Raising the Bar: Walkthrough Accelerate Achievement

By Linda Fisher
Principal, March/April 2013

Students, teachers, parents, district administrators, and staff members all need a principal’s time. The key challenge for school leaders is to leverage their time in a way that makes the most positive impact on students’ academic success.

In my work with hundreds of princi­pals to increase student achievement through walkthroughs, several ques­tions constantly arise: What do I look for? Where do I get the time? How can I focus my observations? What kind of feedback should I give? How often should walkthroughs occur?

Effective and efficient walkthroughs are the way to raise the bar for all. They can increase the visibility of administrators, facilitate frequent feedback to teachers, and foster a laser-like focus on outstanding instruc­tional practice, which can boost stu­dent achievement.

Let’s look at what can make walk­throughs successful.

Setting the Stage for Success
Trust is essential in making walk­throughs successful. To create trust, we must clarify our purpose. The goal of walkthroughs is to build a snapshot of what is happening over time in classrooms. We look for qual­ity instruction in order to effectively evaluate teachers and we look for evidence of positive practices to rein­force and share.

Principals can clarify their vision for effective learning by actively involving staff in determining ideal walkthrough evidence. This can be done through professional develop­ment activities at staff meetings. For example, divide the faculty into four groups, and assign each group a lens (effective classroom management, standards-aligned curriculum, high-quality instruction, ongoing assess­ment). Ask them to identify what they

 would look for if they were to observe an ideal classroom. By leading this activity and facilitating a shared, high-quality discussion, a principal can begin to build trust for the walk­through process.

Since school cultures vary as much as flowers in gardens, principals need to assess their school culture regarding walkthroughs and set goals and expectations to move the school toward an open, collaborative culture. This can be accomplished through communication regarding how and why walkthroughs occur. Principals can set the stage for suc­cess by specifying that even though they will be in classes daily, selecting a focus for each walkthrough and notifying teachers of the focus, they will not interrupt instruction.

Focusing Time and Effort
Working smarter, not harder, is the key to success with walkthroughs. Walking into several classrooms for just three to seven minutes every day can make a tremendous difference. This can be done throughout the day. Set up a routine to enter classrooms every time you leave your office. Walk into classes at various times of the day. Demystify observations by teach­ing your staff the four-step learning scan and have teachers practice the scan in their classroom, as well as with their teammates:

  • Step 1: Observe the teacher and the student or group he or she is working with. Is the work rigor­ous and standards based? Are the students on task and actively engaged?
  • Step 2: Observe students working independently. Are they on task and engaged in meaningful differ­entiated work?
  • Step 3: Walk the walls with your eyes. Is there evidence of strategies students can access and are student exemplars displayed?
  • Step 4: Talk to a student (if appro­priate). Ask, “What are you learn­ing?” Review the student’s work together.

Providing Feedback That Counts
You have set the expectations, devised a plan to get into classes daily, and know what to look for and how to scan for evidence of success­ful practices. Now the most impor­tant piece comes into play. You need to synthesize your findings and provide feedback to your staff. This can be done in a number of ways (notes, emails, instant messages, face-to-face) to a number of audi­ences (individual teachers, grade levels, entire staffs) in a variety of frequencies (daily, weekly, monthly, yearly). Your feedback can empha­size a variety of goals (teacher individual goals, grade-level 30-day goals, staff instructional goals) or be very focused, linked to preidenti­fied goals for staff improvement.

The most successful feedback encourages recipients to evaluate their teaching and make positive changes. Reinforcing three strategies that teachers are doing well (with data) and asking a coaching-style question regarding instruction is a powerful strategy to increase achieve­ment and promote change. Examples of reinforcement statements include:

  • “I saw 86 percent of the students on task in the five classrooms I visited this morning—close to our schoolwide goal of 95 percent.”
  • “I observed six teachers dem­onstrating writing, our current schoolwide goal, during the writ­ing block this morning.”
  • “I saw active engagement strategies in 21 classes this week, including kinesthetic cues, choral and group responses, blogging, and students interacting with electronic white boards and one-to-one devices.”

These reinforcement statements can be paired with coaching ques­tions, such as, “What expectations have you set for on-task behavior?,” “When you calculate your on-task rate, what range do you see in your classroom and what goals have you set for increasing it?,” and, “What is your goal during demonstration writing for the students?”

Sometimes, principals need to make a positive change more quickly and directly, and this formula isn’t appro­priate. For instance, if a teacher needs to improve immediately, or if safety is an issue, then a more direct approach is required. Provide direct, explicit feedback such as:

  • “Students running into each other to line up is unacceptable, as some­one could get hurt. Let’s clarify your classroom discipline rules, reinforcements, and consequences so that this will not occur again.”
  • “I have been in your classroom sev­eral times during writing this week. I have not seen demonstration writ­ing, which is our schoolwide goal. When can I come in to see this schoolwide strategy being taught?”

In these examples, setting clear expectations and following up are key.

Principals who place walkthroughs at the top of their to-do lists, work with staff to identify goals, create a collaborative culture to attain the goals, and provide focused feedback that counts are well on their way to success in improving student achieve­ment. When expectations are clearly defined and monitored, student aca­demic success can soar.

Linda Fisher, a former principal, is director of the Learning Headquarters in San Diego, California.


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