George Knights

George Knights is director of professional learning communities and K–12 assessment for the Newport-Mesa Unified School District in southern California. He has been a principal, an English teacher, and an activities director.

Classroom Observation Drives Instructional Practices

Moving instructional practices forward at a school site can be a daunting task. Ask any principal, team leader, or department chair how easy it is to motivate colleagues to row in the same direction, even after the whole team agreed upon a particular direction and adequate staff development time was devoted to the initiative. The good news is that many instructional leaders have found a way to drive change without empty threats or nagging monitoring. It is a lot easier than you might think, and there is a boatload of collateral benefit as well.

Dr. Duane Cox, an elementary principal, among others I’ll highlight below, has found the key that unlocks the typical obstacles to change at the school site. How does he do it? After meeting with collaborative teams, he observes teachers in their classrooms as they put the agreed-upon practices into action and celebrates the team via an all-staff email. In this case, he is reinforcing a major schoolwide and districtwide focus of coherency of curriculum and collaborative teamwork.

Subject: Highlights from Collaboration Meetings

Dear Staff: I had the opportunity to visit collaboration meetings this morning.  Here are some highlights:

The sixth-grade team discussed their curriculum map for Envision and discussed how the plan takes into consideration the essential standards and the CST testing window.  The team was engaged in discussion about Envision and how to best use the new resources.  Through this work, the team is guaranteeing a curriculum for all sixth-grade students in any of the four classrooms… Our values of collaboration, data-driven instruction, and tiered instruction are all exemplified in this work.

(Portion of email from dcox on 9-27-2011)

Dr. Cox took the additional 10 minutes to draft his experience, very specifically and intentionally, into an all-staff email. The end effect is that it creates clarity, reinforces the collective agreement, defines more deeply the expectation, and creates a moment of celebration. Despite humble objections otherwise, everyone likes to see their name in print! The old adage “People value what you monitor” certainly holds true in this case as well.

Once a critical mass of clarity and leadership focus has been achieved, the leader brings in the big bats…data. However, there is a compelling difference. This data isn’t individual teacher data; rather, it asks the question, “How well is the group doing relative to the collectively designed and agreed-upon goal?” And again, the leader puts the data, as simple as it may be, into a short email and fires it off to the entire staff. Dr. Mike Schmoker, a major proponent of this type of classroom observations, sees these tours as critical. “They should be conducted by at least two people who then report on all-school patterns of growth or need for improvement. I am less enthused about walkthroughs as a primary way to provide individual teachers with feedback that they aren’t always ready to accept” (Schmoker. FOCUS. EndNotes. 2011). Dr. Schmoker is adamant about including the collective data piece as demonstrated below by Dr. Bauermeister, a high school principal, whose data reflects an instructional design goal:

“Dear Team: Our goal this year is to focus in on two areas (Clear Objectives and Check for Understanding) of Hunter’s model of lesson delivery. As I went out and visited classrooms 92% of the classrooms I visited had the current standard posted. Only 39% listed the objective being taught in the lesson. Maybe they were there and I just didn’t see them. If you could have the objective and standards being taught written in the upper left-hand corner of your white board, it would be a lot easier for me to find.

Below is listed Hunter’s model of objectives - What, specifically, should the student be able to do, understand, and care about as a result of the teaching. Keep up the good work.”

(Portion of an email from kbauermeister on 10/18/2011)

Here he sets a baseline using collected data and clarifies what he wants to see the next time he visits the classroom. No nagging. No prodding. No memo of understanding. In fact, he ends with an encouragement. A common tenet of a professional learning community is the desire to continuously improve, and it can’t hurt for a little group motivation to fire up the collective teacher’s desire to achieve on any metric.

Armed with the camera on her iPhone, middle school principal Jennifer Smalley brilliantly captures her walkthrough in this email to the entire staff.

Subject: Re: Way to Go Jane!

(Portion of an email from jsmalley on 9/28/2011)

After a week or two of these emails to a variety of staff members, Mrs. Smalley sent this email:

Subject: Walkthrough Data Friday 10/14/11

Hi Falcon Staff,
I collected data on two of our four walkthrough objectives today. Here is how we did…
75% of the Falcon Staff had an agenda posted
75% of the Falcon Staff had an objective posted
32 classrooms were observed*
I really am proud of how well everyone is integrating the walkthrough objectives.  Telling students what they will be doing and what they are expected to learn is essential for all learners. If you need help with writing an agenda/objective or need clarification on the reasoning behind it, feel free to come by and we can work together on it.

(Portion of an email from jsmalley sent on 10/14/2011)

There is added value to this method of walkthrough observation. Dr. DuFour and Dr. Marzano, in their current book, Leaders of Learning (2011), adapted Marzano and Waters’ earlier list of 21 principal responsibilities into 19 high-leverage leader responsibilities that directly applied to a school’s collaborative efforts. Of those 19 behaviors, this simple method of walkthrough observation encompasses approximately 13 of them. Whether the leader is a principal, coach, department chair, or grade-level lead, she is seen as an instructional leader. She is seen as “in the classroom” where the learning is happening. She is seen as “one of us” and supportive to her staff. She is seen as positive, encouraging, and celebratory. I am hard-pressed to find a more simple, quick, and effective strategy to drive the change we long for in our schools.



I appreciated this article for a couple of reasons. Our early childhood team has been delving in to updating our curriculum for the past couple of years and are now ready to take it to the next level. I like the examples of the principal also giving his staff "targets" for which to aim at, as well as the how teachers were working toward letting their students know what "targets" they were looking for. We have our scope and sequence and common assessments in place, now we need to move toward using the data collected via anecdotal notes and formative assessments to drive our instruction and we need to plan for letting the students, and at the preschool level, the parents know what our goals are for each student - not only via their 2x/year progress reports but also in an ongoing way. Plus working in preschool, I greatly appreciated the photo - at this age and stage we are such visual learners! :) As I strive to be a better teacher leader and we move to an early childhood center where I will be co-director, the methods that the principals in the blog used to postively communicate with their staff was helpful!

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George Knights

Dear wader,

Thanks for the response. This type of strategy is not intended to do anything but drive our collective instructional practice one celebration at a time. It also contains school wide snapshot data of the same practice but does not point out any individual in the collective data. They know who they are when they read the all staff email. Hopefully it motivates them as well as clarifies what the expectation is by the principal or leadership. The walkthroughs are not intended to be comprehensive; rather, very quick where the observer is looking for one thing and reporting back to the entire school. Dr. Schmoker promotes this type of walkthrough at every workshop I've seen him at and insists that it will dramatically improve implementation of any research based instructional practice.


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In reading this I appreciate as a teacher, how the principal sent out examples of what they were looking for. Often with our walk thru data the message of expectation is lost in the paperwork. I not only think it is important to get feedback from the administrators in the building, but also from other teachers throughout the school. In my district they allow us to visit teacher approved classrooms. This is not only a great exercise for the teacher being observed but also for the teachers observing. First and foremost, the observation must be done under the guidance of a facilitator who is trained in classroom observations. If an observation is done incorrectly it can shut a teacher down, so it must be carefully crafted to build a teacher up even when adjustments in the classroom are needed. If peer observation is done correctly, it can give the teacher feedback that can empower them in their classroom, as well as a model for the teachers who are observing them. Being a part of these practices in my own district, has enhanced student learning in my classroom by giving me strategies that work, but also opens a pathway of communication between myself and other teachers throughout the building.

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