The Walton walk-around: How principals assess their schools

It’s second period at Walton Middle School and Principal Alison Dwier-Selden is crouched beside a 7th grade Language Arts student, asking questions.

“Is this work hard for you?” she asks. “How does this assignment relate to Language Arts? Do you do this type of work every day?”

Dwier-Selden is on a “learning walk,” an ongoing building-level assessment that allows a principal to measure student learning and teacher performance.

“Ideally I should always have my eyes on student work,” Dwier-Selden says, “because that work should be on grade level and it’s work that should be engaging to the child and push them to a new level.”

In a class co-taught by Will Matics and Rachel McElroy, small pods of children are using Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech as a prompt.

Matics and McElroy have asked the children to choose a meaningful sentence from the speech and illustrate a picture of it either by hand or by using a computer program called Scratch. After that, the students should create a post on their class blog about a change they would like to see in the world or their neighborhood.   

Dwier-Selden is moving around the room, tucking herself into the groups of children, then floating toward the back to widen her scope. She’s in the classroom for about 5 minutes, then steps into the hallway to describe what she saw.

“There was something in that assignment for everyone,” she says, noting that one student she spoke with was going to have difficulty, but could do the work, and how comfortable both teachers were with the laptops each student was using.

“The other group I spoke with were real high-flyers, so they can make the work as hard on themselves as they want,” she says. “But that type of assignment is challenging and gives everyone the opportunity to create something different that demonstrates learning.”

And it’s that rigor, the 8th-year principal says, that needs improving at Walton. Dwier-Selden became the school’s principal last school year.

“It was going through my mind, probably by about April of last year and all summer,” Dwier-Selden says, “that no matter where a child is on the continuum of learning, the work that they are getting should be just about a step above the work that they think they can do.”

“What you want is this consistency of kids expecting to be challenged from class to class,” she adds. “My desire is to see that as a building-wide ethos for us right now.”

The type of instruction Matics and McElroy displayed—offering students multiple avenues of learning and producing—is called Differentiation. But it wouldn’t be possible, 6th grade Language Arts teacher Jen Graham says, without ongoing professional assessment.

“The best things happen when principals ask questions and push you to the next level as an instructor,” Graham says. “Teachers as peers can do that for each other, but good principals are ultimately really good teachers and can show teachers things that maybe they just hadn’t thought of.”

Most principals were once teachers, but the irony of education is that many of those effective teachers leave the classroom for administrative roles. Dwier-Selden says the choice is usually one of scale.

“I don’t think principals necessarily go into this work because we like administration,” she says. “It’s because we like instructional work at the macro level and how we can help guide it across an entire school.”

“And you can make it work,” Dwier-Selden adds. “Instead of science or social studies content, you have to think about things like higher-level questioning skills, those sorts of things that children are going to carry up to Monticello High School.”

As the school year progresses, Dwier-Selden says increasing rigor and challenging her students to think in new ways is at the top of her list.

And Jen Graham is looking forward to more classroom visits.

“One vision in the class is just that, it’s one vision,” Graham says. “I think teachers care a lot, and they do the best that they know how to do, but sometimes it’s nice to have somebody else come in and offer a window as to how that can be better.”