers as quickly as possible. We are also working with our instructional leaders to continue developing their ability to effectively coach and provide real-time feedback and support.

We chose to adopt the Teaching Channel video platform for two main reasons: 1.) The library of videos allows us to view excellent teaching practices beyond our own current capacity, and 2.) the video coaching platform enables our coaches to be efficient in helping excellent practices proliferate throughout our district.

Your instructional coaches and principals—or whoever are the strongest members of your team—may be exceptional teachers but they can only model a lesson in person for or meet with so many teachers at once. With video, they can share a single lesson with any number of teachers across the district and even share videos made by educators from other districts whom they’ve never met. As a district that was facing state takeover, we frankly didn’t have enough consistently excellent instruction in our district to serve as high-powered models. It’s hard to be excellent when you can’t see excellence, and the Teaching Channel Library of exemplar videos has helped us fill that gap.

Sometimes when teachers see their colleagues doing amazing things with students, it can begin to tear down their assumptions about what some children are capable of. The question then becomes, “How can I get them there?” It’s helpful to see how someone else checks for understanding, to note the differences in the way they call for attention, organize the learning space or maximize their time. It’s only by seeing excellent examples that teachers can know their practices aren’t quite excellent and begin taking steps to improve them.

Most importantly, research has demonstrated that students of teachers who received video coaching had higher English language arts scores than students of teachers who received none, and those with less than five years of experience or weaker teaching practices at the start of the study saw even greater improvement in both math and ELA scores compared to similar teachers who did not receive additional coaching.

Avoiding a ‘gotcha’ culture

When we began using video in our coaching, we paid a lot of attention to recalibrating the culture of our district. It’s important to help folks understand that it’s not a “gotcha!” or about making teachers feel bad or professionally incapable. It’s about helping them be the excellent teachers they already want to be. Receiving even the most constructive criticism doesn’t always feel great, so it’s important to put in the intentional work of building trust from the very beginning by offering feedback that’s fair, consistent and focused on helping.

It’s also important to make space in the schedule for things like collaborative planning and debriefing with a principal or instructional coach. Teachers are busy and their days will slip away if you don’t ensure they have protected time to share some discourse about next steps or lessons learned.

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The last bit of culture that must be in place for successful video coaching is a vision for continuous learning. The organization, and the individuals within it, must have a growth mindset. Every educator should know that the district will support them in their growth and that they each have an individual responsibility to put the work in and grow themselves.

Throughout my career, I’ve been fortunate to work in environments where we received a lot of thoughtful feedback and were expected to put effort into getting better. That’s not everyone’s experience, however. There are a lot of folks, some who’ve been educators for decades, who have never received effective coaching. It can really hurt to hear that you need to improve.

As a result, I’ve tried to model how to constructively receive and act on feedback. Every couple of months, I will ask some of my teachers and other team members to give me their reactions to a talk I gave or a presentation I made to the board. It’s an opportunity to demonstrate that I don’t have it all figured out either, and need help from my community to grow and improve as well.

Focusing on clear goals

When it comes to actually creating or using videos, there are two ways our coaches and teachers decide what to focus on. We have district-wide focus areas, such as literacy or numeracy skills, that we highlight based on data from the previous year or the start of the current school year. An entire professional learning community might record their approaches to a skill and then watch them together and provide feedback.

With the help of a coach, each teacher also sets personal professional development goals based on recent data. They might be assigned a video on classroom management so they can see the skills used in a high-functioning classroom. Or a teacher might record themselves to review one thing and then find as they watch and reflect with their coach that, for example, they’re losing a lot of time during transitions. They may then be assigned a video about maximizing instructional time.

Tips for getting started with video coaching

To get the most out of a video coaching program, your goals are the best foundation to build on. At Jackson Public Schools, we have a high level of turnover and the pipeline of new educators is not what it once was. For us, the vision was to become a district that grows its own excellent teachers. We aim to be an organization in which everyone is constantly learning and growing.

To spread that commitment to making today’s practice better than yesterday’s, it’s a good idea to start with the willing. Go find your early adopter teachers, the ones who are eager to sign up. Then set them loose and document the heck out of it. First, why are they so eager? Is it because they think they’re such great teachers? Or do they think they need help? Are they just oriented toward growth? Are they looking at student data and seeing a need to focus on their instructional practice? Whatever their story, it’s important.

From there, keep it simple. Let them record video on their phone so there’s no complicated technology. Keep the list of people who see their videos short and transparent, so they focus on the process and working out any kinks, rather than worrying about being evaluated.

Finally, make sure the time set aside for reflection is sacred. It doesn’t matter if teachers record and watch their videos if it doesn’t lead to change. Teachers need to discuss how they will progress from their current practice to attaining mastery of this pedagogical technique. They can plan with a coach, watch a colleague model excellent practices or role-play but only if the time to do so is scheduled and sacred.

Everyone deserves coaching but most schools can’t provide it to every teacher. Video coaching helped us multiply our capacity and leverage that of other districts as we sought to change our culture and help everyone, from our novice teachers to our highest performers, improve their practice. We have improved two letter grades on the state accountability system and maintained local control of our school district. While there is always room for additional improvement, we’re confident we’ve found a path forward.

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