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Instructional Walkthroughs: What Are They Good For?

May 6, 2019

There are few things more helpful to a school leader than observing every single classroom (or at least many of them) in their school building in one contained period of time. Plenty of our school leaders do instructional walkthroughs like this and we often go with them to help them calibrate their lens for what to look for and to provide an external perspective on what they observe. 

 

Walkthroughs can do lots of things, but they can’t do everything.

 

Too often we see school leaders trying to look for all of their “look-fors” at once, expecting to see every single instructional practice they’ve ever discussed with their teachers happening no matter what part of the lesson they’re seeing. As an additional pitfall, some try to use walkthroughs as a substitute for deeper, more meaningful observation and feedback for teachers; or they’ll use them as a proxy evaluation for teachers and possibly inundate them with heaps of action items expected to be met by the time the real thing rolls around.

 

The best walkthroughs are none of these things entirely, but can contain elements of each of these purposes (just often not in the way that first instincts lead most principals to act on what they see during walkthroughs). 

 

The best walkthroughs are focused, formative, and for targeted communication only.

1.) Walkthroughs must be focused. 

 

If you are looking for everything, you’re seeing nothing. 

 

Your teacher rubric is extensive, you have many important instructional priorities, and your teachers need to work on lots of things. But you cannot reasonably observe all of these things simultaneously. The more things you observe for, the less you actually see in a classroom, especially in the 5–10 minute snippet of each classroom you’re likely to see during a walkthrough.

 

Identify a very clear focus for your walkthough. Is it alignment to a clear learning objective? Great! Walkthrough just for that. Is it classroom culture and management? Great! Walkthrough just for that. Is it structuring lessons with a purposeful lesson structure? Great! Walkthrough just for that. Is it rigor of student engagement and thinking? You get the picture.

 

There is no way you could bring any level of depth or scrutiny to your observations during a walkthrough if you were trying to see all of these things, so zero in and focus, focus, focus on what you really need to look for.

2.) Walkthroughs must be formative. 

 

You want to see an accurate picture of regular classroom instruction, the kind that your students get on a daily basis when you’re not in the room. You want to see teachers’ real attempts at trying on new instructional practices, which might not (likely won’t) work for them right away. You want information about what further support you need to provide to your team to improve your priority area.

 

Teachers need to feel safe to try something new and make mistakes in your presence. They need to know that you are observing them to get a snapshot of their classroom, not to pass judgment on everything they do (95-99% of which happens when you’re not around).

 

For all of these reasons, your walkthrough data cannot and should not be used as a formal evaluation.

 

Use it for what it is — information. Partial? Yes. Quick? Yes. A snapshot? Yes. Invalid? Absolutely not, as long as you don’t try and make it something it isn’t. Don’t judge yourself or your teachers too harshly (or praise them too effusively) based on what you see on a walkthrough. You now have verifiable indicators of what is and isn’t happening in classrooms that can and should inform your next steps and help you assess the effectiveness of the steps that you’ve taken to support and develop your teachers.

3.) Walkthroughs must be for targeted communication only. 

 

You should communicate what you see during walkthroughs — in a purposeful, targeted way that shows your analysis of the state of instruction in your school and what you’re going to do about it. 

 

The tendency here is sharing everything — “complete transparency” — but that can actually do more harm than good. Trying to communicate broadly, to each individual teacher, from a leadership activity that is designed only to gather high-level, school-wide trends in classroom instruction is a great way to send mixed messages and break trust with your teachers. They’re not designed for the purpose of broad individual feedback for every teacher in your building, and you shouldn’t force them to serve that function.

 

That said, aggregate trends (and what you’re going to do about them) should definitely be delivered to teachers! This is targeted communication. Let them know what you were looking for and what you saw across all classrooms — then share your analysis and plan for moving forward. 

  • What did it mean to you? What did it not mean to you? 

  • Where did you see teachers taking “productive risks” and making progress in your focus area? 

  • Where do we go from here? What further learning will we do? What additional support will you provide? 

Being transparent on this school-wide level through targeted communication builds a lot of trust in you as the instructional leader of the school. 

Walkthroughs can do lots of things, but they can’t do everything.

 

If you make your walkthroughs focused, formative, and for targeted communication only, then they can show their true power to you as an instructional leader and help you forge a clear path forward for developing your teachers.

Originally published on Medium. Follow our Medium publication Your Leadership. Leveraged.

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