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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

How Team Walk-Throughs Can Engage Educators in Remote Learning

By Peter DeWitt — October 04, 2020 6 min read
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As we all get a little bit more used to remote learning, for those of us not able to be back fully in person yet, on one of the most memorable World Teachers Day we will ever witness, one of the ways we can start to improve our practices as leaders and teachers is through the walk-through process. I have written a bit about remote walk-throughs, which you can read about here. However, a recent team experience really opened up the possibility of team walk-throughs which can help build a common language and a common understanding around what learning could look like in a remote or hybrid classroom. (It definitely works for in-person situations, too, but it can be a bit intimidating. I’ll get to that later.)

First and foremost, it’s important to say that many teachers around the world still involved in a remote or hybrid experience are doing an extraordinary amount of work preparing for the learning that takes place in the classroom. World Teachers Day is not just about celebrating teachers, it is also about focusing on how they impact learning. They not only have to plan for synchronous and asynchronous lessons, they also have to deal with the fact that some students are not showing up because they are still essential workers in their own families and some students are showing up, but they are ghosting the teacher.

What’s ghosting?

In working with a middle school group of leaders, their teachers began to figure out that some students were signing into their Google classroom account to get the credit, but because they were allowed to keep their screens off (i.e., privacy, bandwidth, etc.), they were leaving the actual room to watch television or play games on their handheld devices. They were not paying attention to their teacher teaching the lesson. Some of the ghosting issue was dealt with by allowing students to keep their screens on, texting parents to make sure that they knew their children were ghosting the teacher, or using Go Guardian so teachers could see that their students were following along on their district-sponsored laptop.

What’s important to remember before we dive into the team walk-through process is that whether we find ourselves in a remote or hybrid situation, the reality is that recent research shows (read a recent OECD/PISA study here) that there is a concern about temporary learning loss and long-term disengagement from school. Teachers and leaders in schools talk often about the concern of learning loss as well. This issue of ghosting certainly contributes to the concern of learning loss and disengagement.

What that means is, regardless of how hard it is to find ways to engage students in learning, we need to keep the energy going. Part of how we do that is to encourage team walk-throughs so different stakeholders in a school can discuss what seems to be working with students in some classrooms and learn from one another when it comes to student engagement and instructional strategies, which can ultimately build collective efficacy in a school.

The Process
A few weeks ago, I worked with groups of middle and high school principals, who I have been working with monthly over several years. Over two days, nine teams of school leaders (principal, assistant principals) ranging from two to five people, were engaged in 90-minute coaching sessions. In our in-person sessions pre-COVID, many of us had engaged in team walk-throughs. Teachers voluntarily allowed us to come into their classroom for 10 minutes at a time so we could calibrate what we see and develop a common language and common understanding together. The challenge was to engage in those same conversations from my home office in upstate New York and the main offices of the leadership teams in schools in central California.

In the first session, it was suggested that the principal share their screen and enter into each teacher’s classroom remotely. Those of us working with the principal muted our screens to make sure that our voices would not be heard in the teacher’s session through the principal’s computer. One of the instant changes I noticed from our in-person walk-throughs is that it was less intimidating to the teacher. Why? The teacher and students only saw the principal enter the remote classroom, which they were already used to, and they did not see the other two to five of us who were seeing their class through the shared screen.

Over the hours I was engaged in the practice of team walk-throughs with different leadership teams, I felt the process evolve. For example, I found we needed to keep the chat box open in the teacher’s classroom so we could see the students interacting with the teacher through our shared principal screen. Remember, that when we enter into virtual classes, we often have to open the chat box because it does not automatically open for us. The chat box in the teacher’s classroom gives us a lot of information when it comes to student engagement and student dialogue.

In one of the 90-minute sessions, I was working with a principal and four assistant principals who lead a 3,000-student high school. The team has a lot of comradery, and I have had the good fortune to get to know them over three years. In the team walk-through sessions with them, we not only shared the screen of the principal, which allowed us a window into the remote teaching classrooms, the principal also made sure the chat box was open and observable in each classroom, and we used our shared chat box as an admin team to discuss what we were seeing. It was a powerful way to spend 90 minutes, and the admin team decided it was something they would continue to do even when I am not present.

The last 90-minute team walk-through session was a little different but equally as powerful. The principal of that high school had been working on a collaborative walk-through document with his teachers, so as our admin team began the team walk-throughs, he tried out the new walk-through document to see if it provided the impact he and his teachers were hoping. He found that he needed to tweak certain sections, but overall, it was going to prove to be an impactful tool to use with teachers.

In the End
As a school principal, I often walked into a meeting and walked out with a better one because I was open to the feedback of the teachers in the building I led. I approach coaching in the same way. I find that we have agreed-upon topics we need to discuss, but how we go about the process is best left up to our group.

What we know is that we are all worried about learning loss, but doing nothing about it won’t change that end result. Remote walk-throughs are one way that leaders can develop a common language and common understanding, get an idea of the successes and challenges of remote and hybrid teaching, and decide on next steps with their teachers. Walk-throughs should not be about judgment, but instead, they should be about learning from one another.

The collaboration between all of us led to the idea of using one screen as opposed to all of us individually entering into a remote classroom, which is intimidating and not very collaborative. It also led us to studying the chat box and looking to see how teachers use it in the classroom. We were able to discuss what I believe are the most important elements of a classroom experience (in person, remote, hybrid), which is the use of learning intentions, success criteria, teacher clarity, a classroom discussion strategy, and examples of synchronous and asynchronous learning.

This COVID educational experience is hard enough that sometimes we have to look at the positives, and it was truly inspiring to watch teachers engage students, as we engage in deeper conversations as an administration team.

Thanks to the admin teams. You know who you are!

For more on walk-throughs, check out this video.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D., is an independent consultant and the author of several books including his newest release Instructional Leadership: Creating Practice Out Of Theory (2020). Connect with him on Twitter or through his YouTube channel. He is the moderator of Education Week’s A Seat At the Table.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

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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.