ILC #4/5 – Rubrics and Common Vocabulary in Walkthroughs

In creating a framework for an observation program, the IL Challenge curriculum details the danger of building classroom walkthroughs via checklists and itemized reports. Some walkthrough programs include pages upon pages of items to “check off” during an observation session; the glaring problem here is that you may NEVER see an item that is necessary to complete a pre-built walkthrough. The teacher simply may not get to that skill or tool on the one day (hopefully, every two weeks) that you happen to walk into the classroom.

Instead of formulating detailed checklists for a walkthrough, it is better to advise faculty on the general plan you have upon arriving in a classroom. Faculty should know what you are doing as you observe. If you just jump into a classroom unannounced and without a basis for being there, you could cause panic in a teacher, or (more tragically), you could create a scenario where a teacher teaches beyond his/her typical style because he/she is “trying to please.” I know that teachers may act differently when I walk into the classroom…that’s ok. But I would hope they are comfortable teaching at their very best versus creating something that isn’t real.

So the goal of any walkthrough program is to be totally transparent: teachers should know exactly what you are doing when you enter a classroom to observe. I need to do a better job of describing my process, or framework, to the faculty at the beginning of the year. For instance, they need to know that my observation will be followed by a narrative report that has questions I would like them to answer. I know I can’t meet with every teacher after each observation, so they must understand what I expect of them.

In addition to the framework I describe to faculty, I need to express the program with a set of vocabulary that we all can share. If I am speaking with faculty about a walkthrough, the goals that I want them to set, the questions I will ask, and their responses to these questions need to use the same vocabulary so we can lay a foundation for for growth. When two faculty are talking about their goals or a recent walkthrough, they should understand the framework and use the same vocabulary to describe it.

Between framework structure and the vocabulary to build it, an instructional leader can create a united development program within a school where teachers understand what is expected of them and are able to bond together and motivate each other to improve based on these expectations.

This summer I have made three goals for analyzing my abilities and weaknesses as an instructional leader (head of middle school). 

Step 1: Participate and complete the Instructional Leadership Challenge.

Step 2: Read and internalize Teach, Reflect, Learn: Building Your Capacity for Success in the Classroom. I am using this text with new faculty as a stepping stone to redefine professional values in education. I have included the video in this post of the two authors, Pete Hall and Alisa Simeral, as a primer to the concepts they present in their book.

Step 3: Attend the School Leadership Institute, a powerful, week-long workshop that will analyze my strengths and areas of development as a principal. I have already asked a number of teachers, administrators, and parents to complete a 360-degree survey that I will use as the foundation for my week of learning. This workshop will help direct my professional development for years to come.

I am very excited about this summer and the plans I have to make myself better for the students with whom I interact, the teachers I have the honor of leading, and school I represent.

ILC D3: What’s Wrong with Walkthroughs

I was hoping to get to this conversation soon; this 21-day program is really good for any instructional leader – please check it out (it’s FREE). Walkthroughs have been a work in process over the last two years of my ed leadership career. They are not easily scheduled in a school with a rotating schedule, and the pre-brief/debrief process is often time consuming and handled poorly. But the walkthrough is essential for system-wide success. I have two key points in my discussion – take a look and respond as the spirit moves you.

The first point to consider is that you are probably doing a walkthrough wrong if you are trying to accomplish data collection or to complete a checklist. The fact of the matter is that a walkthrough is NOT for you or the district. A class observation or walkthrough is first and foremost for the teacher

Blows your mind, I know. But it’s not what think.

A teacher in your school should thrive on feedback; but, I find that many often are terrified of being observed. If there is a new tool or teaching strategy that I have asked teachers to try, reluctance is typically the initial response. I get it and can totally relate: no one wants to hear that he has been doing a bad job. But that is not the purpose for observations or walkthroughs; a teacher is observed in order to fill in gaps, together, as a team. After all, a master teacher isn’t developed via individual classroom ability but by sharing and receiving great ideas (and processing bad ones) with other intellectual minds. This is a sign of mutual respect in the workplace – and respect is vital to the improvement of a workforce. If we improve we do it together; a rising tide raises all boats. It is our job as administrators to inspire teachers to want this observation feedback from any place they can get it (like admin or other teachers). Just as we teach our students to identify their gaps in learning so that they can then fill those gaps, teachers should see a walkthrough as a means to discover areas of improvement for the purpose of improving every minute of a student’s educational experience.

A second point: your teaching staff needs to realize the fundamental purpose of teaching in your school, and a walkthrough is one of the only direct ways to ensure that they are doing so. 

Teachers are proud and protective of their ability to facilitate learning in my school…and they do incredible work; yet, we all have a one-year contracts to renew come springtime. In the words of my headmaster, “Charlie, we are all replaceable.” I could not agree more. As in any relationship with a greater good (spiritual or otherwise), we must recognize that all is fine in the world as long as we are doing our job to the best of our ability. If we lose sight of that goal, isn’t it fair for that greater good to come calling?

But I’m not saying a walkthrough is a means to validate dismissal…just the opposite. An administrator does not build trust or clarity without concrete expectations and a method of assistance for any faculty member to meet those expectations. As we tell students with regard to their success, a teacher should have the means to succeed inherent in his or her ability but (and, more importantly) also as a result of readily accessible mentoring and teamwork. This is where admin comes in – if a walkthrough warrants the discussion of mentoring or in further learning and development, my job would be to create this plan of action. In essence, the means to contract renewal should not be dependent on an observation or walkthrough; the walkthrough should confirm that a teacher is doing exactly what is expected. But if a need is evident, it’s on me to figure out how to do it.

Finally, the hope I have for every walkthrough is that I observe something great – perhaps unexpected, but ultimately mind-altering. Sometimes there are areas of polishing that become evident, but my debrief usually consists of a “have you thought about this” question that I can ask as a means to spool up new thoughts in a teacher’s brain. An administrator should be ready and excited about asking the tough questions or initializing those “next-step” thoughts after an observation. Post-walkthrough questions and thoughts should align with the concrete expectations for keeping a job; however, I would hope that the questions project from these expectations. A teacher should meet expectations regardless of being observed or not; yet, meeting expectations is merely a stepping stone to reinventing them. The observation, in keeping with its ideal purpose, should create questions or brainstorms that lead to new standards in teaching. I hope, when I enter a classroom, that a teacher is reinventing the baseline.

Instructional Leadership Challenge: Day 2

Question: When do you practice Instructional Leadership?

Instructional Leadership is not simply a planned event; sure, it does exist in this form as you have observation meetings and follow-up discussions about observations. But IL must also occur in the hallways as a “you got a minute?” conversation starts up or the teacher with a brainstorm above her head walks into your office unannounced. What if that brainstorm is the silver bullet in her instructional practice? 

Additionally, IL could occur as I read an article which may have content worth examining. Teachers are the expert in their trade; however, an expert must stay abreast of the new tech, new trends, and news that impacts their trade. When these articles appear, teachers should stop, read, and react to new concepts as they are presented by colleagues in and out of school. I see sending articles to teachers as brief check-ins of my own – sort of like a “what do you think about this?” in their inboxes. I don’t expect a response, but I can always check to see if a teacher read an article the next time we pass in the hallways <wink>.

As an administrator, I have to respect the needs of the faculty at all times. They are the cogs in the wheel; without them, we aren’t building anything.