Making Rounds Work

Instructional rounds engage teachers in prescribing school improvement solutions.
By Lee Teitel
Principal, March/April 2015
Web Resources

Alicia Bowman, principal of West Woods Elementary School in Farmington, Connecticut, faced a challenge common to many principals: how to efficiently and effectively support new teachers’ learning. She sought to go beyond just assigning one-to-one mentors. Instead, she wanted to analyze issues new teachers face; build a stronger community of learners; and ultimately use new teachers’ challenges, insights, and learning to drive school improvement.

Bowman turned to a practice that had been used in the Farmington school district since 2003: school-based instructional rounds. Adapted from the medical rounds that doctors conduct, school-based rounds help educators look closely at the teaching and learning that is taking place in their classrooms so they can systematically work together to improve it.

Instructional Rounds Defined
Instructional rounds can be conducted in a variety of formats that can be customized to meet a school’s specific needs and improvement approaches. School-based rounds are conducted entirely within a school by teachers, administrators, and sometimes students.

Network rounds, on the other hand, are typically conducted across schools within a district (and sometimes across districts). They may include only school-based administrators, only central office personnel, or only classroom teachers. Other types of network rounds deliberately mix together teachers, administrators at all levels, and union personnel.

Nested rounds are a hybrid model that combines, for example, monthly school-based rounds with periodic, cross-school network rounds. Regardless of the structure, instructional rounds generally follow these four steps:

  1. Identify: Prior to the visit, the host school identifies a “problem of practice” on which visitors will focus during classroom observations. This represents a “stuck point” in the school’s and/or district’s improvement work. For example, educators in a school that has been working on having students use higher-order thinking skills may notice that teachers—after several months of professional development— are asking more challenging and complex questions, but that student expression of oral or written thinking is still mostly at a recall or basic understanding level.
  2. Observe: After a brief orientation, observers—either other educators in the network, or, in school-based rounds, colleagues from the host school—divide into groups of four or five to visit three or four classrooms. The observations last for approximately 20 minutes each, with observers jotting down specific and nonjudgmental notes about what teachers and students are saying and doing related to the problem of practice. Observers might, for example, look at the kinds of questions that teachers ask and the kinds of answers that they accept, as well as the tasks that students are asked to perform. Observers assess patterns across all the classrooms rather than the work of individual teachers.
  3. Analyze: Following the observations, visitors and participating hosts then analyze the data, looking for patterns, making predictions, and ultimately proposing suggestions for improvement.
  4. Follow-up: After the visit, members of the host school (and district) decide which suggestions will contribute the most to their instructional and systemic improvement, and follow up on implementing them. Visits are part of the continuous improvement at the host school and district, as well as the continuous learning of the network members.

Instructional Improvement Tool
West Woods Elementary developed a customized variation of the instructional rounds approach to supporting new teachers. They used it whenever a group of new teachers had a “stuck point” in their teaching, such as struggling to conduct the tight and focused mini-lessons that are part of reader’s workshop. Recently, they conducted an internal visit to take stock on midyear progress toward the district goal of “purposeful engagement.” The team focused on the student experience in classrooms.

After the visit, staff presented their findings at a faculty meeting, and teachers were asked to review the information, describe what they noticed, and think about implications for the school, for themselves as individuals, and for their teams. Staff also identified what follow-up would need to be done over the next week, month, and year. These post-round discussions provided opportunities for principal Bowman and the West Woods Elementary staff to revisit and refine their vision of exactly what, for instance, “purposeful engagement” should look like in an upper elementary school.

Bowman sees instructional rounds as a tool that integrates and supports all of the school’s other improvement efforts, as well as a key strategy to increase collective ownership and mutual accountability. To help make this happen, every team in the school has a collaborative goal that is a part of the evaluation process and that is connected to the school’s broader improvement focus. After an instructional rounds visit, Bowman suggests that teachers make a commitment relative to the findings, such as performing an action as a team and then reporting on the result at the next faculty meeting, or that team leaders share visit artifacts as well as resulting strategies at the next leadership team meeting.

In addition to using school-based instructional rounds, some principals have adapted the format and structure of network rounds to leverage the practice in school-based settings. Some principals segment the visits over several days to avoid classroom disruption and cost of substitute teachers. Other principals organize smaller teams to participate in frequent visits, usually with many more teachers. Some principals, like Bowman, at times choose to step away from the facilitation of instructional rounds, preferring to develop the professional capacity of teachers. Others choose to go on most or all the instructional rounds, embracing it as a powerful way to work with teachers around improvement.

Benefits and Pitfalls of School-based Rounds
School-based instructional rounds produce a number of potential benefits:

  • Broader engagement of teachers. School-based instructional rounds engage teachers as major players in improvement efforts. This goal has been difficult for some cross-district superintendent networks, or even cross-school district networks, to successfully, accomplish.
  • Local, immediate focus, and greater collective efficacy. School-based instructional rounds, which tend to explore local improvement issues, allow schools to lead frequent and short-term improvement cycles. These cycles can be implemented and fine-tuned more regularly, with potentially more immediate impacts, and with a greater sense of teacher and school-based efficacy.
  • Intimate understanding of the school and its improvement challenges. Implicit and deep knowledge of students and of curricular content enables observers to identify patterns and look for evidence of changes in what students know, whether students are being pushed outside of their comfort zone, or whether students are able to understand and articulate learning concepts. Since so many instructional rounds visits focus on student thinking, this insider ability to talk and listen to students and to assess their work in much greater detail is a significant asset.
  • Immediate adjustments in practice. Focused, detailed observations by close colleagues can lead to more immediate adjustments in practice, especially in contrast to cross-school network rounds. In the latter, most of the observers leave the school at the end of the day, and observations and suggestions from the visiting team are filtered through the principal and the teachers who participated on that team. Feedback from school-based instructional rounds visits, on the other hand, is generally more immediate, detailed, and personal.
  • Tighter links to long-term improvement processes and lateral accountability. Observations can lose effectiveness if the ideas that are sparked because of them are not discussed, implemented, and supported in ways that lead to instructional and organizational improvement. With school-based instructional rounds, teacher teams work together to identify a problem of practice before the visit, so follow-up occurs naturally. When teachers make commitments to their peers for improvement, they develop stronger teams that tap into the power of lateral accountability. School-based instructional rounds can forge tighter links between rounds and other school improvement processes and structures, like professional learning communities, teacher teams, internal data cycles, and professional development.

School-based instructional rounds also present potential pitfalls that principals must combat:

  • The tendency to be “nice” to colleagues. Teachers who know each other well and have congenial relations may be more likely to stay in the “land of nice” with one another rather than being honest and developing the nonjudgmental, descriptive data and analysis that are the key foundations of rounds.
  • Over-familiarity in the setting. Teachers who are immersed in a particular culture or setting also may not even notice routines or practices—even if they are not effective—that an outside observer would. They also may struggle to make suggestions for improvement.
  • Failure to go beyond peer observation. Teachers may only make minor changes rather than attempt more ambitious and fundamental improvements, or they may only examine local issues without connecting them to districtwide improvement strategies.

School-based rounds can usher deep, strategic school and (where appropriate) system instructional improvement into classrooms. The practice can engage significantly more classroom teachers in improvement work that is vibrant, focused, and tightly tied to their practice. At the same time, it can change educators’ relationships with their peers, augmenting the vertical accountability on which our school systems rely. Finally, it can boost the lateral and team accountability that we know can be such a powerful driver of individual and organizational learning.

Five Key Questions

Principals interested in using instructional rounds to support improvement should consider five key design questions:

  1. Why develop instructional rounds? How do they fit into the larger school (and if appropriate) district improvement strategy?
  2. Who at the schools should be involved, and why? Will it be all of the teachers, only team leaders, or some other subset? How will the participants learn the instructional rounds process?
  3. What school-based model makes the most sense, and how will rounds work logistically? How will teachers be freed up to plan, observe, and follow-up?
  4. How will instructional rounds be integrated into existing improvement structures—grade-level or content-area teams, professional learning communities, professional development time—so the follow-up from the visits will lead to improvement?

How can your school take advantage of the benefits of instructional rounds and minimize the downsides by nesting of school-based rounds into a larger network practice?

Portions of this article have been adapted from School-Based Instructional Rounds: Improving Teaching and Learning Across Classrooms (Harvard Education Press, 2013).

Lee Teitel is a lecturer on education and director of the School Leadership Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.


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