Building a System for Effective and Purposeful Classroom Visits Part 1: Clarity of Purpose

Few would argue with the importance or value of the instructional leader spending time in classrooms.  You might be facing barriers or making excuses for why you aren’t getting in there, but very few would say that getting in classrooms isn’t important. But if your classroom visits lack clarity, purpose, or you don’t have an intentional plan that balances the most important purposes for getting in classrooms, you won’t be effective in improving the quality of instruction–you will be wasting time. 

So let’s think about the main purposes for going into classrooms…

If I were to classify the most important purposes why I went into classrooms they would fall under these 3 categories:

To Create Connections

To Advance my School Community’s Shared Vision

To Collect Data

If you are clear on your whys and you make sure you have a system for balancing those purposes, you will be less likely to default to one purpose for getting in classrooms that you find most comfortable and end up leaving out the other purposes.  You will also be more fully present in classrooms and use your classroom visits to move your school forward. 

Creating Connections:  These are your positive or neutral classroom visits you do to learn your students, your staff, to create relationships.  You do these to fill the buckets of students and staff with positives related to seeing you in the classroom. 

When it comes to visits for creating connections QUANTITY TRUMPS QUALITY.  You are going in to show that you care about the students and teachers as human beings.  Some people are great at doing these visits.  They are the default.  They go in classrooms all the time and just sit by students and be fully present.

I am not sure what this says about me, but I wasn’t like that at first.  I felt like whenever I was in the classroom I needed to notice something really great instructionally, be in there for 15 minutes and use some kind of walkthrough instrument, or I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to do.  Having that mentality ended up being a barrier to me getting into many classrooms.  For example, I might finish with something and have 30 minutes before a meeting. So I would either think, “I don’t have time to do any walkthroughs.” Or, I might head down the hallway, get stopped by a person or situation and then I really wouldn’t have time to get one in. Well, if all your visits take 15-20 minutes, you can see how this would happen.

For me, just knowing that these types of visits are important and that they SHOULDN’T take long was a key mind-shift for me. So, I made it a habit and a priority to get into at least 3 classrooms just for a couple of minutes every day…then I set a goal for every hour…

Advancing Your School Community’s Shared Vision: These visits are the ones where you are going in classrooms and taking pictures of the awesome things that kids are doing.  Now, when you are using these to be intentional, you look for evidence of whatever initiative you are working on.  Then you brag about how awesome the teacher was in your weekly email.  We all have those, right?  Some form of weekly communication with your teachers?  I had a blog that I made on Blogger that housed all my staff info. Every week I would drop pictures in that blog to show great stuff going on connected to my school goals or vision and then send an email to staff linked to it.

Collect Data – Walkthroughs –The best mental shift I made was to see walkthroughs as a separate event from the other 2 classroom visits with 2 main purposes related to collecting data:

  1. For coaching conversations, meaningful feedback, evaluation
  2. For monitoring implementation of an initiative

My last two years as a principal, I also changed the way that I handled these walkthroughs. I started doing what I called Focused Walkthroughs.  I did this different ways depending on the time of the year and/or what we were working on as a school or district.  For example, the year we had our SACs accreditation I used the ELEOT Look-fors and separated them into different areas and just focused on one area when I was in classrooms for a period of time. 

Focusing on just one aspect of great instruction or environment helped me be more present in classrooms.  Instead of checking off a bunch of stuff on my phone, I just looked for one main thing.  For example, at the beginning of the year we used the Student Focused Culture Walkthrough Tool.  Just a little aside…One key characteristic I would be sure to include no matter what instrument I was using, was to be sure the lookfors in the tool are focused on what the students are doing.  

Once you become crystal clear on the purpose of classroom visits, you plan them in a way that you get them done.  When balanced well, this will help you improve your school’s culture, advance your instructional vision, and lay the foundation for what you are trying to achieve. 

Getting It Done! Part 1: Building Your Personal Productivity System

When I became a principal, I became a ravenous consumer of anything related to productivity. I wanted to have a life outside of my job, so that meant learning strategies to become effective and productive. I didn’t want spending time in classrooms to mean that I would have to spend hours after school on email or other administrative tasks. I knew that there had to be strategies I could learn to manage my time and help me to get everything done effectively and efficiently.

I’m happy to report that there are strategies I learned and systems I built which made the overwhelming job of being a principal much more manageable for me. Today we’ll focus on how to get started.

The first thing I would suggest is to Build Your Personal Productivity System

I learned this concept from David Allen’s Getting Things Done, the art of stress-free productivity. Key concepts I learned in this book laid the foundation for how I work.

What did I learn?

  • You need to have a place and systems for processing your “stuff”.
  • You need to have a system to collect, process, and prioritize your thoughts.
  • Having a system is essential to managing your stress and getting things done.

How to Create a System for Processing the “Stuff”

Step 1:  Put all papers you receive from meetings that don’t have an immediate place into a “collection bucket,” that you will come back to and sort through later.

Step 2: Process the papers, and file them into a folder system based on when you will address them. I used a tickler file system. This system is basically 31 folders labeled 1-31 for each day of the month. You don’t have to know exactly when you are going to deal with the action item represented by the paper, you just need to prioritize. You will know deadlines for some papers, and placing papers in files based on when you will address the paper helps you know what to tackle first. This was HUGE for me. Previously I would file all my papers by project, idea, or just put in a “To-Do” folder. Then I would lose the paper or have messy stacks of files on my desk.

How to Create a System for collecting, processing, and prioritizing your thoughts

Step 1: Adopt the philosophy that your mind is designed to generate ideas, not store them.

Step 2: Establish a “collection bucket,”for your thoughts that you can come back to and sort through (notebooks or a binder with tabs).

I had a mini binder with different sections for:

  • Todos
  • What happened today
  • Personal PD
  • Reflection
  • Weekly email
  • Miscellaneous ideas!

Having a system is essential to managing your stress and getting things done. Once you have systems in place for how to manage the stuff and the thoughts, you plan how to attack them.

Part 2 of Getting It Done! released next Thursday, will focus on how to plan your attack.

Effective Leadership: Redefining Success

We all want to be effective–especially as education leaders. We want to “do a good job.” We want to feel successful, like we are “making a difference,” but how do you know you are successful at the end of each day? What does personal achievement look like once you have gotten the leadership job or position you have always wanted? How do you define success? How you answer these questions in your own context is not only important for your self-worth, but also for your success in your position.

As an elementary principal without an assistant, each day’s agenda was often derailed by events beyond my control. My first year, behavior events, impromptu parent meetings or meetings that started with, “do you have a minute?” ruled my day. Even though I spent three years as an assistant principal, I was unprepared for the burden of responsibility that came with being THE principal. As an AP I could set my own agenda with intentionality. Emergencies and impromptu meetings were most-often handled by the principal, not me, so many days were completed as planned.

Once I had the main seat, however, I realized that there were many situations that would arise to alter my plans. When I defined success by the amount I “got done,” I considered most days a failure, or I would spend too much time in the office instead of “out in the building.” Measuring success by the extent to which I achieved my plans or completed my list was neither valuable nor attainable.

After listening to Daniel Bauer on the Better Leaders, Better Schools podcast, my perspective shifted. I learned that how I showed up for my team and my school was the most important definition of success for me. I learned to define a successful day in terms of how I show up as a leader rather than how many items I was able to check off my todo list.

That’s all well and good, right? Everyone knows that how you show up for your students and community is where it’s at, but for many of us, we can’t show up fully present with a mountain of tasks waiting for us in our offices. Or if we are able to be fully present 7:30-4:30, ignoring the emails and the administrative tasks, then our days don’t end until after 8:00 in the evening. That’s not sustainable or healthy. I would be completely remiss if I ignored this reality and did not mention that without an efficient and effective system for dealing with office work, our lives lack balance. But that is a post for another day. Today we are going to focus on three steps for redefining success.

Step One: Begin with the end in mind

This step is a process* that can be done at any time, whether you are in the leadership position of your dreams or not. It’s all about learning, self-awareness, and reflection.

  1. Decide that at the end of the day you will ask yourself this question: How was I _______in the _________? In the first blank you fill in a trait and in the second blank, the situation.
  2. Brainstorm all the situations you find yourself in on a daily basis to fill in the second blank (meetings with parents, conversations with students, observations, administrative tasks, etc.)
  3. Develop a list of “bes,” not “dos.” Think about HOW you want to show up for these situations. These are a list of traits: Compassionate? Present? Calm? Kind? Patient? Decisive? You need to decide what traits, if you exhibit them in your actions will reflect the type of leader you want to be.

Step Two: Prepare yourself daily to be the leader you want to be

  1. Think about the events on your calendar. Predict potential challenges and how you will handle them.
  2. Decide which traits you want to bring into each situation. Visualize yourself as a success for each event.
  3. Assign actions to the traits. Ask yourself, “How can I be __________ in the meeting? classroom? phone call?”

Step Three: Fill out your personal “Scorecard”

  1. At the end of every day review your wins. Look at your calendar and/or notes from the day. Ask yourself, How was I ________ in the _________?
  2. Be compassionate with yourself. Take a non-judgmental assessment of your day, thinking about which actions reflected the traits you wanted to exhibit and which ones did not.
  3. Journal your Wins and Ways. Write down and celebrate when you acted in ways that reflect your intentions and make note of ways you can improve.

Click here to download a free template of the above steps.

I got these ideas from an incredible education leader, Daniel Bauer, of Better Leaders, Better Schools. His podcast inspired me and helped me understand how to show up as the leader I wanted to be.

*Edit on January 9th: I realized that while Daniel Bauer was a huge inspiration for this process, the process itself actually came from the podcast 6 Steps toYour Best Year of Leadership on Craig Groeschel’s Leadership Podcast.