Why School Leaders Must Visit Classrooms

When I meet with new leaders, they often ask how to improve their instructional leadership.

Frustrated with handling discipline, returning emails, and filling out reports, these novice leaders are curious what they can do to really impact student learning.

While there are several activities they could prioritize - such as leading professional development, attending PLC meetings, or analyzing student data - one instructional leadership practice gives leaders the biggest return on investment:

Classroom walkthroughs.

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As was discussed in my book Learning Curve, the concept of frequent, informal observations conducted by workplace supervisors originated in 1970 when executives at Hewlett Packard implemented a concept called Management by Wandering Around (MBWA). The purpose of this management system - where managers became more accessible to employees by getting out of the office and into the trenches of the organization - was to foster an environment of collaboration and trust.

Prior to the 1970s, it was unusual for school leaders to visit classrooms unannounced. However, after seeing the positive impact MBWA was having in other professional fields, some school leaders began to implement similar strategies in their own settings.

A second turning point in walkthroughs happened in 1983 when the US Commission on Excellence in Education released A Nation At Risk. This landmark report asserted that American schools were failing, touching off a wave of local, state, and federal reform efforts.


A Nation At Risk started what is known as the accountability era in schools. From No Child Left Behind (2002) to Race to the Top (2009) to the Every Student Succeeds Act (2015), the federal government has attempted to hold schools responsible for the quality of teaching and learning.

While accountability efforts have been a decisive topic (many readers likely cringed while reading the previous paragraph), few could argue that school reform has transformed teacher evaluation. Whereas school leaders from previous generations used a hands-off approach, today’s administrators are must be more proactive with teacher supervision.

Enter the classroom walkthrough.

In the early 2000s, research on classroom walkthroughs began to surface. In their 2003 ASCD article, Margery Ginsburg and Damon Murphy identified five key benefits to walkthroughs:


Walkthroughs help administrators...

  • Become familiar with teachers’ instructional practices

  • Gauge the school culture and climate

  • Develop a team atmosphere

  • Establish themselves as instructional mentors

  • Model the value of learning to students

Beyond these factors, I have discovered several associated benefits to walkthroughs during my 15 years in school leadership.

First, walkthroughs improve administrator perception. When administrators get out of the office and into the trenches of the organization, they get a first-hand look at how their school operates. Not only can they observe teacher effectiveness, leaders can get a true feel for their building's culture. Also, administrators who engage with students and staff in classrooms solve many small issues before they become bigger headaches.

The email our Curriculum Director sent our district about walkthroughs (left). My response (right).

Administrators who get into classrooms improve decision making. Rather than rely on second-hand information and hearsay, administrators who witness building operations with their own eyes make smarter decisions. Furthermore, school leaders who share personal observations when explaining decisions are much more likely to gain buy-in from stakeholders.

Walkthroughs help determine teacher effectiveness. Administrators who rely solely on a one-time-a-year formal observation do a huge disservice to teachers. Instead, administrators who visit classrooms several times develop a clearer picture of teacher performance. And for low-performing staff, documentation from multiple walkthroughs is ideal for plans of assistance and/or teacher removal.

Next, walkthroughs are ideal for building teacher confidence. Administrators should view classroom visits as a golden opportunity to identify the specific things a teacher is doing well. In a time when financial resources are limited and it’s difficult to keep teachers around, few things improve retention better than well-timed, authentic, positive feedback from a supervisor.

Walkthroughs serve as a great reality check. Classroom visits can be an eye-opening and humbling experience for school leaders who have forgotten the challenges of teaching. Honest question for school administrators who continue to add work to teacher’s plates: How many classrooms have you visited in the last year?

Finally, walkthroughs are therapeutic. When I am low on energy and have a headache, visiting classrooms is the perfect remedy. Leaders who prioritize walkthroughs often find that getting into classrooms is one of the most enjoyable parts of school leadership. On numerous occasions, I have told staff that I could spend all day in their classroom. I’m not joking!

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While classroom walkthroughs are excellent for providing staff with instructional feedback, the extent to which school administrators make it into classrooms is varied. While many administrators claim “Instructional leadership is my top priority!” a study by the Wallace Foundation revealed administrators spend less than 20% of their day engaged in this practice.

What are some tips for improving walkthroughs in your setting? Here are seven ideas to consider.

Goal Setting: Setting numerical goals helps keep priorities a focus when days get busy, meaning anyone who is serious about getting into classrooms must by set a target number. One mistake many district leaders make is forcing numbers on administrators, such as “You will do 10 walkthroughs a week … or else!” Ironically, many building leaders who develop their own goals pick higher than expected numbers.

Keeping Track: Once goals have been set, administrative teams must develop a system for keeping track of walkthroughs. Beyond simply keeping track of walkthroughs totals, administrative teams would be wise to create a Google Doc to document the number of times each teacher was visited by each school administrator. This system ensures that walkthroughs are evenly distributed amongst faculty.


One example of how our middle school administrators track walkthroughs.

All Hands on Deck: Districts serious about instructional leadership have expectations for all administrators to visit classrooms. Do you have a five-member administrative team? All five should be in classrooms. Do you work in a small district? Superintendents and curriculum directors should help pick up the slack. In our district, all administrators are expected to complete at least 150 walkthroughs with teacher feedback per year.

Explain: Most administrators assume teachers understand the walkthrough process. This couldn’t be further from the truth. What data is being collected? What feedback should a teacher expect? How often will visits occur? How do walkthroughs impact evaluations? Teachers should know these answers, yet administrators rarely engage staff in these conversations.

No Perfect Template: Notice how we have yet to talk about one specific walkthrough template. After thousands of walkthroughs, I’m convinced now more than ever that narrative feedback is better than any complicated walkthrough form. Unless you spend hours training staff on how to interpret the feedback, complex templates leave teachers with more questions than answers. Instead, administrators should learn how to summarize a visit in a couple short paragraphs, focusing on the actions of the teacher and the students.

Two examples of narrative feedback I've given in the past.

Stay Positive: While the examples above look simple, in reality few administrators use this approach. Too often, administrators believe walkthroughs are a time to nitpick. Not only does this approach destroy school culture, many faculty lose their professional confidence as a result. Given the sensitive nature of instructional feedback, districts must ensure administrators are staying positive while reserving critiques for low-performers.


Double Dip: Efficient administrators view classrooms as their second office. Rather than retreat back to the office to send an email or draft a letter, why not stay in the room and work on those items? One of my favorite tricks as a high school principal was to complete a walkthrough and then grab a student from that class with whom I needed to conference. Many administrative find that their productivity increases when they complete managerial work in rooms.

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Instructional leadership doesn’t need to be complicated.


Simply getting out of the office and into the learning environment is a great first step.

And the one practice that provides leaders with the biggest return on investment?

Classroom walkthroughs.

 

If you liked this article, you'll love my new book Learning Curve!


Learning Curve is 360 pages and PACKED with useful ideas on leadership, education, and personal growth.

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