My Top Advice for New Leaders? Spend 30 Minutes in Classrooms Every Day

I’m passionate about the power of principals as instructional coaches, and that means I’m passionate about classroom observations.

There’s just no way around it: Classroom observations are the only way to truly know what teaching and learning look like in your school. You can talk to teachers in the lounge, you can sit in on meetings, and you can do professional learning sessions, but until you’re actually watching what’s happening in classrooms, you can’t know exactly what’s going on.

I’ve seen firsthand the transformative power of frequent, brief observations – and the data backs this up. There was a study released by the University of Minnesota and the University of Toronto surfacing qualities of effective school leaders. A key differentiator was the amount of time they spent in classrooms, the regularity of their visits and the consistency of post-observation feedback.

That’s why the No. 1 recommendation I give to principals is to make 10 brief observations every day. To new leaders especially, who acutely feel the overwhelm of the ever-expanding to-do list, the thought of several observations a day can feel daunting. But trust me – it can be done, and done well. Below are my suggestions for keeping them both manageable and meaningful.

  1. Embrace the power of a three-minute walkthrough. 

If it’s not part of your routine already, the idea of spending time in several classrooms every day can sound like a lot, but you can cover a lot of ground over a short period of time. Block out 30 minutes daily and hit the halls. Spend two or three minutes each in 10 classrooms.

In just two or three minutes, you can gather a tremendous amount of information, especially if you’re making repeated visits over time. You’ll start to see trends and patterns – not just in single classrooms, but across your whole school. You’ll gather insights into key leadership questions: What are the things that people are understanding, not understanding, grappling with? Which teachers demonstrate pedagogical skills at really high levels?

  1. Keep your look-fors focused. 

When you walk into a classroom, there’s so much stimulation that it’s hard to focus on everything at once. That’s why it’s so important to identify your areas of priority across your school and to communicate those priorities to your staff.  

Sample focus areas might include the following: Are teachers addressing the learning standard at the right level of complexity for the grade level? Are teachers providing appropriate scaffolding for students? Who is doing the most thinking in the classroom?

As an instructional leader, you are forever a student of good pedagogy. As you grow your own expertise, your list of look-fors can grow with you.

  1. Give brief feedback after every observation.

A key finding of the study referenced above is that observations are only meaningful to teachers when they are accompanied by feedback. Part of your role as a leader is to create a culture in which you can pop into a classroom and then give a teacher feedback without putting the teacher on edge. I always suggest that when leaders begin the practice of frequent observations, whether they are new to a school or perhaps especially if they’ve been at a school for a while and want to introduce this as a new practice, they begin by sharing only messages of appreciation. (Keep an eye out for the next post in this series – I will zero in on how to craft messages of appreciation.)

A message of appreciation points out something that you see happening in the classroom that supports learning and includes the rationale for your appreciation. For example, you’re not just saying, “Good job having an objective on your board,” you’re saying, “I appreciate that you listed the lesson’s learning objective, which research shows can dramatically increase the likelihood that students will reach the outcome for the day.” Your feedback should build on a conversation you’ve already had with staff, so that the teacher receiving the message understands why this choice has a huge impact on kids and their learning. 

In the end, it’s about making sure the people who teach in your school know that you believe in them. They should walk away from every conversation feeling that they are appreciated, that you’ve added value, and that you’re partnering with them to move their thinking and practice forward. 

Learn more with Shelley! You can reach her on Twitter, on the web at leadlikeapirate.net, and over email at [email protected]daveburgessconsulting.com. Plus, check out her book, Lead Like a PIRATE: Make School Amazing for Your Students and Staff.