Welcome everyone to the Instructional Leadership Show. I’m your host Justin Baeder and this is Episode 4: What Happens When Leaders Visit Classrooms 500x a Year? The Instructional Leadership Show exists to help you confidently get into classrooms every day, have feedback conversations that change teacher practice, and discover your best opportunities for school improvement.
It is no surprise, I am a huge advocate and fan of getting into classrooms a lot because some pretty amazing things happen. And I say that a lot—I say that throughout the year, I’ve said that in my book, I say that on webinars—and I wanted to do something a little bit different today and share with you some of the actual words of school leaders who are getting into classrooms a lot and actually seeing the benefits. And you know it’s one of those things that we all think we’re supposed to do. We all know we’re supposed to get into classrooms, but there’s there are some things that happen when you reach a certain threshold. And I think these things these benefits kick in well before the 500 mark, but the 500 mark is my recommendation.
If you get into classrooms 500 times a year you are guaranteed, my friend, to see some amazing things happen and I’m going to guess that you will see these amazing things happen well before the 500 mark. But if you’re thinking about the upcoming school year that is what I want you to shoot for—500 classroom visits a year. And that may sound like a lot but it’s really not that big a hurdle and in fact a lot of days you’re probably on track for that, a lot of days you probably are getting into three classrooms but, if you’re anything like me, those days are just not as frequent as we would like them to be, right? We know, okay I’m gonna get into classrooms today I’m gonna have to set aside some time I’m gonna have to work with my admin team to run interference for me and maybe keep someone waiting in the office for a minute so I can finish what I’m doing in classrooms. We know it’s possible to get into classrooms 3 times a day. Where we really struggle—or at least where I really struggled—was with the consistency. It was not that this was an unattainable goal that. You know, there was never a day when I could get into three classrooms it was just that those days by default tended to happen about once a week.
And three classrooms a week is obviously only one-fifth of what we’re shooting for here. We’re shooting for three classrooms a day, every day. So I’m going to give you a brief model in case this is a new idea to you, in case you haven’t seen the book or gone through the Instructional Leadership Challenge. The model is pretty simple and it’s really centered around the idea of getting into classrooms every day. And the target that I want you to shoot for is 3. That doesn’t mean you set aside 3 times it might mean you set aside 6 times. Maybe you try every single period to get into classrooms and you hope to successfully make it 3 times a day. We try to keep that bar achievable we try to make the visits not so long that they take the entire period. You know, we’re not talking about formal observations here. We’re talking about brief informal visits to classrooms that get you in there, that build relationships, that give you a sense of what’s going on and give you the opportunity to have an influence to make a difference in teaching and learning.
Now the difference that I suggest making through these visits is not like drive-by feedback. This is really much more conversational and much more about getting the information that you need to make effective decisions as a leader. So obviously observing, paying attention, seeing what students are doing, looking at their work, talking with students if it’s appropriate, seeing what the teacher is doing, talking with the teacher if it’s appropriate—you know those are the main things that you can do to gather information and get a sense of what’s going on and what you might need to do next as a leader.
The way to raise the bar on that, you know, a lot of people think, “Well, I need to give a suggestion if I’m going to raise the bar and not just kind of smile and wave.” You know, we don’t want to devote a lot of time to just smiling and waving we want this to be substantive so the way to raise the bar and make these visits substantive is to use the language of your instructional framework in those conversations. So if you are a Danielson district—if your school uses the Charlotte Danielson’s system for teacher evaluation—don’t just say, “Good job.” Look at the rubric and figure out what a good job with whatever the teacher was doing that day looks like according to the language of that rubric and work that language into your conversation.
Another way to raise the bar is to ask evidence-based questions and I’ll share some with you in just a moment so that it’s not just chitchat, it’s not just you know, “good job.” It’s not just, “Have you thought of this, have you thought of that?” But it’s actually an evidence-based discussion and we’ll get to those questions in just a moment. I’ll show you where you can get my list of 10 Evidence-Based Questions. And then the last element of my plan for getting into classrooms, and this is a plan that—these days we’ve kind of stopped keeping track—but more than ten thousand people have gone through the Instructional Leadership Challenge in more than 50 countries around the world. And I think what really makes the difference for them is the consistency. When you get into three classrooms every day and not just like the three classrooms of the teachers that you like the best, who are nicest to you, who never do anything wrong, but get into every classroom on a consistent rotation—that is what makes the difference.
All right so here is a tool that I have created to help you achieve that consistency. These are my classroom visit note cards. I believe we need to keep on track to stay on track. If you are going to make a habit and devote the time to getting into classrooms, it is worth the tiny amount of effort it takes to actually keep track of which teachers you’re visiting. And I don’t know if your tendencies are the same as mine were as a principal—I noticed that if I wasn’t intentional about it, I tended to walk right across the hall from my office and start with the lovely teacher across the hall. She had been in the classroom for probably thirty years at that point—between 25 and 30 years which was also my age—and when I say she had been in the classroom I mean in that particular classroom and this classroom was just dialed in. She had it exactly the way she wanted it— everything was optimized, everything was beautiful, everything was perfect. She was always super nice, her kids were always happy to see me. It was just a wonderful place to visit.
So that was where I always went first if I didn’t keep track. And if I didn’t look at my list and say, “Okay how many times have I already been in Pam’s classroom this year? Oh, I’ve already been in there 27 times. I better go visit some of the teachers upstairs or out in the portables or some of the teachers who always give me a dirty look when I visit their classroom.” We’ve got to keep on track if we want to make a rotation that reaches everyone. I promise you will not do this accidentally you will only do it on purpose. So if you would like a low-tech but bulletproof way to make sure that you visit every teacher in order, you can print out these note cards. You can get them at PrincipalCenter.com/notecards.
And if you are a member of the Instructional Leadership Association and you’re listening to the audio podcast version of this episode, go to and we will also send you a link so that you can very easily print those out. And then what you do is, you simply copy them onto cardstock, cut them up—and have your office staff do this prep for you—you write each teacher’s name on the card. You write the schedule that that teacher has on the card, especially if you’re in a secondary school and teachers have a prep period and they’re teaching different subjects during different periods. You want to note their schedule so that you don’t try to stop by when they’re not there and also so you don’t visit the same class over and over again—you want to mix that up. There’s an additional degree of intentionality that you can apply here. And then simply put these note cards in a stack and visit the top 3 teachers every day. Whichever cards are in the top of your stack, take those three cards, go visit those teachers. Keep the card in your hand and jot down the date when you successfully get there and then when you get back to your office put that card on the bottom of the stack.
And however, you want to involve your admin assistant your office staff your secretary whomever in running that system, if you want them to give you the three cards in the morning that is a great way to give yourself some additional accountability. And then I said I would give you some questions that you can ask when you’re in the classroom and you know depending on your model depending on your purpose you may or may not be taking any kind of notes or providing any kind of written feedback, but at least in the conversation that you have the brief chat that you have with the teacher you know for some teachers maybe this is an email that you send afterward but I recommend that these are mostly face-to-face conversations. On the back of those notecards, you will find these ten questions. And I’ve got the template designed so that every note card has these questions printed on the back you just photocopy it two-sided onto cardstock and you’re in business.
So these ten questions are context, perception, interpretation, decision, and so on. And you’ll notice that in each of them there’s a space for evidence. And in the interest of time, I’m just to read a few of them here. So like number eight says intuition, “I noticed that blank. how did you feel about how that went?” Well, the blank is where you put in something that you saw. You put in some specific evidence so you’re not just saying, “How’d you feel it went today?” You’re saying I noticed something specific and then you’re asking, “How did you feel that that went? What was your intuition about that?” So you can get those at PrincipalCenter.com/notecards.
And if you’re a member of the Instructional Leadership Association we should have already sent you a link to those if you’re listening to the podcast version. But that’s enough of my thoughts, that’s enough of my words for today. What I want to do now is share with you some of the impact that our members—that our subscribers—have shared with me. I asked earlier this week, I said, you know, who is a Deputy Head of School in China said, “I had a better pulse on the building and the teachers! I knew what was happening. I could speak to how a teacher teaches and relationships with students from personal experience. That’s Eileen continues, “Also the students would talk about my being in classrooms and it changed them and their behavior.” So thank you very much, Eileen, for sending that in.
And it’s just so reinforcing to me to hear that in all kinds of different contexts. And again, Eileen is in China. And, you know, people from around the world are getting into classrooms and they’re getting to know their students. And especially if you’re an international educator that can be a little bit of whiplash to go from one context, you know, if you’re in sub-Saharan Africa one year and then you’re in China another year and then you’re in Atlanta the next year—it can be a little bit of cultural whiplash to move contexts like that. But what rescues you from that whiplash is relationships, is knowledge of your students. Knowing what they’re dealing with, what they’re learning, who they are and there is no better place to build those relationships and build that knowledge than in the classroom.
And if you’re having any kind of trouble with building relationships with teachers, building relationships with students, I promise, spending more time noticing what they’re doing you know not going in to correct them or to fix them but just understanding them—understanding their work, understanding what they’re working on—is huge. So again thank you, Eileen. Next, I want to share some comments from Jay—thanks so much for sending these in.
Jay says, “When you get into classrooms regularly, the teachers and students expect to see more of you.” It becomes an expectation that they have of you. “The teachers also expect that you will give them more feedback, about curriculum, classroom management, and their tendencies.” And I love this sense of mutual expectation, right? Because most administrators are swimming upstream to get into classrooms, you know, we get into classrooms and everybody’s kind of like, you know, “What are you here for? Can I help you? What do you need?” And they really are uncertain and ambivalent about why we’re there and what we want and how long we’re gonna stay and it just makes everybody uncomfortable. So if you’ve tried this before—if you’ve tried to get into classrooms and you’ve found it uncomfortable and your teachers have been kind of, you know, “I’d rather you not be here. What’s going on?” Just know that that’s normal and know that that goes away as you get more consistent, as you get into classrooms more and build those relationships and people see that this is not going to be punishment. This is going to be a positive learning experience for you and a positive experience for them where hopefully they will get to give you some feedback and they will get to ask for feedback on specific aspects of their practice. I promise it gets easier.
So the more you’re there the less it’s weird for people and more people will reinforce your being in classrooms. And if they know you’re coming anyway—I think this is kind of what Jay is getting at here about expecting feedback—teachers will start to ask for feedback that they want, right? If you’ve never been in classrooms before or you’re only there once or twice a year getting feedback from an administrator or from an instructional coach is just something to endure, right? You just kind of smile and nod and wait for the person to leave and then that’s it for the year. You’re good so there’s no real reason to engage in any deeper way. But if teachers expect that you’re going to show up week after week. You know, in our model I think, in most schools, visiting three classrooms a day gets you around to every teacher about every two weeks. So if teachers know, hey you know she’s gonna stop by today. If she’s gonna stop by a week after next this is gonna be a regular thing. They don’t just decide to sit there and smile and nod and wait for you to leave— they actually invest. They say, “Hey, if we’re gonna spend this time anyway, if I’m gonna have to have this conversation with you, I’m gonna make it a good one for me.” So they ask for feedback on things that they actually care about and they actually strive to implement that feedback because they know that they can count on you to come back and support them and to follow through.
So thank you very much, Jay, for sharing those comments. And the last comments I wanted to share were from Andrea who is an instructional coach in Texas. So Andrea thanks so much for sending in these detailed comments. And Andrea shared a lot with us from a coaching perspective that I love a lot of our members of the Instructional Leadership Association are instructional coaches who are kind of in that admin world but not technically administrators but I think have some great insights on actually changing teacher practice.
So Andrea says, “I’ve found that it’s so easy to get weighed down by the paperwork and administrative tasks that HAVE to get done to run a school or a special program, like ESL. With your tools,” Like the note cards that we just talked about, “I was able to develop an instructional leader mindset that valued classroom visits, PLC collaboration, and instructional coaching. While I definitely didn’t get into classrooms every day, nor did I get into all of my teachers’ classrooms multiple times, I spent more time in classrooms this year then I have any other year.” And she continues that, “These are some of the things that happened,” And she sent me a pretty detailed bulleted list here. I love this.
So again, Andrea, thank you for sending this in. She said, “I got to know teachers better. (At least those whose classes I visited frequently.) Again, as a coach, she wasn’t working with everybody but even so that intentionality made a difference. She says, “I found more opportunities to coach teachers in less invasive ways. I learned more about content areas that I’m not familiar with.” And for my secondary people, this is huge, right? Or for secondary people who become elementary principals as I did, this is huge, right? The more time you spend in classrooms, the more you start to understand and get comfortable with those subject areas that you didn’t teach. And that’s true for all of us right? Like you’re always going to be supervising people who teach things that you did not personally teach. So this is critical for us as a developmental task as leaders. Andrea continues, I have more context to apply the ESL instructional knowledge that I have and feel more valuable contributing to my district ESL team.”
For me, this is Justin speaking again, I love that term context. So much of what we try to get people to do in our profession you know, applying models teaching curriculum using strategies that we try to push into the classroom, we push in without an awareness of the context that we’re trying to change, right? So if you can get into that context and understand it, you’re going to be much more effective at changing it.
All right, last couple of things from Andrea here, “Students saw me more, and I was able to build my relationship with them. I developed more confidence in myself as an instructional leader.” And Andrea says, I also found that, somehow, I still got the most important administrative tasks done and probably more efficiently.” And that’s the cool thing to me and I’ll comment on that now there’s a principle called Parkinson’s law. Parkinson’s law says that work expands to fill the time available for its completion. So if you have been feeling like you just don’t have time to get into classrooms— you’re already so busy you’re already slammed you’re working 60 hours a week how could you possibly make time to get into classrooms? I don’t want to say this is magic because really it’s not magic. It’s about your brain prioritizing with the time that you have left.
But Parkinson’s law says that work expands to fill the time available for its completion. So if you say to yourself, “I’m going to commit to getting into classrooms. I’m going to commit to visiting three classrooms a day. It’s only going to take me 30 or 45 minutes total and that’s going to come out of that time that I have been spending in the office or that I have been spending on discipline or that I have been spending doing,” you know, the many other things that you’re asked to do in your school. You’re going to find that you don’t have to tack that 30 or 45 minutes to the end of your workday. The most important things still get done.
It’s kind of like if you ever had a day where your secretary makes you go home because you’re sick and you didn’t think you needed to or you didn’t think you could, but your secretary just looks you in the eye and says you look like death go home and you say—I remember very distinctly a day where I said to my secretary okay okay but first I have to get a couple of things done and I was dragging, but I knew there were three or four things I just had to get done before I could go home. So I said, “All right I’m gonna get these things done as soon as I can and then I’m gonna go and I’ll take your advice. I’ll go rest and we’ll get somebody to come in and cover the afternoon duties and things like that.” So that’s what I did and I found that those tasks that I had thought were going to take me all day had them done by 11:00 AM. And I realized that was an instance of Parkinson’s law at work. Work had expanded to fill the time available for its completion when I was planning to stay all day those tasks were gonna take me all day, and then when I was forced by an insistent secretary to go home and that time available for completion compressed down to, you know, 8:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. I still got it done. So it’s not magic, but it does happen that way. You will get the most important things done if you get into classrooms first. So a couple of takeaways—thank you very much to Jay and Eileen and Andrea for sharing their insights from getting into classrooms this year. A couple of takeaways—first of all, this is not easy.
Getting into classrooms 500 times a year is not easy but it’s worth it. It is worth the effort that it takes and the intentionality that it takes to get into class. My second takeaway for you today is that this is doable for everyone. And if you’re telling yourself that you can’t get into classrooms because of circumstances in your school, you know, not just things that are within your control but things that are outside of your control that are keeping you from getting into classrooms I’m here to tell you there are people in much tougher situations than you who are getting this done. Now it might mean that for you to get into classrooms three times a day requires you to schedule eight or nine-time slots. I’ve talked to some people and said hey what’s your ratio like when you try to get into classrooms what’s your success rate and I say about 33 percent and I say okay well then you need to schedule nine visits and you’ll make it to three of them and it’ll work out. And it does my third takeaway for you is that as a leader you know more and you’re known more as you get into classrooms more. And this increases your influence and your impact.
So if you’re dealing with resistance to a particular change—if you have teachers that you are trying to help improve but they’re not wanting to improve—knowing them more and being known more goes a long way. That relationship makes a big difference because they know that you understand where they are when you’ve been in their classroom. You know what they’re dealing with—it makes a big difference. My fourth takeaway for you today is that it’s never too early or too late to start visiting classrooms. You may be listening to this at the very end of your school year. You may have a month left, you may be in the southern hemisphere and just be starting a new term or might be right in the middle of things. There is no bad day to start visiting classrooms. You can always start. And the way to start, my fifth takeaway for you today is just to start low-key.
Now I have a specific model for that in my book. There are some chapters in Now We’re Talking! 21 Days to High- Performance Instructional Leadership that will guide you through the process of getting started, but you don’t even need the book to get started. Just get into classrooms. Be low-key, be nice, pay attention. Be curious, ask interesting questions, show respect for the work that teachers are doing. Don’t bring a clipboard with you—this is not hard it is not complicated. I did not have any particular model to follow and in fact I actually started to do a better job of it when I said you know what I’ve been trying to make these elaborate forms, I’ve been trying to collect data, I’ve been trying to fill out all these different fields on this checklist that I made my job got much much easier. When I just said I’m just gonna show up. I’m gonna pay attention, I’m going to know more and be known more through this process of getting into classrooms, and I’m going to focus on consistency. So that is what I want to encourage you to do. Whether you have school again tomorrow or you’re already on summer break when you’re listening to this, I want to encourage you to get into classrooms every single day. Do what it takes. It is not easy but it is worth it.
And if you are looking for a little bit of guidance as to where to focus, if you need a little bit of help figuring out, “Okay, I think I get it but I still feel like it’s not clicking for me,” I want to encourage you to take our self-assessment because there are six stages to this. And sometimes people have different pieces from different stages, but I really think these build on each other. And it goes from the productivity foundation to getting into classrooms consistently to having feedback conversations to having a common vocabulary for those conversations, to really being consistent over the long term that’s the fifth phase and then the strategic phase is the last. So if you’d like a copy of that rubric—the High-Performance Instructional Leadership Roadmap—you can download that and take the self-assessment. It’s kind of an automated quiz that will guide you in reflecting on your practice and figuring out where you are and where you need to focus next, and I’ll even give you a little video with customized recommendations after you go through that quiz. And that is at PrincipalCenter.com/ILSA which stands for the Instructional Leadership Self-Assessment and that will give you a place to focus to help you get into classrooms more consistently in the coming months.
And that draws on some concepts from our flagship program the High-Performance Instructional Leadership Certification and a lot of that is also mapped out in the book, Now We’re Talking! 21 Days to High- Performance Instructional Leadership. That is recently on Audible, so if you think you know I don’t have a ton time to read more books or I’ve already got my shelf full of books I know there are a ton of great books published in education every year so I wanted to make my book available in audio format as well, just in case your shelf is already crowded and you have some time when you’re in the car or away from the office when you could could be listening to something. So you can find that on Audible. And if you’re a member of the Instructional Leadership Association, you do not need to buy it on audible we have it in the Members’ Area if you can’t find it let me know and we’ll get you hooked up. If you’re a member of the Instructional Leadership Association you should have that as well. So this has been Episode 4 of the Instructional Leadership Show: What Happens When Leaders Visit Classrooms 500x a Year? I’m Justin Baeder and I will see you next time!