A Letter to Principals Regarding Walkthroughs

Dear Principal,

A couple of days ago you did a round of walkthroughs. You popped into five different teachers’ rooms for about five minutes each. I know this because at lunch later that day, we teachers talked about it. We have a request.

Please ask us why.

We would prefer these walkthroughs not happen at all than continue as they have. Even though I’m sure you tell yourself that you’re doing them to stay informed and to be in a position to help should you notice any problems, they’re nonetheless evaluative. How could they not be? Most of us remember our undergrad experience where we visited actual teachers’ classrooms. While the purported purpose of such visits was to learn from a professional, we spent most of the discussion afterward picking apart the teacher’s decisions.  We judged. It’s what people do.

It’s not the judging we have a problem with. We expect to be evaluated. The real problem with walkthroughs is that they don’t happen often enough.

It’s human nature to focus on the negative. We get that. We also get that you’re going to find something to criticize. When I conference with my best writer I’m going to highlight some area where she can improve, even though she’s heads and shoulders above her classmates. That’s my job, after all, to help all students get better. Same as yours with respect to your teachers.  Constructive criticism isn’t the problem. We can live with that.

What’s harder to stomach are the assumptions you make. You have an impossible job, often made more impossible by your bosses. You’re pulled in a hundred directions and you just can’t get into classrooms as often as you’d like. We get that, too. But it matters.

Because the infrequency with which you visit our rooms leads to a lack of context. And that lack of context causes you to make assumptions, which are often wrong, but which may be reflected in our evaluations anyway.

During your five minutes, you noticed that Sarah had her head down while I was teaching and that I did nothing about it. You saw Patel go to the bathroom without asking, just as I got to the critical part of my lecture. Joseph sits by himself at the front of the room and that didn’t sit right with you.

So ask me why. Ask me why because you don’t know. 

You don’t know what happened five minutes, or five hours, or five days, or five weeks, or five months before you walked in my room.

You don’t know that Sarah complained all morning about not feeling well and that she only got three hours of sleep because of her new baby sister. You don’t know that the reason she’s not engaged is because her body won’t allow her to be and that the reason she has her head down is that five minutes before you walked in I told her to put her head down.

You don’t know that Patel’s mom emailed me at the start of the week to tell me that Dad’s about to come home from prison after three years and that Patel’s anxiety over the change has manifested as a nervous bladder. You don’t know that Patel and I have a deal to prevent a mortifying accident for which he’ll be remembered the rest of his life: don’t ask, just go.

You don’t know that I’ve tried everything with Joseph for the past five months, but the kid just can’t sit near anyone with bothering them all day. You also don’t know that his seating location is a sign of tremendous progress. Because Joseph finally acknowledged his problem and asked to sit by himself so he could focus better. He’s not separated from his classmates because I gave up on him or I’m trying to shame him. He sits there because he wants to sit there.

You don’t know these things because you lack context for what you’re observing. That’s not your fault. But it is your fault if you don’t ask me why.

Why didn’t you tell Sarah to sit up?

Why did Patel leave the room without asking?

Why does Joseph sit by himself?

It’s a simple word that invites teachers to provide you with the context you lack.

Because if you don’t ask why, many of your teachers won’t tell you. They don’t want to rock the boat. They don’t want to come off as whiners. They don’t want to be the difficult one because the difficult ones get let go when districts cinch their belts and principals vote teachers off the island.

By not asking your teachers why, you put them in a difficult position. They can keep their mouths shut and risk having your ill-informed observations affect their evaluations and your opinion of them moving forward, or they can try to explain. But whenever people initiate explanations for their choices they come across as defensive, which others perceive as tacit admissions of error.

So, principals, do your walkthroughs if you must. Do them more frequently if you can. Don’t tell us they’re not evaluative because they are. And please stop assuming you understand the choices we’re making in the five minutes you’re judging us.

Ask us to tell you why. 





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14 Replies to “A Letter to Principals Regarding Walkthroughs”

  1. This is spot on! I had a situation where an administrator and friend came into my room and went through all of my graded papers on my desk. They picked out a few and left after about 10 minutes. The next day I was called into the office and was put on an instructional plan of improvement for “PADDING GRADES”. This was a classwork grade. I could not get a word in when trying to explain that I individualize my classwork grades. The papers they decided to take were of 2 Special Education students and 1 very low performing student. As teachers, you probably know how I graded them differently from others. One student had completed only 1 of 4 questions. I gave that student a 70 because of effort and the rubric, they all failed to ask about and I could not get in, said 50% research, 50% quality of answer. This was explained to students before assignment. The administrators simply told me that that student should have received no less than a 25% and that they never graded papers this way when they were teachers, more than 10+ years ago! Yep, so I agree totally with your article!! Question, pause, and let the person answer, WHY!!! Thanks for this article and have a blessed day!

  2. Really and truly the why? Doesn’t matter either. As a professional, my whys are a part of my job. Trust me to be doing my job. When you question those things in my classroom there is always a why. Instead…..support me in my duties. If you ask why follow up and explain how you as the principal can help. Professionalism goes both ways.

  3. this is why coaching and feedback is a thing now…b/c for too many years, there was not a follow-up conversation. I’d hope we, as administrators, are learning to improve as much as we expect teachers to.
    Just my 2 cents.

  4. I have been sad for years because a “coach” walked through my room (the only time she came all year) and screamed at a K student that was under his desk. She told others that I did not have classroom control but never discussed it with me. What she did not know is that his father and I had worked with him to set a behavioral goal which he reached. Coaches are supposed to provide assistance if needed. I would have loved to discuss it with her.

  5. This is so on point. Thank you! It’s not just the principal, but the dept. chair who breezes in for an informal “observation” a la Danielson, too. I will ask her to ask me “why” from now on.

  6. When I did walk-through I looked for the good things, dropped a note in the teacher’s box on the positives, asked them to drop by when they had a chance , talked and move on. Principals have the hardest job in the district (especially HS) Rarely someone comes in to the principal’s to compliment. Have you?

    1. I have! And I agree (well, with the possible exception of bus drivers and school secretaries, who also have hard jobs and crap pay). I usually tell my principal there is no way I could do his job, and I sure as hell don’t want to. You do have a hard job, made much harder by the things I mentioned in the article. But asking why isn’t hard.

  7. I’m curious. As a retired principal, why is it the principal’s job to ask why? Seriously, everyone is busy so why is it her or his job to initiate conversations? When was the last time you stopped by to chat? And don’t you do a kind of walk-in every time you see the principal’s interaction with students, parents, teachers? Did you ask why? And if s/he discusses it with you, there’s generally an opportunity for you to talk….you are complaining that snap judgements have been made but aren’t you making a snap judgement about your principal and his or her ability to listen to you? This is about trust-level so how much do you trust your principal?

    1. You’re ignoring the power dynamic. Asking my boss why he or she did something can be considered impudent instead of merely curious. And it’s the principal’s job to ask why because she is evaluating the teacher and should base those evaluations on the facts, as much as possible. The same is not true for teachers.

  8. So, so much goes on in our classroom it is impossible to gain a perspective when you have not experienced all that we have in our classroom. The challenges are real, the evaluations are a tool that prove nothing. If we could do a walk through on you , actually be evaluated by those few minutes of “insight” it might be a learning experience for all.

  9. I had a HAREM of DO people come into my room (for less than two minutes) my second year of teaching. They asked a student who had been transferred to my class THAT MORNING what we were doing; the student said he wasn’t sure. And why would he be. It was a Monday, and we talk about what we did over the weekend as the warm up. I was told that my students (based on that one kid) didn’t know what we were doing, my teaching was ineffective (these students received the 2nd highest test scores of ALL students in a high school only district that spring….as Freshmen-and I never taught to the test), and the students weren’t engaged/didn’t like my class (these same kids voted me Teacher of The Year that year). While the admin and DO didn’t “like” me, I was tenured. They had to. It got bad enough to leave years later but I fondly remember the feeling of “F you”.

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