When we talk about visiting a classroom, it can be for a variety of purposes. Administrative visits to classrooms can range from short “check-ins” to see how teachers are doing that morning to formal evaluation observations lasting from thirty minutes to an hour.
The majority of administrators believe that ensuring quality instruction in classrooms is important (Johnson, 2008). To monitor instruction, administrators must turn classroom visits into an opportunity to evaluate the effectiveness of the instruction and provide feedback to teachers to improve instruction. There are several types of evaluation visits that administrators can implement. Some of these may even be required as part of a state’s teacher evaluation process.
An administrator is completing a formal observation when the results are used as part of an evaluative process. States require that teachers are evaluated formally, and most evaluation systems include observations. For example, in Georgia, teachers are evaluated with the Teacher Keys Evaluation System, which requires a minimum of 6 observations for new teachers or teachers reentering the field and a minimum of 2 observations for veteran teachers (Georgia Department of Education (GADOE), 2019).
During a formal observation, administrators are often using a rubric or checklist to document specific aspects of instruction. Georgia’s system requires administrators to document teacher performance on 10 standards. With a formal observation, there are requirements for how long the administrator must stay, what the administrator is required to document, and how long the administrator has before feedback must be given to the teacher.
Formal observations serve the purpose of evaluating the instruction provided by teachers, and best practice would be for administrators to also use formal observations as an opportunity to provide feedback and coaching to teachers based on the results.
Administrators complete informal observations of classrooms throughout the year, and these are the “just visiting” types of observation visits. While informal observations are less stressful for teachers (and administrators, too), these types of classroom visits can provide a wealth of data for administrators as they think about instructional needs for a grade level or even for the entire school.
The National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) recommends “mini-observations” and outlines five benefits of short, informal visits for principals: building rapport with teachers, embedded reflection on professional practice, data to plan professional learning, identification of teacher leaders, and low stress (NAESP, 2014). When administrators visit classrooms routinely, they have a “pulse” on the instruction that is occurring. This can help them identify teachers who need more support and teachers who are ready to support others. This type of routine focus on the classroom also helps administrators to engage in conversations around professional practice in organic ways as they talk with teachers. Finally, mini-observations can support an administrator who is wondering what type of professional learning and support teachers might need to take the next step with instruction.
Unlike formal observations, informal observations come with few, if any, requirements. Thus, it is important for administrators to consider the purpose of their visits for the day, the week, or even the semester. Administrative teams should plan together, along with teacher leadership teams, and discuss specific things to look for in classrooms. This will help administrators to have some focus and ensure that even informal observations lead to productive conversations and next steps.
Walkthroughs, which are typically defined as shorter observations in a classroom, can be formal or informal. For example, the Teacher Keys Effectiveness System in Georgia requires “walkthroughs” that are no less than 10 minutes in length and that focus on specific evaluation standards (GADOE, 2019). Yet, administrators often conduct walkthroughs that are informal classroom visits.
Walkthroughs are often more easy to accomplish than lengthy classroom visits, and many administrators will tell you that they can often get a sense of what is going well and what needs work within the first few minutes of a classroom visit. As with more lengthy visits, though, it is important for administrators to consider the purpose for the walkthrough and what they hope to accomplish. In fact, with a walkthrough, it may be more critical to think about the purpose of the visit because the time is short. What are we hoping to accomplish in the 5 to 10 minutes that we are in the classroom? Are we looking for technology? Positive learning environment? Use of a new strategy learned in a recent professional learning session?
Walkthroughs, because they are much easier to schedule and complete, have become a staple in the administrator’s observation toolkit. Whether they are done as part of a formal process or more informal visits, walkthroughs can help administrators evaluate instruction in a time efficient manner.
What is interesting about classroom visits—formal or informal, lengthy or walkthroughs—is that research has shown them to have both positive and negative effects. (Strauss, 2014). Perhaps this has to do with how teachers view the administrator or how the administrator uses the results of classroom observation. However, one thing is clear in the research. There are positive effects when principals provide feedback and coaching to teachers—either after a walkthrough or in professional learning meetings. So, as you set up an observation schedule, considering the balance between formal and informal, lengthy and short is only one part of the puzzle. If the goal of observation and evaluation is to improve instruction and outcomes for students, administrators should ensure that there is a feedback loop for teachers in any observation process.
Georgia Department of Education. (2019). Teacher keys effectiveness system. Available at: https://www.gadoe.org/School-Improvement/Teacher-and-Leader-Effectiveness/Pages/Teacher-Keys-Effectiveness-System.aspx
Johnson, J. (2008). The principal’s priority 1. Educational Leadership Online, 66(1). Available at: http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/sept08/vol66/num01/The-Principal’s-Priority-1.aspx
National Association of Elementary School Principals. (2014). 5 benefits of mini-observations. Communicator, 37(9). Available at: https://www.naesp.org/communicator-may-2014/5-benefits-mini-observations
Strauss, V. (2014). Should principals stop visiting classrooms. The Washington Post. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2014/01/08/should-principals-stop-visiting-classrooms/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.f4981f2adabd