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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