Tips for Informal Walk-throughs
Blog, Leadership Skills and Implementation

Principal as Instructional Coach: Maximizing Informal Walkthroughs

By Terry Wilhelm

Tips for Informal Walk-throughs In the last post about informal walkthroughs, I discussed their value and the logistics of getting into classrooms on a regular basis. Now I would like to offer some suggestions to maximize the brief time spent taking these “snapshots.”

Formal observation vs. informal walkthrough

Informal walkthroughs are different from formal observations, which are few and far between — as infrequent as every other year for tenured teachers in some districts. Formal observations are normally scheduled ahead of time, and the administrator remains in the classroom for the majority of a lesson or instructional period.

The rarity of formal observations make frequent walkthroughs truly essential. To be effective, the principal must become expert at understanding what is happening in the classrooms for learners, and to provide ongoing feedback to teachers about it.

In the beginning, walkthrough feedback should be largely affirmative, which will help establish trust and comfort for the teachers. As I discussed before, feedback can be given individually, or to teachers as a group — by grade level, course-alike team, by department or even whole staff if there is a common initiative that everyone is working on.

Informal walkthroughs: 3 minutes to gather 5 data points

Perhaps surprisingly, a three-to-five minute drop-in visit can yield amazing amounts of information, and amassed over time, can create a fairly comprehensive picture of teaching and learning in a classroom, especially if they are done at different times in the day.

Carolyn Downey, one of the pioneers of walkthroughs, suggests that principals train themselves to quickly gather five data points:

1. Student orientation to the work

Although students will initially look up when the door opens and may be distracted if walkthroughs are new, the visitor can get a quick read on how engaged the students are in the learning.

2. Curricular decision points

Is the lesson objective obvious to you and to the students? Sometimes it may be possible to ask a student or two. Is the objective aligned to grade-level standards, or Common Core standards if this transition is in process?

3. Instructional decision points

How has the teacher designed the learning experience for the students?

4. ‘Walk the walls’ for more information on instruction and curriculum

What additional evidence about curricular and instructional decision points can you see in student work that is posted or displayed, or in folders/portfolios, and instructional aids that are posted or otherwise available for students?

5. Safety and health issues

These need to be brought to the teacher’s attention as soon as possible, such as at an upcoming break, after class, or at lunch

Data-gathering strategies for informal walkthroughs

While it does require some practice to master the quick gathering of these five data points, it is very worthwhile to do, because it provides substance for the walkthroughs both in terms of information for the leader, and potential feedback for the teachers.

As a consultant, I have found that I can use a stack of index cards to jot down my data after I step outside and before I enter the next classroom. If I have a pocket, I can keep the cards out of sight while I am in the classroom.

Walking through with a clipboard seems to send a message that raises teachers’ levels of concern. These cards are strictly for my own use, but are much more reliable than my fallible memory, even if I am just walking through a single wing of a school.

One important reminder: be sure to note the room number on each card! My next step is to develop my facility with the use of a smartphone for this purpose —  a device which can also fit in a pocket — in place of my cards.

So, get out there and practice! I think you will find this system of data gathering to be very useful for maximizing your informal walkthroughs.

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