This fall, the vice-principal and I started conducting walk-through observations. In a three to five minute visit, we specifically looked at four aspects of the classroom: level of student engagement, what is the objective of the lesson, types of instructional strategies being used, and how technology is being used in the classroom. When appropriate we provide the teachers with positive feedback by email or in person.
We started by recording the information on paper and then entering it into a Filemaker Pro database that we created. Now, I bring my laptop into the classrooms and enter the data right into Filemaker Pro. The software allows us to produce individual reports for each teacher and quickly search for information based on various criteria. This also allows me to send the teacher an email with the positive feedback while I am still in the room.
Our purpose in conducting the walk-through observations were to increase our knowledge about what was going on in the classrooms, better understand the different instructional strategies used by each of the teachers, and collect hard data. By Christmas vacation, we had conducted over 500 observations and most core teachers had been observed ten or more times.
Our walkthrough strategy was adopted from Caroline Downey’s book, The Three-Minute Classroom Walk-through: Changing School Supervisory Practice One Teacher at a Time. In addition, we looked at the resources at the Education World website related to the issue.
Initially, the teachers were anxious about the walk-throughs. They were very suspicious of our motive and questioned how we would use the data we collected. I let them know that I felt the walkthrough observations are insufficient to serve as an evaluation system by themselves and assured them that if I had a serious concern I would speak to them right away.
In the beginning, we set a goal for ourselves to see every teacher every two weeks, approximately 30 observations a week. While this seemed like a lot, with practice we found we could observe about ten teachers in an hour. As the school year wore on, and other issues started to intrude on our schedule, the goal was adjusted to seeing every teacher every three weeks and now to every teacher once a month.
While this has taken a considerable amount of time, the benefits have been invaluable. My conversations with teachers are much richer. I can respond to parent concerns by stating “I have been in his classroom five times this year and I have not seen …” The data we have collected has been helpful in administrative team meetings and served to inform the focus on our faculty meetings. For example, in an administrative meeting in the fall, during a discussion about technology, I could definitively state, “every time the science teachers have the laptops out, the students are actively engaged in the lesson”. In a faculty meeting, I shared that the data indicates that on average, the teachers are using teacher centered instructional strategies almost 60% of the time, which is positively correlated with the percent of time the students only being actively on-task around 40% of the time.
In her book, Carolyn Downey advises administrators not to record information when they do the walkthrough observations. I need to record the information. Otherwise, with over 60 teachers, I would never remember what I saw in a particular teacher’s class. In addition, by recording the information in a database, I am able to benefit from the observation my vice-principal has done.
The teachers now take our walk-throughs as a normal practice. Their initial defensiveness has been overcome by the fact that we have dedicated the time to truly get to know them as teachers. This is a practice that schools can adapt for their own purposes. Our middle school administration started conducting walk-through observations about a month after we did. There focus is slightly different but suits their needs and their faculty.
The Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement recently published an excellent overview of walkthrough observation here. Some other resources for walk-through observations can be found here and here. Finally, there is a humorous adaptation of a Nextel phone commercial related to classroom walkthrough observations on Teacher Tube.