The Why and When of Walkthroughs - ASCD
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September 1, 2018

The Why and When of Walkthroughs

Without context and regularity, classroom observations can damage trust between teachers and principals, as well as negatively affect teacher ratings. In this exchange between educators at different schools, a teacher identifies the flaws in the walkthrough status quo at his school, and a principal at another school shares her own journey to becoming a present and positive partner in classrooms.

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Without context and regularity, classroom observations can damage trust between teachers and principals, as well as negatively affect teacher ratings. In this exchange between educators at different schools, a teacher identifies the flaws in the walkthrough status quo at his school, and a principal at another school shares her own journey to becoming a present and positive partner in classrooms.

Dear Principal,

A couple days ago, you did a round of walkthroughs. You popped into five different teachers' rooms for about five minutes each. I know this because at lunch later that day, we teachers talked about it. During your five minutes in my classroom, you noticed that Sarah had her head down while I was teaching and that I did nothing about it. You saw Patel go to the bathroom without asking, just as I got to the crucial part of my lecture. You saw Joseph sit by himself at the front of the room, and that didn't sit right with you. In your observation notes, my colleagues' classrooms had their own idiosyncrasies, and that also gave you pause. So, we have a request: Please ask us why.

It's human nature to focus on the negative. We get that. We also get that you're going to find something to criticize. When I conference with my best writer, I'm going to highlight some area where she can improve, even though she's head and shoulders above her classmates. My job, after all, is to help all students get better, just as yours is to help your teachers. Constructive criticism isn't the problem. We can live with that.

What's harder to stomach are the assumptions you make. You have an impossible job, often made more impossible by your own bosses in the district. You're pulled in a hundred directions, and you just can't get into classrooms as often as you'd like. We get that, too. But your presence matters.

Because the infrequency with which you visit our rooms leads to a lack of context. And that lack of context can lead to assumptions that are often wrong but may be used on our evaluations anyway.

So, ask me why. Ask me why, because you don't know.

You don't know what happened five minutes, five hours, five days, five weeks, or five months before you walked in.

You don't know that Sarah complained all morning about not feeling well and that she got only three hours of sleep because of her new baby sister. You don't know that the reason she's not "engaged" is because her body won't allow her to be, and that five minutes before you walked in, I told her to put her head down.

You don't know that Patel's mom emailed me at the start of the week to tell me that his dad is about to come home from prison after three years, and that Patel's anxiety over the change has manifested as a nervous bladder. You don't know that Patel and I have a deal to prevent a mortifying accident for which he'll be remembered the rest of his life: don't ask; just go.

You don't know that I've tried everything with Joseph for the past five months, but the kid just can't sit near anyone without bothering them all day. You also don't know that his seating location is a sign of tremendous progress, that he finally acknowledged his problem and asked to sit by himself so that he could focus better. He's not separated from his classmates because I gave up on him or I'm trying to shame him. He sits there because he wants to sit there.

You don't know these things because you lack context for what you're observing. That's not your fault. But it is your fault if you don't ask me why.

Why didn't you tell Sarah to sit up?

Why did Patel leave the room without asking?

Why does Joseph sit by himself?

It's a simple word that invites teachers to provide you with the context you lack.

Because if you don't ask why, many of your teachers won't tell you. They don't want to rock the boat. They don't want to come off as whiners. They don't want to be the difficult one, because the difficult ones get let go when districts cinch their belts and principals are told to choose who leaves the island.

By not asking your teachers why, you put them in a difficult position. They can keep their mouths shut and risk having your ill-informed observations affect their evaluations and your opinion of them moving forward, or they can try to explain. But whenever people initiate explanations for their choices, they come across as defensive, and that can be perceived as a tacit admission of error.

By making a habit of asking why and truly listening, you honor the individuality of our students and the complexity of our craft as teachers. Please stop assuming that you understand the choices we're making in the five minutes you're evaluating us.

Ask us to tell you why.


Dear Teacher,

Thank you for sharing your experience with me. My heart ached after reading your letter. You are right: There is no excuse for principals not being in classrooms more and for not asking why. Being a principal has a lot of demands, but being there to support teachers and students should be at the top of the list.

Looking back on my time as a teacher, having administration or principals in my classroom on a daily basis was not something I consistently experienced. Over my career, I worked for five different principals, each with their own approach to classroom visits, ranging from multiple times throughout the day to only coming in during scheduled formal visits or if there was an issue that needed to be talked about. Without a strong, consistent model of what classroom observations should look like when I entered the principalship, I was left to my own devices to figure out what was best. I knew that, as a teacher, I wanted my principal in my room as much as possible so that he understood my struggles, celebrations, and the work I was doing to make connections with students. So perhaps this was where I could start.

Fast forward to my first weeks on the job as a principal. A fellow middle school principal calls to check on me and to see how things are going. I share how I am slammed with this, that, and another thing but am quickly interrupted with his burning question: Had I been in classrooms yet that day?

His question gave me pause as I considered my own experiences as a teacher. My former principals weren't consistently in my room during the first week, either. The conversation quickly ended, and I headed straight out to classrooms feeling incredibly guilty that I'd yet to leave my office and school was almost done for the day. Over the next few months, the principals that I connected with would regularly ask me how classroom visits were going and if I was making it to each classroom, every day. The fact that they were asking me this, that it was a social norm and expectation within this group of leaders was very powerful. It made me realize the importance of being present as a building leader. I feel very fortunate to have had these folks as my peer group at such a formative time because they really helped shape my practice of being in classrooms.

Now, my mantra as a principal is "every classroom, every day."

I believe that as an education leader, you have to be present and in classrooms on a daily basis in order to truly understand the full magnitude of the work both staff and students are taking on and accomplishing. Do I hit this goal every day? No, but by making being present in classrooms a core value of my leadership, I ensure that it happens more often than not and that my teachers are not surprised to see me circulating among their students.

So how do I get into classrooms on a consistent basis? I schedule it. Some of the best advice I received as a new principal is that my calendar reflects what I value. My primary job is to be an instructional leader, which means being present in the classroom. Although things do come up and there is always more to do in the office, those things can truly wait. My advice to fellow principals is to make a plan for getting into classrooms this year and then stick to the plan. Teachers need and want us to be visible partners in the success of their classrooms.

Over the past eight years, I have worked to refine my visits and the connections I make with students and staff when I come into the classroom. During my first few years as a principal, my district held extensive, job-embedded training in classroom observations: what to look for, best practices, and practicing debrief conversations. This training really helped me hone my observational skills and provided me with sentence frames for follow-up questions—like asking why. Nowadays, I am constantly talking to fellow principals in and out of Oregon about how they are approaching observations and suggestions for making this a meaningful, supportive, and positive experience for all involved. I read multiple books on this topic each year, take classes when I can find them on coaching teachers, and I visit other schools to see how they are supporting teachers.

Through it all, we principals will get our best feedback from talking with teachers like you. During my first year as a principal, a veteran teacher gave me some feedback that still resonates. We were meeting to go over her observation, and as we were wrapping up, she noted that she appreciated my positive comments. In fact, she noted that her previous observations had been heavier on criticism instead of being balanced. She appreciated that I made an effort to point out the great things she was doing. This feedback hit me hard and I reflected on it for a long time. In fact, it still comes to mind every time I am writing up an observation. Principals need to be consistently present in classrooms, but we also have a duty to ensure that our feedback includes and elevates the positive things we see in your classrooms every day.

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