Think back to when you were a classroom teacher. Imagine your principal walking into your classroom to conduct a walk-through observation. Does a wave of anxiety wash over you? Do you dread the fact that they are sitting in your classroom? Do you wonder, but never learn, what they are thinking when it comes to your classroom instruction because you simply never receive any feedback? Unfortunately, many teachers harbor these feelings about walk-through observations, but it doesn’t have to be this way!
The walk-through observation process can (and should) be a welcomed and valued part of the instructional process and culture of your school. As a building principal, it is up to you to cultivate a culture in which walk-throughs are appreciated and even desired. There is power behind a thoughtfully crafted walk-through observation. Our collaborative process has played a significant role in shaping a positive culture at Quaker Valley Middle School.
What to Look For
When I became the principal of Quaker Valley Middle School, I began to engage teachers in small group discussions about teaching and learning. I wanted to know what they valued, instructionally, as middle level teachers. The conversations were rich, enlightening, authentic, and enjoyable. The discussions soon evolved into a facultywide design challenge through which a meaningful walk-through observation form was created.
We took the time to collaborate on the design of an observation form that captured the instructional practices that we value as a school. The form isn’t fancy or overwhelming, but it does include input from the entire middle level faculty and administration. After a few iterations, we created a form that focuses on six main components:
- Classroom Environment
- Objectives and Relevancy
- Instructional Strategies
- Questioning Techniques
- Use of Time
During the design process, the teachers shared their feelings about how walk-throughs are carried out. They felt that the timing of a walk-through observation needed to be appropriate—essentially, it shouldn’t be too short or too long. As a faculty, we determined that 10–15-minute classroom visits (based on 45-minute classroom periods) were appropriate because they allow the administrator to get a good sense of what is taking place in the classroom without the visit feeling like a formal observation.
Never a “Gotcha” Moment
The teachers also shared that they needed the walk-through observation experience to be a positive one. I made it clear to the teachers that the walk-through would never be a “gotcha” moment. Instead, the process would highlight the great instruction and learning that was taking place in the classroom setting. I then had to prove this to the teachers by providing them with consistent and positive feedback about what I observed in their classrooms. The positive feedback only brought the teachers and administration closer together. Trust and rapport were quickly developed.
Teachers value written feedback, as opposed to checkmarks or circles and generic prepackaged statements. They wanted to hear from me, in my voice, about what I observed. In short, they wanted authentic feedback. Hearing the teachers loud and clear, I am extremely diligent in sharing a short, personalized note as a part of my walk-through feedback. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, but it does need to be heartfelt.
The Role of Students
As we worked through the design process, I shared with teachers that I always ask students two questions during walk-through observations: 1) “What are you learning?” and 2) “Why do you think you are learning about this?” At the most basic level, these two simple questions allow me to connect with students. Beyond that, these questions allow me to assess whether students are engaged and if they find relevance to what they are learning. Knowing this, teachers communicate the learning objectives for each lesson with students and also work with students so that they understand the relevancy of every lesson or unit of study.
What Walk-Throughs Can Do for Your School
When carried out with fidelity and consistency, walk-through observations can have a significant impact on your school. Walk-throughs can help principals:
- Improve classroom instruction
- Build trust and rapport among faculty and administration
- Decrease student discipline issues
- Identify teacher leaders with specific skill sets
- Understand the curriculum
- Establish themselves as educational leaders and instructional mentors
Talk openly and honestly with your teachers about teaching and learning. As a school, establish norms and expectations around the walk-through observation process. Challenge yourself to get into classrooms more often so that you can connect with students, provide positive feedback to teachers, and improve your school’s culture.
Dr. Anthony Mooney is the principal at Quaker Valley Middle School in Sewickley, PA. He has spent 14 years in education, the last five at Quaker Valley, and he is the 2019 Pennsylvania Principal of the Year. Follow him on Twitter (@QuakerValleyMS).