If you could develop one new leadership habit to accelerate improvement in your school, what would it be? Since 2013, I’ve been challenging leaders to make a simple but powerful commitment: Visit three classrooms a day, every day.

Nearly everyone seems to agree that administrators should visit classrooms, but the rationale is usually centered on feedback. Providing feedback is a great reason to get into classrooms, but it gets harder and harder as you pick the low-hanging fruit. Over time, the obligation to provide feedback during every visit can turn walkthroughs into a daunting chore.

It’s no wonder, then, that so many administrators struggle to get into classrooms. One teacher recently lamented on social media, “I wish our principal came in from time to time. I only see him once a year during my observation.” Another shared, “My principal has been to my room three times in three years, and two of those were to give me something!”

Teachers are not asking for micromanagement or criticism. They’re asking to be seen and heard—to be truly known and recognized as professionals. Classroom walkthroughs hold the key to building these professional relationships—if we approach them in the right way.

Asking the Right Questions

Teachers tend to perceive classroom walkthroughs as micromanagement when they’re put on the spot. “Why” questions, like “Why were students working on these practice problems?” make teachers feel defensive and prompt answers focused on justification, rather than explanation.

Leaders who are genuinely curious about teachers’ thinking and practice are right to seek the why behind instructional decisions, but a slight shift in wording can bypass teachers’ natural defensiveness: Instead of asking why, ask how.

For example, you might say, “I noticed that students seemed unfamiliar with this type of word problem. How does this compare to what they’ve been working on, and how did you decide to have them work on these problems today?”

“How” questions elicit explanation without defensiveness, giving you a chance to build an appreciation for the teacher’s thinking—and a stronger relationship. Instead of asking “why” directly, cite something you noticed and prompt for elaboration. (See below for examples of these types of questions.)

10 Evidence-Driven Feedback Questions

Context: I noticed that you […]. Could you talk to me about how that fits within this lesson or unit?

Perception: I saw students […]. What were you thinking was happening at that time?

Interpretation: At one point in the lesson, it seemed like […]. What was your take?

Decision: Tell me about when you […]. What went into that choice?

Comparison: I noticed that students […]. How did that compare with what you had expected to happen when you planned the lesson?

Antecedent: I noticed that […]. Could you tell me about what led up to that, perhaps in an earlier lesson?

Adjustment: I saw that […]. What did you think of that, and what do you plan to do tomorrow?

Intuition: I noticed that […]. How did you feel about how that went?

Alignment: I noticed that […]. What links do you see to our instructional framework?

Impact: What effect did you think it had when you […]?

      You can use these specific questions as written or use the general format to make up your own. Simply share something you noticed, then prompt for elaboration with an open-ended question.

Stiff, formal questioning doesn’t build relationships. Strive to keep your feedback conversations casual and genuinely curious, and you’ll find these chats much more enjoyable—and you’ll get better answers, too.

Just as you would in a social setting, you can ask “broken” questions. Instead of asking a formal, interview-style question, trail off and let the teacher jump in: “It seemed like this was a new kind of word problem. Have they … ?” While it looks awkward in writing, this type of question is completely natural in a low-key conversation and gives the teacher a chance to elaborate about whatever they consider most relevant.

Higher-Frequency, Lower-Stakes Visits

Frequent, low-key feedback conversations solve one of the most pervasive problems with classroom walkthroughs and formal observations: Because they’re so rare, the stakes are incredibly high.

Teachers who know they may only have one chance to make a good impression are likely to be nervous, defensive, and worried about being evaluated on a less-than-perfect lesson. The more you visit, though, the lower the stakes, and the more authentic and richer your feedback conversations become.

If you visit three classrooms a day, and supervise about 30 teachers, that’ll get you around to every teacher once every two weeks or so. Over the course of a 36-week school year, that means about 18 informal visits per teacher each year—giving you vastly greater opportunities to build strong professional relationships.

Not Every Visit Is Rich, and That’s OK

While it’s valuable to conduct formal observations of full lessons, informal walkthroughs vary widely in their richness and usefulness—and that’s OK. Sometimes you’ll pop in when the teacher is passing back papers or going over a quiz. Sometimes students will be working at their desks while the teacher circulates, and you’ll gain little in the way of useful evidence.

But on other occasions, you’ll be stunned at the richness of the evidence and insight you gain, and you’ll have life-changing conversations with teachers about their practice.

When you visit classrooms regularly, no individual walkthrough matters very much. If it’s a bad time, or if you get interrupted, that’s OK—you’ll be back soon enough.

Ultimately, classroom walkthroughs are about maintaining a professional relationship—knowing teachers as expert practitioners, not just co-workers you see in the office or staff lounge.

Differentiating Your Feedback Based on Teachers’ Needs

What about actually providing feedback to teachers? Feedback can be valuable in three ways, depending on what each teacher needs:

  • Directive feedback allows you to provide specific guidance to teachers who need it—especially those who are new to their role or struggling with some aspect of practice. For example, you might direct a teacher struggling with classroom management to stop talking over chatty students and begin using a signal to get everyone’s attention before giving directions.
  • Reflective feedback allows you to prompt teacher thinking in particular areas. You can use the 10 evidence-driven feedback questions to encourage reflection on a specific part of a lesson that you observed. When reflection is the goal, you don’t have to decide what the teacher’s action items should be—your role is to serve as a thought partner and coach.
  • Reflexive feedback allows you to get input from teachers about what needs to happen outside of the classroom to support improvement. For example, teachers may need more training or planning time to succeed with a new initiative. When people don’t ask for what they need, or they ask for things they don’t need, it can be hard to make the right call. When you get input along with firsthand evidence of practice, you’ll have the context you need to make sound decisions.

You can decide in real time whether to use directive, reflective, or reflexive feedback, and you can use more than one type in the same conversation. Be genuine, be curious, and be open to whatever the conversation may bring, and you’ll find that your time in classrooms is always well spent.

The Feedback Sandwich

One feedback format you’ve probably experienced is the “compliment sandwich” consisting of:

  • A “buttering up” compliment
  • A criticism or suggestion for improvement
  • A “cushion the blow” compliment

While this format is widely used, it has several drawbacks. First, it’s confusing—teachers may question whether the compliments and suggestions are genuine or just included because they’re required “ingredients” in the sandwich. Second, it’s artificial—the fixed format doesn’t allow the conversation to unfold naturally. Third, it doesn’t build trust—it’s clearly intended to meet a requirement rather than build relationships through authentic conversation.

Instead of the feedback sandwich, just ask questions you’re genuinely curious about—use the 10 evidence-driven feedback questions or ask “broken” questions mentioned earlier to get the teacher talking.

Beyond Suggestions: Informing Big Decisions With Firsthand Insight

Classroom walkthroughs can provide plenty of opportunities for feedback, but the big payoff is in decisional information. As a leader, you make countless decisions each year, such as how to allocate resources, how to best staff your school, and what to focus on in professional development. Collectively, these decisions have a much greater impact than your feedback itself, and to make them wisely, you need insight that can only come from classroom conversations about practice.

People who are struggling often don’t know exactly what they need—only with your perspective as an instructional leader can they prioritize the right areas for improvement. Frequent classroom walkthroughs and feedback conversations give you a chance to truly know and listen to your staff, building professional relationships that can’t be forged any other way.

Justin Baeder, PhD, is the director of The Principal Center and the author of Now We’re Talking! 21 Days to High-Performance Instructional Leadership and Mapping Professional Practice: How to Develop Instructional Frameworks to Support Teacher Growth.