“I thought I was a good principal,” says Jeannie Gallo, Area 2 AIO who last year supervised principals at 38 North Side elementary schools. “But I would have been better if I’d known about the walkthrough process.”
Gallo, who oversees more schools than most AIOs and will add another this fall, visited each of them informally early last year to meet-and-greet with principals and staff, tour the buildings and introduce the concept of using a process called walkthroughs—the signature of a districtwide initiative to improve the quality of teaching.
On her next round of school visits, Gallo conducted walkthroughs. She completed 27 of them between March and June and plans to begin picking up the final 11 schools this month.
Gallo says some AIOs who conducted walkthroughs earlier in the year were met with skepticism because they neglected to meet with teachers first to describe the process. Some of those teachers complained to their union, and ultimately, the CPS chief education officer issued a mandate that AIOs meet with school staff before they conduct walkthroughs.
“So, actually, I was glad I started a little later,” says Gallo.
The walkthrough: Wednesday, May 28
At 8 a.m., Gallo and her Area 2 team meet Carl Dasko, Bateman’s acting principal, and several teachers in a conference room for coffee and rolls. At 8:30, everyone goes to the library, where Bateman’s staff is gathered.
Gallo tells the teachers that before becoming Area 2 AIO, she spent 12 years as principal at Smyser Elementary, where test scores and the student population doubled under her leadership. “Like Bateman,” she says, “we had to build a big addition.”
She describes the walkthrough as a qualitative look at a school. The principal picks several teachers to participate, Gallo explains, and as a group they will decide which classrooms to visit and what to look for in each of them. After each classroom visit, the team will spend three to five minutes discussing what they’ve observed. Then, at the end, they will meet in the conference room to debrief. The Area 2 team members will later write up their findings and suggestions, and deliver the one-page report to Bateman.
“These are quite useful little snapshots that will start a dialogue about what you value,” Gallo notes. “We’re not here to scrutinize. I evaluate principals, not teachers. We’re here to offer suggestions. You can take them or not, but we’re hoping you take them.”
Besides Dasko and Gallo, the walkthrough team consists of three Bateman teachers—reading resource teacher Sharon Deutsch, bilingual teacher Mushtaq Ali Khawaja and 2nd grade teacher Nydia Dalmau—and specialists in reading, special education and bilingual education from Area 2.
Once Gallo completes her presentation to the staff, the team meets to decide what to look for during the walkthrough. Dasko has two suggestions: Assess the level of teacher-student interaction (which he also describes as student engagement) and the physical set-up of the room. With a variety of learning levels represented in the school, Bateman has been working to create stations or learning centers in its classrooms, he says. This way, students can work independently while the teacher meets with individuals or small groups.
The group decides to focus on both of these. Area 2 reading coach Harlee Till helps them clarify what to look for: How are teachers interacting with the students? Are there any learning centers? How are student desks arranged? What’s posted on classroom walls? Is the teacher moving around the room or standing stationary in front of the class? Before heading out, Dasko wants to know when staff will get the area team’s report. “They’ll want to know how they did,” he says.
“This is not about evaluating them,” Till reiterates.
“I’ve told them more than once that it’s not a show we’re putting on,” says Dasko. Still, he says, they’ll be anxious to get the report.
The first stop is a primary special education class. An audio tape is playing as the teacher holds up pictures. She holds up an image of a monkey when the tape plays a monkey song. Children make the “mmm” sound. The visitors circulate and take notes on clipboards. The visit lasts three minutes.
Out in the hallway, Gallo begins first, praising the word web chart on one wall and a list of “words to know” on a chalkboard. However, the room could be better organized, she says, noting materials scattered around that could be stored in bins. Till suggests the room could use more labels on objects, especially since this is a special education class.
Area 2 team members do most of the talking, but Bateman staffers chime in. Bilingual teacher Khawaja, for instance, notes that the students were gathered in one group despite their range of abilities. Deutsch, the reading specialist, says students in this classroom usually are organized into groups, but the walkthrough team happened to catch them at a time when they’re all together.
The next stop is a four-minute visit to a 3rd-grade class. Students are sitting in rows of desks. The teacher is standing at the chalkboard, writing vocabulary words and discussing their meaning. In the hallway, the observers describe the classroom as “very traditional.”
“There was not a whole lot of engagement,” says Till.
“Maybe she could have had the students write the words on the board.” More charts around the room would support the instruction, says Gallo. A Bateman teacher remarks that the student work on the bulletin board was several months old.
The third visit, to a 4th-grade classroom, renders only positive comments. The room has a math center, a writing center and a well-organized library. Charts on the walls support instruction. One of them lists the steps for writing a summary—the topic of the teacher’s lesson. The students were engaged, the observers decide.
A 6th-grade class is the next stop, and again, team members like what they see. The teacher sits at the front of the room, reading a novel, with students seated in chairs scattered around her, listening and answering questions. The room is organized into learning centers, the students are paying attention to the story and to the teacher’s questions, which are relevant to the text.
Visits to the last three classrooms proceed in a similar fashion and the walkthrough, which took about two hours, is finished by 11:15 a.m. Team members head to a conference room to wrap up. Till and Gallo cite the team’s overall impressions: on Students generally were engaged
With one exception, desks were arranged in groups, not in rows.
Most rooms were well organized and teachers had attempted to create learning centers.
Two rooms had old student work on the walls.
Every classroom had computers, but some were not turned on or plugged in.
Gallo mentions two elementary schools, Jahn and North Kenwood/Oakland Charter, where teachers have been successful creating classroom learning centers and using them effectively. Teacher field trips to those schools are discussed.
Before the area instructional team leaves, Till says she hopes the teachers won’t view the walkthrough as a negative experience. Dasko answers that most teachers will welcome the feedback but “the key is how you approach it.”
Postscript: ‘We’d like to experiment’
The following day, Bateman receives the team’s one-page report. Dasko makes copies to distribute to every teacher, and they discuss it at a staff meeting two days later. Over the next few weeks, he also meets individually with the teachers whose classrooms were visited.
The report is divided into two sections: Findings and suggestions. Among the findings are “most rooms grouped students for instruction” and “in some rooms, environmental print (what teachers post on the walls) supports current instruction.” Suggestions include “use more manipulatives” and “use more effective cooperative group techniques and strategies.” Individual teachers are not named.
According to Dasko, teachers were receptive to the walkthrough and the feedback, and several teachers confirm his impression.
“It’s another pair of eyes to see what we’re doing,” says Deutsch, the reading resource teacher. “The teachers I talked to afterwards felt fairly positive about it.”
Juanita Martinez, a 3rd-grade teacher who was observed by the walkthrough team, says the experience motivated her to make some changes. For one, she plans to buy containers to sort the books in her classroom library into categories. “It was something I was going to do but never got around to,” she says. “I appreciated getting some feedback. I’d like to try it again next year.”
Dasko says he was mostly satisfied by what he saw during the walkthrough and felt that the short time spent in each class was enough to pinpoint a few strengths and weaknesses. The walkthrough also reaffirmed a few priorities as Bateman’s instructional leader: Post timely student work, set aside money to buy more manipulatives and make sure every classroom has learning centers.
After experiencing a walkthrough with the AIO, principals are expected to do them on their own, Gallo says. “We’re asking the principals to continue the process with their own teams,” she says. “You can do a half-hour a day—make a little schedule and get into those classrooms.”
Dasko says he has not yet conducted his own walkthroughs, but is looking at the possibility of picking up the practice this school year. “It’s something we’d like to experiment with,” he says. Much of Gallo’s summer was spent meeting with principals and writing their evaluations, but she has not yet evaluated Dasko, who was named contract principal in July and comes up for evaluation next summer, after a year on the job.
As an AIO, Gallo is responsible for improving instruction in schools and for training principals to be instructional leaders. “We’re supposed to provide professional development, mentor them and help them through the bumpy times,” says Gallo, who declined to discuss how many of her principals were being steered toward extra supports.
However, Gallo says her clout is limited when it comes to principals, who are hired and fired by local school councils or the School Board. “I don’t select principals,” she says. “I really don’t have any control over them. I’m going to evaluate them but [have no recourse] if they’re doing a poor job.”