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3 reasons why it’s hard to watch yourself on video…and one reason you have to do it

We have teachers from all different contexts use Sibme for self-reflection and professional development. Many are willing participants in a cycle of continuous improvement. Some are not. Because we want to continuously improve also, we spend a lot of time asking educators who use Sibme to talk about their experience.

Recently, one teacher simply said this:

“I have no interest in videotaping myself.”

It’s an understandable statement. A lot of people feel this way in any setting. From family photos and home movies to movie stars on screen, everyone cringes a little at the idea of watching themselves on screen. We thought we’d explore some of the reasons why everyone struggles with recording their instruction, and what you can do try and overcome those barriers.

And then we’ll talk about the one reason it’s the best thing you can do for your students.



Teacher self-reflection with video is hard, but there are good reasons for that:

It’s hard to watch yourself on video. This is true for anyone, from a teacher in a classroom to an actor on the big screen. There’s actually some science behind this. Two psychological concepts are contributing to your desire to avoid the camera. The good news is that you can overcome both.


Both concepts are based on the short-cuts our brains use to make sense of the world, called heuristics. The complexity of the world around us would completely overwhelm our brains if we didn’t have a system to categorize information and make decisions. That’s why we use heuristics to create categories with automatic responses to help our brains get through the day. This is the general concept that drives the fight-or-flight response that most of us are familiar with. Rather than having to consider each passing bear, our brains use heuristics to know wild bear = run, which is what causes our breath and pulse to quicken in certain situations. Sometimes, these shortcuts are lifesaving. However, they can also get in the way when we’re trying to change our behavior. That’s why watching yourself on video can be so hard. As Meryl Ayers said in a recent blog post,


But as our brains try to fit all the information into these pre-existing mental models, it means that we actively seek out and weight information that already fits with this worldview. The effect of all these heuristics are hundreds of small cognitive biases that disrupt rational thinking.

When it comes to video, there are two shortcuts that are relevant: Confirmation Bias and the Familiarity Principle. We’ll explore the latter first.



The Familiarity Principle….or The “Mirror Mirror on the Wall” bias

In a 1977 study, researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee asked subjects to look at two pictures of themselves and choose the one they prefer. Here’s the hitch: the pictures were identical. The researchers just made a mirror copy of the original image for the second picture. Participants in the study found that they preferred the mirror-copy of their picture to the original. Conversely, when looking at pictures of friends and loved ones, they preferred the original to the mirror copy.


Their explanation was simple. We prefer to see mirror images of ourselves because that’s how we normally see ourselves: in a mirror. We spend our entire lives looking at ourselves in mirrors. And because human beings aren’t symmetrical, the version of ourselves we see in a mirror is slightly different from the version other people see when they look at us. So when we look at a picture or video of ourselves, which isn’t a mirror image, our brains automatically say “that person isn’t familiar.” The same is true when we see our loved one’s in the mirror, they don’t look right because they’re backwards.


So, when we see ourselves on video, the part of our brain that would normally respond, “that’s me!” responds by saying, “that’s NOT me!” And it’s not just visual cues that throw us off. Because of the acoustics in our head, people tend to hear their voices at a deeper, fuller pitch than what other people hear when they listen to us. So not only does the person on video look unfamiliar, they sound unfamiliar too.


Because we don’t have a shortcut to categorize the person we see on video, our brains begin scanning what we see and hear for some cues to help us define who that is. Of course, this increased scrutiny means we tend to be more critical. This is particularly damaging. While our subconscious is trying to make sense of the situation, our conscious brain is fully aware that the person we’re looking at is us. The result is an overly-critical analysis of the person in the video…who just happens to be you! This really adds fuel to the second factor that makes it hard to watch ourselves on video.


Confirmation Bias…or the “I told you I shouldn’t have worn that” bias

Our brains also look tirelessly for information that confirms the way we see the world. By constantly proving ourselves right, we feel more grounded and sure of the world around us. You see this every day on cable news channels, but it also happens in the way we conceive of ourselves and others. We have preconceived notions about the way we look, sound, and act. It’s the way we define our being. Our self-esteem is largely dependent upon these preconceived notions. And our brains spend a great deal of time and energy looking for information that confirms those notions.


While most people define themselves with a mixture of positive and negative traits, our confirmation bias tends to look for evidence that backs up the negative ones. That makes that additional scrutiny brought on by the “mirror mirror” effect even more painful. Since our brains are already spending extra energy trying to sort this odd person we see on video, why not also confirm the negative things we think about ourselves. Not many people look at video and say, “see, I knew I looked like a glamorous, graceful person who dances around the earth.” Instead, we look at video of ourselves and say, “see, I’m awkward and goofy looking, and this video confirms it.” But the reality is that we’re looking for the awkward and goofy stuff. What we see is a hyper-magnification of all the traits we already don’t like about ourselves.


The “Big Brother” factor

These two psychological biases contribute to a third factor that makes willingness to record ourselves a challenge. For the most part, when we are being watched in the classroom, it is for some sort of appraisal purpose. It might be a formal observation, or a coach might observe us to offer feedback on how we can improve. Even if you like being observed, this experience causes some anxiety.


But at least when the person watching you is in the room, you can gauge their impression of you by their physical presence. Their posture, facial expressions, and even the amount of typing or scribbling they’re doing all give you a sense of how they feel. We use those cues to define if we’re doing well or not. When video becomes a part of the equation, someone can watch the video without you around. That’s why we hear so often, “I don’t want some video of my classroom out there on the internet.” We fear being treated like a funny cat video on YouTube. We don’t want to be laughed at when we’re trying our hardest to educate children! Recording ourselves on video gives someone else the chance to watch us anonymously.


The Orwellian anxiety caused by a camera is directly connected to the fear’s we’ve already discussed in this post. Because we don’t like what we see when we watch ourselves on camera, we assume everyone else won’t like it either. The characters in Big Brother didn’t like the watchful gaze of the camera because they didn’t want to get caught doing something wrong. We have the same fear when we record ourselves. And it can be terrifying.


But there’s a crucial difference between you and everyone else. Everyone else hasn’t spent a lifetime staring at you in a mirror. Everyone else doesn’t have a laundry list of negative traits that they’re looking for when they watch you teach. The neutral eye of a trusted (and that’s the operative word) friend, colleague, or coach can give you a much clearer picture of reality than you’re going to see yourself. Instead of a harsh, judgmental Big Brother watching you on camera, they can be the fraternal big brother who protects you from your biggest bully: yourself.


Now that we know the problem…what’s the solution?

For the most part, the best way to overcome these cognitive biases is to acknowledge them and confront them. In order to do that, the best way to get used to watching yourself on video is to…watch yourself on video. In fact, we recommend spending 6 weeks watching video footage of yourself before you ever think about sharing it with someone else. Of course, that doesn’t mean watching hours and hours of video. Try recording short, 5-10 minute segments to watch 3 or 4 times a week. Even if you only do it for a couple of weeks before you choose to share video with a trusted colleague or coach, it’ll make a huge difference.


Jim Knight, in his book “Focus on Teaching,” recommends watching each video at least twice. Each time you watch a particular video, watch it through a different lens. The first time you watch the video, you will feel yourself paying special attention to things about yourself that make you uncomfortable. That’s OK. The second time you watch the same video focus on targeted reflection questions, or pick a specific instructional strategy to watch for, or watch your students’ engagement, or the ratio of interactions with students. Just make sure you pick something very specific to focus on that has to do with your instructional goals, and focus on that.


When you notice those other self-criticisms creeping in, acknowledge them, and then set them aside. Like a yogi and a mantra, let the distraction float in and then return your energy to the task at hand.


You’re an educator, after all. You’re very good at ignoring distractions.


This is a good starting strategy for teacher self-reflection with video. If you’d like to hear more about the best way to set this up, check out this webinar from Dr. Tonya Goree at Francone Elementary. You’ll learn a lot!


Also, if you want to know how to set up partnerships of trust around video, check out this post.


And now, the one crucial reason you must watch video of yourself in the classroom

There’s a great old Christmas carol that Carrie Underwood recently remade. Let’s take a break from all of this cognitive psycology and behavioral science and listen to it…


Imagine the lyrics to this song were being sung by the students in your class…


Do you hear what I hear?


Do you see what I see?


Do you know what I know?



Well…do you?


Most educators will tell you that they’re perfectly aware of what’s going on in their classrooms. But there’s only one way to know for sure. By recording video of yourself and watching it after the fact, you get the opportunity to experience your class from the viewpoint of a student. Are you giving students enough time to process information as you share it? Are you asking meaningful questions that challenge students’ understanding? Is every student given the opportunity to demonstrate mastery of a learning objective? It’s nice to think we’re doing all of those things, but until you see it and hear it, you won’t know it.


That’s why it’s so important to reflect on video of yourself in the classroom. Kids deserve the best teacher they can get, and every single one of us can improve on something…every day.


So, take the challenge, watch yourself for 5 minutes three times this week. Whether you do it in the Sibme secure Workspace, or record video on your phone, just do it. We promise you’ll see something that challenges the way you think about yourself.



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