Imagine a machine with all of its integral inner parts working together for optimal functioning. Visualize cogs and wheels, pins and rotors, belts and cylinders all tasked with their own role in some massive machine yet all interdependent upon the other. If one area is malfunctioning, no matter how small, there is a ripple effect with all of the other parts and the machine does not operate as smoothly as it could. Depending upon the problem, the area of malfunction can result in a major bogging down in operations or only amount to a little hiccup in the system.
The same can be said for the operation of a school. The administrator, as the instructional leader, is the one responsible for being aware of the status of all of the components that make up a system that is expected to run at peak performance. In this age of accountability, stakeholders expect nothing less.
Another visual I have when comparing the operation of a school and the vigilance it requires to know what is going on, draws from my childhood. Every weekend we watched the Ed Sullivan Show and from time to time he would have a special guest who brought with him several poles and dishes. One dish would go on top of each anchored pole and the guest would begin to spin the dishes simultaneously. By the time he got them all going, there were several dishes on poles in all directions around him, spinning at once. His job was to take a pro-active stance, being aware of what dishes were spinning smoothly and which ones were beginning to wobble. He then would quickly intervene and get all of them spinning again. A principal has the same role and needs to be cognizant of what “dishes” in the school are wobbling and intervene before any fall. Early intervention makes the difference.
This awareness and involvement doesn’t happen by being sequestered in an office. Visibility is key and conversations with custodians, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, parents, students, paraprofessionals, special education staff members, specialists and teachers are a must.
When it comes to knowing what is going on in the classrooms, frequent informal observations and daily walkthroughs tell a better story than the well-rehearsed, planned-for, expected visit. Depending on the size of your school, jot on your calendar which rooms you plan to visit doing informal observations each day. This makes it more of a commitment to see it in writing. Choose a realistic number balancing it with everything else that’s on your plate (no pun intended!).
Informal observations, along with walkthroughs in all classrooms, need not last a whole class period to give you an idea of what is going on. When you do this frequently enough, everyone begins to relax and a classroom visit from you no longer will result in the gasps and “town crier” announcements by some students just because you walked into the room.
Another advantage to informal visits is that you will have more information at your fingertips should a parent call with a concern. How reassuring to hear that you are on top of things, having visited that classroom just recently. And don’t think that the students won’t go home and talk about how you came in to visit. Expect to be the topic at the dinner table when kids are sharing about their day.
A quick comment form that can be used follows. This can be kept for your records and will help you spot trends. If frequent visits find the same inferior quality of instruction or continual discipline problems in the same classroom, you have just found a wobbling dish that sooner or later will hit the floor.
While you may keep the form for your eyes only (your choice), try to come up with at least one positive thing to write on a note and put it in the teacher’s mailbox for them to find later in the day. Everyone loves to hear good things and they will look forward to your next informal visit and the positive comments that will follow.