School leaders have a lot on their plates in a “normal” year. Add in a COVID-19 pandemic, school closures, virtual learners, in-person mitigation measures, contact tracing, and mask debates; and you have a plate that is overflowing. As tempting as it is to sacrifice instructional supervision in the face of increased operational and safety demands on our time, it is vital that principals continue to monitor instruction in classrooms this year.
Emerging research points to the negative effects of school closures on student learning (Engzell, Frey, & Verhagen, 2021). Further, disadvantaged learners experienced greater negative effects, leading to an increased achievement gap (Cummings, 2021). In the midst of planning for a return to in-person instruction this fall, school leaders must plan to monitor instruction, with an eye toward closing gaps and accelerating learning for students who are off track.
One time-efficient method for school leaders to monitor classroom instruction is the classroom walkthrough. To maximize time and effectiveness, leaders should outline a plan for walkthroughs this year.
- What is the purpose, or target, for our walkthroughs? What components of instruction are most in need of monitoring?
- How will we conduct walkthroughs? Schedule? Length of time? Documentation?
- How will we use results of the walkthroughs to improve student learning?
Targeting Instructional Needs in Fall 2021
Whether your school was closed for in-person learning last year, you had a staggered or alternate schedule, or you were open to in-person learning; there is no doubt that many of your students have experienced learning loss. As teachers plan for instruction this fall, they cannot plan for “business as usual.” It is vital that teachers assess where students are in the learning progression, and plan to meet a variety of needs. What you see in walkthroughs this fall should look different—the needs of the students are different.
Allensworth and Schwartz (2020) point out instructional practices that will most benefit students as schools address learning loss. Walkthroughs this fall should focus on monitoring the use of these types of practices: extended learning time to address deficits and new content, high-dose tutoring sessions, a system to monitor warning signs, and a focus on social-emotional learning. As school leaders conduct walkthroughs, they should expect to see more individualized or small group instruction. Perhaps they will see the use of virtual tools to personalize learning progressions for students. Leaders should also expect to see teachers focusing on social and emotional needs of students, either through a specific curriculum or through practices such as morning meetings or “check-ins” with students.
Scheduling and Conducting Walkthroughs in Fall 2021
As we plan for walkthroughs—whether formal or informal—school leaders must be cognizant of the stress levels of teachers as many of them return to in-person instruction. Just as we have more on our plates, teachers are experiencing increased demands in the classroom. They are monitoring mask wearing, social distance between kids, and perhaps even helping you contact trace after a positive case is identified. Having an administrator come in for a walkthrough surely exacerbates what is already a high stress situation.
This fall, school leaders should provide transparency in the walkthrough process. Announced walkthroughs, with a specific instructional focus, are a good way to start. For example, if your school is implementing a new program or method of grouping students to address learning loss, announce that you will be “walking around” to see those things in action on a specific date. Let teachers know that you want to see and celebrate their use of new strategies and methods. As you move through the year, the focus of the walkthroughs can change as your teachers engage in conversations and embedded professional learning about how to address student needs. If you already have planned professional learning for the year, provide teachers with a walkthrough schedule that outlines the year and the instructional focus of walkthroughs to monitor the implementation of new learning. Again, consistently remind teachers that the purpose is to see them in action and support them as they implement something new.
Using Results of Walkthroughs in Fall 2021
While walkthroughs are often evaluative in nature, school leaders would do well to adopt a coaching mentality rather than an evaluative mentality in the fall of 2021. Teachers are experiencing unprecedented circumstances and are working to meet the needs of students in an ever-changing landscape. Attempting to evaluate their success (or failure) to do that in the midst of a pandemic is ill-advised, and perhaps even cruel. This year is a time for administrators to pull out their coaching hats. Results of walkthroughs this year should be used to provide additional coaching and support for teachers as needed. Walkthroughs should be used to identify powerful practices in one classroom for the purpose of sharing those with others.
One strategy that is effective is a “spotlight” moment in faculty meetings or weekly newsletters to staff. School leaders can use a “spotlight” to share a strong instructional practice with the entire staff. Administrators can also reflect on trends across classrooms to plan additional professional learning. If you see the same needs across several classrooms or a grade level, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and coach. Teachers will appreciate school leaders who recognize the overwhelming task of providing instruction under extraordinary circumstances and who offer to “come alongside” them as they try new methods in their classrooms.
Being a school leader is difficult. Being a school leader in the midst of a pandemic seems impossible. We will continue to face challenges that increase the demands on our time. Yet, at the core, one demand on our time should take precedence. Are we providing instruction that leads to student learning? The way to focus on that priority is continuing to walkthrough classrooms and monitor instruction.
Allensworth, E. & Schwartz, N. (2020). School practices that address student learning loss. EdResearch for Recovery Project. Brown University, Results for America, U of Chicago Consortium on School Research. Available: https://annenberg.brown.edu/sites/default/files/EdResearch_for_Recovery_Brief_1.pdf
Cummings, M. (2021). COVID school closures most harm students from poorest neighborhoods. YaleNews. Yale University. Available: https://news.yale.edu/2021/01/05/covid-school-closures-most-harm-students-poorest-neighborhoods
Engzell, P., Frey, A., & Verhagen, M. (2021). Learning loss due to school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 118(17). Available: https://www.pnas.org/content/118/17/e2022376118