In March, when COVID-19 entered rapidly into our lives and schools began to close for what educators thought would be a week, and then a month, and then the rest of the school year, I passed some time scrolling through educator pages on Facebook. I remember one teacher posted that she was supposed to be observed the following week and was hoping her principal would change their mind.
Clearly, during that time of pandemic teaching and learning, where everyone was scrambling to find activities and offer review assignments to students, a formal observation was not necessary. In fact, it would have been downright cruel to do one. But...what about learning walks?
Hear me out before you stop reading and start tweeting at me.
As we know, learning walks are sometimes controversial. The reason they are controversial is that leaders do not always engage in dialogue with teachers around the topic of why learning walks are completed in the first place. Sometimes that is due to the fact that leaders do not know why they are doing learning walks in the first place.
That is not meant as mean-spirited.
In fact, it’s meant to convey that many leaders feel pressure to do learning walks because central office tells them they have to complete 10 a day, and leaders are rushed for time with so many tasks, that they rush through learning walks to get them done. What’s worse is they are often told to provide feedback to those teachers, and they leave feedback to teachers that ends up backfiring on them.
I happen to like learning walks. I know, my liking them isn’t enough to change minds.
Selfishly, I enjoy walking into classrooms to watch learning take place. The conversations we can engage in with students as they are learning provide us with reciprocal learning during those learning walks. That’s a sentence with a lot of learning! Seriously though, I find value in learning walks because they help provide me with a sense of the school climate and culture. I can tell as soon as I walk into a room for a learning walk with a principal whether that principal consistently does learning walks or not. I can tell when there is positive rapport among the leader and students.
As a school principal, I had what we called my “Morning Rounds.” I went into each classroom to say good morning to the students. Mostly it was to build community and let students and teachers know I was close by, but it was also to let students and teachers know I was close by...visibility is key. However, those were not learning walks.
When I made an effort every day...or nearly every day...to go into rooms and sit down with students to ask them what they were learning. When I saw strategies students were using that they learned from their teachers, I would then have the opportunity to have deeper conversations with teachers that let them know I was interested and engaged. Those were learning walks. Teachers and students knew why I was there, and I knew why I was there too!
Seriously, During COVID, Though?
So why now? Why should we explore the idea of learning walks or walk-throughs during a time of COVID when teachers and students are nervous, and everyone seems to be on edge? Do learning walks look different in a remote experience rather than an in-person experience where students are supposed to practice social distancing?
The reality is that whatever the situation teachers and leaders find themselves in as the new school year begins, learning walks are a valuable instructional leadership action to take. Now more than ever, they can be used to build more community within a school or virtually at a time when that sense of community is very much needed.
To me, there are three main reasons why leaders, with the help and guidance of their teachers, need to explore engaging in learning walks. As I always note when I am compiling a list, there are other reasons these things may be important, too, but these are the three that I believe are most important. If readers have something to add, please feel free to use the comment box below.
The three reasons I believe learning walks are important are:
SEL/Building relationships - COVID-19, pandemic teaching and learning, social distancing, and the threat of another outbreak have caused trauma and mental-health issues among students and teachers (click here for some outstanding resources offered by the Sacramento County Office of Education). Learning walks and being present for synchronous remote learning classes, as well as in-person classes, is a great way for teachers and students to see that their leaders are there to support them. The default action for leaders is to stay away from remote or in-person classes so they do not get in the way. Through surveys I have conducted over the last three months, I’ve found that nothing is further from the truth. Teachers and students want and need to see their leader, so they understand we are all in this together.
Focus on learning - Leaders cannot fully understand what they cannot see. And if those leaders do not fully understand, then they cannot effectively engage in dialogue that focuses on what effective remote and in-person learning looks like right now. The reality is that all spring students were not always engaged in learning, and many students were not showing up for remote learning (Read here about why students didn’t show up).
Learning walks help maintain a focus on Learning. So much of the dialogue around student learning is that students are going to be so far behind in the fall...or that learning needs to look different in the fall...or that we need to discuss what we learned from the spring and take it into the fall. Engaging in learning walks will better prepare principals to have remote faculty meetings in which they can talk about what learning looks like, what strategies are working best to engage students (read the student responses here), and how to move forward together.
Maslow and Bloom - This is a bit of a combination of the other two, but there is a method for my madness here. In the spring, there was a popular statement on social media. The statement was “Maslow before Bloom.” As the months went on, I made a comment in a previous blog that we need to focus on Maslow and Bloom. I then heard from someone on social media that I didn’t understand social-emotional learning. I taught elementary school for 11 years and was an elementary school principal for eight years. All of the writing that I do and the research I conduct focuses on social-emotional learning. What people actually may not know is that Benjamin Bloom, a person who gave us the term “formative assessment,” actually believed (and found during research) that when teachers established relationships with students, understood how they best learned (using formative assessment), those teachers offered more impactful learning environments. Remembering Maslow and Bloom might be a great way for leaders and teachers to find balance during a very unbalanced time.
In the End
There is no doubt that these are the most complicated times we have all lived through. Educators will tell you that they feel a lack of control, which most of us never enjoy, and that they feel like there is no one clear-cut answer for the fall that everyone will agree upon. Regardless of the options for schools in the fall, learning walks should be a part of them.
Watch below for a video focusing on 5 steps to a more collaborative walkthrough.
Peter DeWitt, Ed.D., is the author of several books including his newest release Instructional Leadership: Creating Practice Out Of Theory (Corwin Press. 2020). Connect with him on Twitter or through his YouTube channel.
Photo courtesy of Getty Images.
The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.