Walk-throughs, as many of us commonly refer to the process of gathering information as we actively walk through classrooms, are the ultimate educational leadership tool. Of course the walk-through process contains potential flaws, but with awareness those roadblocks can be relegated to mere obstacles.
WALK-THROUGHS ANSWER MANY QUESTIONS
When employed properly, walk-throughs provide for principals a clear picture of the state of learning in their schools, and many peripheral benefits too. Walk-throughs can answer -- directly and indirectly -- many questions about which effective principals should be fully informed.
What is the current status of the teaching and learning in your school? This seems obvious, but there are still principals out there who wait until the formal teacher-evaluation period to monitor instruction in their schools. Those are the same principals who wait until the test scores arrive to determine the amount of student learning taking place. Don't be those principals! Inspect what you expect. When you walk into a classroom, you can immediately determine the rates of student engagement, observe the instructional strategies employed by the teacher, and see the results of those things in the students' work. And you know what's going on, which is the most important information you can have as the building leader.
How can the principal build relationships with staff and students? Too often, the students we principals know best are the ones who frequent our offices for disciplinary reasons. As for teachers, it can be difficult to schedule meetings with them because their prep times are so valuable and we are so busy with administrivia. But it's time to turn those realities on their ears. Walking in and out of classrooms provides us time to observe the children in their element: reading, working, learning. Sashaying through the hallway gives us an informal locale for impromptu conversations with staff members. Meandering from table to table within a classroom lets us get to know the children as students, ask about their work, and become an integral part of the educational experience. Sauntering from room to room grants our teachers the chance to engage in quick, non curriculum-threatening dialogue. And for all those reasons, walk-throughs provide common experiences about which teachers and principals can relate.
How can the principal provide immediate and frequent feedback to teachers? The formal evaluation process, which is valuable in its own right, is often an isolated piece of a very intricate puzzle. A group of children spends up to 6 hours a day for 180 days a year with a particular teacher; is a series of two or three hour-long observations followed by structured conversation the most appropriate and complete manner in which to assess their instructor's skills and abilities? Engaging in walk-throughs more frequently allows you, as the principal, to share immediate feedback with teachers. As part of the walk-through process, leave behind a written note with some observations, compliments, and questions. Make a point to meet with the teacher briefly after class or en route to the staff room to discuss an element of the lesson. Use a handheld camera to videotape yourself posing questions or offering comments and leave a copy of the tape in the teacher's VCR. Whatever feedback format you choose, the point is to let the teacher know what you observed and how you interpreted it. Nothing is more nerve-wracking than a principal's visitation with no follow-up. It leads to confusion and consternation. A simple little note clarifies any situation, or, at the very least, invites more discourse.
Why does Martin always get sent to the office? Oh, we all have students who are repeat offenders and never seem to be able to keep their noses clean for more than 30 seconds. But how often do we see them in their classrooms, working and learning and firing spitballs among their peers? Might there be a reason Martin is sent out of Mrs. Cordell's class every morning at the same time? Could it be that when he's asked to work independently at a center, for example, he gets so frustrated that he misbehaves to avoid work? Whatever the circumstance, your understanding increases as you gain information. You might even choose to sit with Martin and help him work, all the while emphasizing proper behaviors and work habits. The benefits could extend beyond the immediate results. You might find that you like helping and talking to Martin. Martin might like it, too. The teacher might like it. The kid Martin usually needles with his pencil might like it. And Martin might just become a bit more motivated to focus on making better choices. If not, by spending time in Martin's classroom you certainly have gained a better understanding of his experiences, and that will help you when you meet with his parents and the counselor to determine a behavior plan.
How can I possibly get myself out of the office long enough to do this? Aha! That is the question that plagues many well-intentioned, competent principals. With all the demands made by the central office, parent groups, faculty, student supervision, piles of e-mails and paperwork, formal evaluations, barrages of phone calls, and discipline, what time is left over for walk-throughs? Well, I propose that question is backwards. The better question to ask is this: What time do you prioritize for walk-throughs, and how willing are you to let your instructional leadership demands dictate your time management strategy? I know we all have deadlines, emergencies happen, and some things -- such as testing, evaluations, and student supervision -- can only happen during the school day, but can't the majority of the remaining tasks wait until after school? You cannot conduct walk-throughs after school, but you can answer e-mails. You cannot meander or sashay through classrooms before school, but you can sift through the mounds of paperwork. Do yourself, your staff and, most important, your students, a gigantic favor: make the walk-through process a priority, and follow that calling with consistency and earnest. The benefits will astound you.
The National Association of Elementary School Principals' (NAESP) third standard for effective school leadership reads
"Effective leaders demand content and instruction that ensure student achievement of agreed-upon academic standards."
What better way to monitor with precision than to engage in frequent, feedback-laden, fervent, faithful, forthcoming, and frankly, fun walk-throughs?
Always strive to be a better you!
Article by Pete Hall
Copyright © 2006 Education World