Walking the Walk: Monitoring Instruction with Classroom Walkthroughs

Samantha James

Samantha James

October 1, 2019
Day in and day out, school leaders are responsible for an overwhelming number of tasks. Planning the schedule, running assemblies, responding to medical emergencies, student discipline, staff evaluation, community outreach . . . the list goes on. However, research has repeatedly pointed to the importance of the principal as an instructional leader in the school (Cotton, 2003). In the midst of all of the administrative tasks on his or her plate, the principal cannot lose sight of the critical task of monitoring curriculum and instruction in the school.

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Many principals understand the importance of instructional leadership, and if you ask them, they set goals for classroom visits and walkthroughs each year.  Maybe they plan to visit five classrooms each day, or ten classrooms each week.  In smaller schools, principals may even have a goal of informally stopping in to each classroom each day.  On the planned “to do list,” monitoring instruction with walkthroughs is a high priority.  However, when the reality of the school day sets in, other administrative duties often take priority in the moment.  The angry parent, the leaky roof, the phone call from the superintendent . . . Before long, the day has gotten away, and the principal has not set foot in a classroom. 

If monitoring instruction truly is the priority that leaders espouse it to be, we have to do a better job. We have to go beyond talking the talk to actually walking the walk(through).  While it is easy to say that we just have to “make the time” or “prioritize,” our time is often at the mercy of the unexpected.  However, a little organization and planning can go a long way toward ensuring that we have some level of protected time to monitoring instruction with classroom walkthroughs. 

Set a Goal

Having students set goals is a highly effective instructional practice (Hattie, 2008), but this is no less true for setting goals for ourselves as leaders.  If we want to ensure that we monitor instruction with walkthroughs, we need to set a goal that is SMART—specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely.  It’s not enough to just say that walkthroughs will happen.  When will they happen?  How often and how many per day or week?  For what purpose will these walkthroughs happen?  Are you looking for something specific when you are monitoring instruction?  Here is an example of a SMART goal related to walkthroughs. 

I will conduct at least 12 walkthroughs each week, 2 per grade level K-5, for the purpose of monitoring student engagement and time on task as part of the instructional activity. 

When the goal is this specific, it is easier to devote the time.  Notice, the goal is not written to do a specific number each day, and 12—across a week—is a reasonably attainable number, even if emergencies come up that present the leader from conducting walkthroughs.  The goal can also be monitored mid-week—if 6 to 8 walkthroughs are not completed by Wednesday, then the leader knows that more time is needed on Thursday or Friday. 

Attempt to Protect Time

This one is easier said than done because of the many situations that arise each day that need the principal’s attention.  However, with a little planning, leaders can do a better job of protecting some time during the day.  For example, office staff can be informed that a specific block of time is devoted to walkthroughs each day, and that you are not available unless there is an emergency. They can take a message or let parents or even the superintendent know when you will be available again.  It might help to also designate times when you are available specifically for parents or to speak with office staff or other administrators about administrative issues.  For example, scheduling a weekly meeting with your bookkeeper to discuss any financial issues allows her to hold any questions or issues (non-emergency) until a designated time.  Scheduling a weekly or bi-weekly check-in with other administrators does the same—allows everyone to keep a list of items that need to be discussed but that can wait until the designated time.  

Another way that principals can ensure that they have protected time to truly be the instructional leader in the school by monitoring instruction is to use the assistant principal(s).  Assistant principals often get stuck in the rut of student discipline, testing, or attendance.  However, assistant principals, for the post part, are hoping to learn through experience and become principals.  The principal can designate times when he or she will be in classrooms, and let everyone know that during these times, the assistant principal is in charge.  Any issues that arise can go to the assistant, and he or she can handle the situation or make a determination to get the principal if necessary.  This requires trust on the part of the principal, and perhaps a little practice delegating.  But, it goes a long way toward ensuring that the principal is able to complete walkthroughs and observations uninterrupted. 

Put on Your Walking Shoes

It might be a statement of the obvious, but our wardrobe choices can play a huge part in whether or not we get out of our chair and actually visit classrooms.  Take stock.  If your “principal shoes” are uncomfortable and made more for a quick fashion walk than a walk through the building, a change might be in order. Also, if your business suit causes you to stand out unnecessarily in a classroom when you would rather blend in and for instruction to go on “as if you aren’t there,” think about that change as well.

When kids are learning and engaged in school, a classroom can be an active place—groups on the floor, desks pushed together in many formations, movement, talking . . . Are you dressed to be a part of this environment or are you dressed to be an outsider looking in?  It can make all the difference in how comfortable the teacher and the kids feel, but it can also affect how comfortable you are.  

So, if you set a goal to do walkthroughs and you plan to be moving throughout the building each day, dress for success!  Put on comfortable shoes.  Take your jacket off and roll up your sleeves.  Plan to sit and interact with the kids as they learn—whether that’s in a desk or on the floor.  You can always keep those fashionable shoes and that coat and tie in your office for when they are needed.  But, if you are walking the walk, they aren’t needed. 

School leaders know the importance of monitoring instruction and being true instructional leaders in the building.  The administrative tasks often overwhelm us, but we need to be walking the walk(through) to monitor instruction.  Setting realistic goals for walkthroughs, attempting to protect time to conduct them, and dressing for the task are simple things that leaders can to go beyond talking to walking. 

Cotton, K. (2003). Principals and student achievement: What the research says. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD).

Hattie, J. (2008).  Visible learning. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.