Connecting Instructional Walks with Teacher Frameworks

For the last five years as an elementary school principal, I have explored the best approach to providing feedback and supervision for our faculty. I had initially created an instructional walkthrough form that allowed me to provide a narrative-based observation about instruction as well as being able to monitor where instruction was at with regard to the gradual release of responsibility. Click here for that post that describes this process.

I have discovered a better approach to staff supervision and feedback: Instructional Walks, highlighted in Regie Routman’s book Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Literacy Success. Actually, this approach has been sitting in front of me for four years now. Regie and her team promoted this more authentic practice for principals back in 2012 at her Literacy and Leadership Institute in Madison, WI.

Better late than never! I don’t know why educators like me have to always “make it their own”. Maybe just part of being a professional. I have discovered several advantages to taking a completely narrative-based approach to faculty supervision:

  • The visits are completely unannounced and can happen at any time. I don’t have to ask permission. However, this system was developed with my teachers, with the understanding that I lead like a coach, offering praise and feedback and treating each visit as one small observation among many throughout the school year. Trust and relationships were developed before this process started.
  • The lens in which I view instruction is connected directly to our school’s goals. This year, we are focused on increasing literacy engagement. We developed tenets of engagement by doing an article study early in the year. These attributes become the key words in which I “tag” each walk within a teacher’s digital portfolio via Evernote. They also receive a paper copy of my notes, which I write by hand.
  • For the first time as a principal, I have been able to experience instruction instead of monitoring and scoring it. I feel like I have a much better understanding of each teacher’s instructional approach and how our students are progressing as learners. From what I can gather, teachers also appreciate this different approach. As one teacher told me in the lounge, “I get more out of your one page of observational notes than from our old evaluation system.”

All affirming feedback for this process. However, the one challenge I have found in using instructional walks as the primary form for teacher supervision and evaluation is aligning my observations with the Danielson Framework for Teaching. Using software such as Teachscape allows the principal to tag each artifact by the appropriate component and score it based on the framework with ease. Instructional walks are, like good teaching, a complex activity. This makes the assessment part of teacher supervision complex as well.

To help our faculty categorize my observations and evidence from my instructional walks notes, I created a short screencast that describes how teachers can tag each artifact. I thought you might also find it helpful, especially if you are taking a more authentic and respectful approach to teacher supervision.

(Re)Defining Student Engagement

“The best evidence for student engagement is what students are saying and doing as a consequence of what the teacher does, or has done, or has planned.” – Charlotte Danielson

This past week I conducted instructional walks in ten different classrooms. Using only paper and pen, I wrote observations describing ten distinct teaching styles. These initial visits have confirmed what I have known for several years of experience as a school principal and teacher evaluator: Engagement in learning happens most frequently and deeply when students are actively involved in instruction.

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photo credit: IMG_6414 via photopin (license)

Engagement (student involvement in instruction) can be described in a variety of ways. I think too often engagement is exclusively predefined by educators as “hands on”, “students doing more talking than the teacher”, or “active”. These descriptors may all be key indicators of engagement. But the definition should not stop there.

For example, I was the fortunate observer of a math lesson that would seem to run counter to this pattern, at least at first glance. The learning target: Demonstrate multiple ways to solve multiple digit addition problems. The teacher, who already modeled a few problems by working through them in front of students on the document camera, asked if there were three students willing to show their peers one of three ways to solve a given problem. Several hands shot up. Once selected, the three volunteers headed to the board.

The rest of the class was directed to also try one of the three methods at their desks. As some students completed the problem before others, the teacher, who was roaming around the room doing spot checks and providing quick feedback, announced, “If you solved it one way, why not try it another way?” Every student who was ready took her up on the challenge. This option gave other students more time to work.

Once the students at the front of the room were done with their work, they went back to their desks. Their faces beamed with pride. The teacher went over the process with the whole group: “Yes, you regrouped here…the place value alignments are accurate…” The teacher also asked the rest of the class to show their work on their dry erase boards with their partner sitting next to them. “Did your method work just as well as your partner’s? Talk about that.” They did.

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photo credit: UF Keene-Flint Classroom Desks Windows via photopin (license)

We in education talk so much about engagement in concert with terms like “collaboration”, “technology”, and “passion”. Is this where the best learning takes place? Sometimes, maybe even often, but certainly not always. For example, I can have passion about something, but if I don’t put the necessary time, thought, and energy into developing the skills and understandings related to it, then it is merely a hobby and possibly not worth knowing well. One passion of mine is writing. If I didn’t sit down and “do the work”, I’d have nothing but half-developed ideas floating around in my mind.

It’s important that we take the concept of engagement and rethink its meaning, as it has been defined within the context of today’s classroom. Consider:

  • If students had been left to their own devices and allowed to work in loose groups, what guarantee would the teacher have that everyone was developing a better understanding while this collaboration was happening?
  • Speaking of devices, kids could certainly have seen some worked problems online prior to class, and then provided more time during class for the teacher to work with students who needed the support. But could we be assured that every student watched the recorded instruction actively and without distraction?
  • As a former middle level mathematics teacher myself, I know how challenging it can be to instill a sense of passion for the subject. By including the students in the instructional responsibilities, everyone had a stake in the process and the outcomes. Passion is then connected with purpose and community.

I call on all school leaders, myself included, to put aside our biases and misconceptions regarding student engagement, as we engage in our own learning experiences during our frequent visits to classrooms. When classrooms that are set up in rows of desks are described as “tombstones”, we make unfair generalizations of a teacher’s abilities to educate their students. When we document the lack of technology integration in a lesson that has no need for it, we show our bias toward a maximalist approach to digital learning. When we find a quiet classroom, it may be inaccurate to assume that learning isn’t occurring. Let our student actions and dispositions guide our professional assessments.