Learning Walks: Principal As Instructional Coach
Tips for School & District Administrators

Principal as Instructional Coach: Use Learning Walks to Harness Teaching Expertise

By Terry Wilhelm

In my last post on this topic, I introduced the idea of Learning Walks as a strategy for the leadership team to begin collecting data on an instructional practice that is a high priority for the staff. De-privatizing classroom practice moves the entire school forward as a community of professional learners and is powerful for improving student outcomes.

Harness collective teaching wisdom with Learning Walks

But it is important to begin carefully and strategically. Some teachers are fearful of visitors because of potential criticism. Others may fear that unfavorable data from Learning Walks might be included in their evaluations. It is essential that as the principal, you provide clarity for the rationale as well as the process. However, the process may evolve over time.

A metaphor from another profession, medicine, may be useful as you prepare the staff. In hospitals around the country, doctors perform daily rounds, visiting patients. Rounds are usually conducted with other doctors, especially in teaching hospitals. The process is not something to be feared; the collective experience and wisdom of a visiting team is often superior to that of an individual physician, and the patient is the beneficiary.

Similarly, teachers are ideal experts for sharing expertise with other teachers, but the isolation of teachers in a typical school prevents this. In order to move the school forward in the agreed-upon focus area, Learning Walks provide a clearly structured vehicle for discussion and improvement.

A team-developed tool is the best way to gather data on instructional practices

I strongly recommend working with the leadership team to develop an agreed-upon tool for gathering data on Learning Walks. A team-developed tool will not only generate teacher ownership, it is likely to be far better than a tool designed by the principal alone.

Keep the initial tool simple. You may even begin with a simple tally system, noting the room numbers where the strategy was being used or attempted. Group feedback — in a staff email, staff meeting, or shared in teams by team leaders — can be as simple as, “We saw ____ strategy being used in 10 of the 16 rooms we visited on Tuesday.”

Classroom visit data is most valuable when it’s simple but accurate

Inevitably, team members will realize that a tally system alone is not sufficient. In one district, classroom visits were focused on a daily lesson segment termed Universal Access, or UA. This was a scaffolding/pre-teaching segment, delivered in small, flexible groups to those students whose most recent performance indicated the need for extra support.

At first, principals collected this data solo and shared it at their monthly principals’ meetings. However, it quickly became apparent that specific criteria were needed. If a teacher sitting at her desk noticed that the principal had come in and quickly called up a student, was that UA?

A simple four-item rubric was developed to support effective data collection. Similarly, your leadership team will undoubtedly discover that a more robust system than tally marks is needed, but I recommend always keeping it as simple as possible, while detailed enough to be accurate.

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