Classroom Walkthroughs and Checklist Leadership

In the past few days, I’ve stumbled across two interesting bits (see here and here) being written by principals about classroom walkthroughs—a really common practice designed to give teachers feedback about their lessons and principals feedback about the kinds of common instructional behaviors in their buildings.

And as popular as classroom walkthroughs are with school leaders and their professional organizations, I’m skeptical about how valuable they really are.  Instead of becoming a starting point for meaningful conversations between teachers and their administrators, I worry that they encourage and enable checklist leadership:

(download image on Flickr)

Now, don’t get me wrong:  Like any practice, classroom walkthroughs in the hands of the right folks can lead to real change in a building.  When a principal can provide tangible evidence to his/her faculty ofthe kinds of questions being asked or practices being used across a building, schools can start reflecting on whether or not those questions and practices support meaningful learning.

But what about buildings with principals who are underprepared or overwhelmed?  Isn’t equally possible that the kinds of simple observations enabled by walkthroughs can become the only source of information that principals use when making judgments about their teachers?

Intentionally or not, don’t walkthroughs encourage superfical judgments about instruction?  Aren’t they, by design, nothing more than quick snapshots of what’s really happening in classrooms?  Can administrators really get a complete understanding of instructional choices by looking at quick snapshots instead of engaging in more meaningful interactions with their faculties?

I guess what I’m wondering is wouldn’t the time of principals be better spent on a few deep and meaningful observations and interactions with faculty members than on a ton of short walkthroughs without meaningful follow-up.

And if principals don’t have the time for walkthroughs AND deep and meaningful conversations with teachers, shouldn’t walkthroughs be pitched?

Are they really a high-leverage strategy driving change in our schools?






12 thoughts on “Classroom Walkthroughs and Checklist Leadership

  1. Don Kachur

    Any one aware of schools that conduct teacher-led classroom walkthroughs? Also, I have heard the idea of using students as observers for walkthroughs. Anyone aware of any schools that use students?

  2. Cathy Gassenheimer

    Sorry to be so slow to weigh in on this interesting thread. We’re using the Instructional Rounds model developed by Richard Elmore, at Harvard’s GSE. (Here’s a short article:
    Rounds originated with networks of superintendents with which Elmore worked, with the end in mind being helping superintendents gain a sense of urgency around creating a common vision for effective teaching in their districts.
    In Alabama, we’ve adapted the Instructional Rounds process for our networks of educators. A school volunteers to be a site and identifies a problem of practice. Teams of educators, often from several different schools, participate in both online and face-to-face p.d. about the process and purpose of Rounds.
    On the day of Rounds teams of 4-5 educators visit 4 classrooms looking for evidence relating to the school’s problem of practice. They practice descriptive observation (“Just the facts, Mam”) and do NOT use a checklist.
    Upon completion of the Rounds, teams use affinity mapping to identify patterns and key questions.
    The power of Rounds is really the learning of the participants — using descriptive observation and discussing effective practice.
    I blogged about it:
    Would be interested in your thoughts (Sorry this is so long!)

  3. Teacha

    Marsha, you shared several realistic examples that can definitely be seen amongst some schools and administrators. It sounds as if you are addressing the administrator themselves, not necessarily the walk-through tool or conversation. We all know there needs to be some sort of intelligence behind the conversation and/or the walk-through tool. But the question at hand really is does a walk-through checklist or a conversation really address promoting teaching and learning.
    If I had to choose between the two, I agree with Parry. I find combining both conversations and walk-through tools are the best ways to promote teaching and learning. You can’t have one without the other. If the administrator is the problem then neither will work.

  4. Marsha Ratzel

    A Question….
    What if the walkthroughs are suppose to be conducted by the faculty during their plan time? And then all their data is collected, summarized and reported out. All individual information is “confidential” so it isn’t shared, no specific feedback is given and only generalities are provided. Is this helpful?
    What kinds of things could be reasonably measured with this kind of walkthrough?

  5. TeachMoore

    For all their limitations, checklist walkthroughs are a notch above no observation at all. I admire the administrators who have posted here so far; I taught under four different principals during a 15 year period and all of them together never saw me teach 12 times total, much less in a year.
    K.K. is particularly right-on about the importance of that follow-up conversation. Hopefully, more comprehensive and mutually beneficial teacher evaluations will become the norm rather than the marvelous exception in more schools across the country.

  6. KJC

    As an administrator I find walkthroughs extremely beneficial to what is happening in the classroom. However, the critical element that has to happen is a followup within 24 hours. This has been my mission this year and I found it beneficial. By removing areas for comment I put my thoughts onto sticky notes and discuss them in the followup. I’ve found that this has cleared up any misunderstandings that can be perceived with written comments.

  7. rob

    most principals know that after doing a dozen or so walkthroughs they can accurately predict what the classroom will look like (for better or worse) on ensuing walkthroughs.

  8. ShireenRichards

    I believe it is important that school leaders have an accurate awareness of what takes place in the classrooms and that they are seen to be actively involved in the school (not hidden away in an office). In addition, students take great pride in showing off their learning and classroom to the principal.
    With regard to a focus on teaching improvement, I think perhaps a program of teacher ‘coaching’ is far more beneficial for all concerned. Essential to this, is the provision of effective training and support for the ‘coach’. This way, a learning partnership exists rather than teachers having a sense of being ‘checked up on’ or judged.

  9. Greg M

    I actually have enjoyed when my principals do walk throughs (or stay a whiles), mainly because I trust and enjoy their feedback. I have never felt that they have been out to get me. However I could see under a different set of circumstances and with a checklist like the one above, I might have a very different opinion. I found this one to have very little to do with the actual quality of teaching, relationships with the students, etc. Quite frankly if I worked for a school board that had a ‘pacing guide’ and ‘lesson plan format’ I think I would not be teaching.

  10. Gcouros

    Curious if walkthroughs are not the answer, what is the alternative for teacher supervision? I agree that if there is not trust between principal and teacher, they are not effective, but that is a bigger issue that affects more than walkthroughs. I know that you said the following:
    “I guess what I’m wondering is wouldn’t the time of principals be better spent on a few deep and meaningful observations and interactions with faculty members than on a ton of short walkthroughs without meaningful follow-up”
    Wouldn’t both be beneficial? I believe that for walkthroughs to be beneficial though, it has to be done WITH teachers and not to them. It is essential they are a part of the conversation before you start them.

  11. Parry

    As a principal, I find regular walkthroughs to be highly valuable. I am the person ultimately responsible and accountable for the quality of teaching and learning in my building, and I therefore think that I should know what that teaching and learning looks like. In addition, I believe frequent walkthroughs give me a relatively accurate sense of what teachers’ classrooms look like. After visiting the same teacher’s classrooms a dozen times at random opportunities, I can get a general sense of what instruction looks like in that classroom: are students typically pretty engaged, does the teacher give frequent feedback, is the general tone of the room positive, does the teacher have clear rules and procedures, is classroom management appropriate, etc.
    Deep, meaningful conversations are also important, but the way people talk about their classrooms (especially with their boss) does not necessarily reflect the reality of what happens in detail. I don’t use conversations to learn about a teacher’s classroom practices, but rather to learn about her beliefs, philosophies, level of reflection, etc. In order to know what a teacher really looks like in the classroom, you have to visit the classroom.
    I don’t think it is or should be an either-or situation, but if I could only choose one of the two (walkthroughs or conversations), I think I might actually choose walkthroughs.

  12. ms_teacher

    and in a school where the principal has done nothing to build trust and respect, they are seen as “gotcha” tools. They do nothing to help improve instruction.
    I’m really amazed at this cookie cutter approach to education that has become rampant over the past decade.

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