BECOME A MEMBER! Sign up for TIE services now and start your international school career


How to Improve Teaching, Relationships, Collaboration, and Leadership

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

The article: “Mini-Observations: A Keystone Habit” by Kim Marshall and Dave Marshall in School Administrator, December 2017 (Vol. 74, #11, p. 26-29),; Dave Marshall can be reached at
In this article in School Administrator, former principal Kim Marshall and high-school teacher Dave Marshall (father and son) introduce author Charles Duhigg’s concept of the keystone habit: a routine that has a surprisingly large impact on people’s lives. One example: studies show that in families that eat dinner together, the children develop better homework skills, get higher grades, display greater emotional control, and are more self-confident.
“It turns out there’s a keystone habit in schools,” say Marshall and Marshall: “Principals making short, frequent, unannounced classroom visits, each followed by a face-to-face coaching conversation. This simple practice has an outsize impact on teaching, relationships, collaboration, and leadership, four of the most effective ways to improve student learning… Policymakers should give serious thought to shifting from the traditional teacher-evaluation model, which focuses mostly on compliance and has a remarkably weak track record, to mini-observations.” Here’s the ripple effect in each area:
Teaching: When principals (and other supervisors) systematically make several 10-15-minute classroom visits a day, they:
• See what’s really happening in classrooms. “Knowing daily teaching is the foundation for effective praise, coaching, and professional development,” say Marshall and Marshall, and face-to-face chats afterward allow teachers to provide more detail and context. This is far more informative than infrequent traditional evaluations or superficial walkthroughs.
• Get early warning of classroom problems. Being in classrooms early and often allows administrators to spot classroom management issues and less-than-effective instructional practices and help teachers address them.
• Provide focused coaching. With annual evaluations, supervisors need to give feedback on everything at once, which is often more than a teacher is willing or able to handle. With frequent mini-observations, supervisors can focus on one “leverage point” each time, spreading suggestions (and appreciation) over 10 or so visits through the school year.
Relationships: The human side of school leadership is essential to improving teaching and learning. With mini-observations, supervisors:
• See kids in their element. Looking over students’ shoulders in classrooms and chatting with them about what they’re learning gives school leaders detailed glimpses of what’s going through kids’ minds and how they’re experiencing school. Supplemented by chats in corridors, cafeteria, playground, and bus lines, these classroom encounters forge authentic connections – and also improve the quality of feedback to teachers.
• Build empathy and trust. “Low-stakes chats with teachers about short observations
give supervisors a better understanding of what teachers face every day, from technology
glitches to challenging students,” say the authors. “Savvy supervisors approach these talks with curiosity and humility and put the teacher at ease by conducting them in the teacher’s classroom when students are not there.” Relational trust is a consistent correlate of effective schools, and face-to-face conversations based on authentic classroom visits are an ideal way to build it.
• Write fair end-of-year evaluations. An unfair or clueless summative evaluation is a sure way to kill a supervisor-teacher relationship. But numerous informal classroom visits, face-to-face debriefs, other points of contact during each week, and teacher input on the final evaluation combine to increase the likelihood of fair and informative evaluations.
Collaboration: Most principals know that the most important driver of student achievement is teachers’ work with their colleagues, but that it can’t be left to chance. When mini-observations are happening on a regular basis, principals can:
• Cross-pollinate. “One of the delights of making regular visits to classrooms,” say Marshall and Marshall, “is witnessing effective practices and students’ ‘aha!’ moments. Seeing these gems allows administrators to give teachers detailed, authentic praise and spread practical ideas to colleagues and teacher teams.”
• Connect lessons to the bigger picture. Each lesson is part of a unit plan, and assessments of student learning are grist for teacher discussions of what’s working and what needs fine-tuning. Mini-observations make supervisors much better-informed visitors to PLC meetings, and what they observe in team meetings makes them much more perceptive classroom observers (it’s as if they have 3-D glasses, says Paul Bambrick-Santoyo).
• Encourage teacher reflection. “Frequent unannounced visits carry the implicit message that teachers should bring their ‘A game’ every day,” say Marshall and Marshall. This can seem daunting at first, but the follow-up chats allow for dialogue about what was observed, sharpen teachers’ thoughts on their A game, and provide insights for teacher team meetings.
Leadership: With infrequent, inauthentic evaluations, principals are seriously handicapped as instructional leaders. With mini-observations, they:
• Walk the talk. “Getting out of the office and doing one or two mini-observations directly advances the school’s fundamental work,” say Marshall and Marshall, “and each takes only 30 minutes, including the visit, chat, and a brief follow-up summary… A principal who can’t squeeze in at least one mini-observation most days has a serious time management problem.”
• Foster teacher efficacy. Frequent substantive, reality-based conversations with a supervisor give teachers a sense of how their work fits into the overall mission of the school. Positive professional working conditions help retain effective teachers and attract high-quality educators from other schools. Everyone wants to be part of a winning team with ongoing support and dialogue.
• Master the job. Principals who make frequent, observant visits to classrooms and follow up with teachers really know the inner workings of their schools. The insights they gain and the stories they can tell build credibility with teachers, parents, superiors, and other stakeholders. “It’s always winning to tell a mother about a thoughtful comment her son made in class, to describe a funny teacher-student interaction in a faculty meeting, or to give the superintendent specifics on how to tweak the new laptop program,” say Marshall and Marshall. “And if an unhinged parent unfairly attacks a teacher, the principal can defend him or her with on-the-ground evidence from frequent classroom observations.”
In sum, the keystone habit of mini-observations produces no fewer than 12 benefits to teaching, relationships, collaboration, and leadership. “That’s a serious return from only 30-60 minutes a day!” say Marshall and Marshall. “Of course, not every mini-observation and follow-up conversation is a home run. Many supervisors need practice honing their observation and feedback skills. Teachers sometimes are defensive and unreceptive, and there are days when administrators are so swamped with paperwork, meetings, and discipline referrals that they don’t visit a single classroom.”
But as Charles Duhigg says, “success doesn’t depend on getting every single thing right, but instead relies on identifying a few key priorities and fashioning them into powerful levers… The habits that matter most are the ones that, when they start to shift, dislodge and remake other patterns… A series of small wins can leverage modest advantages into patterns that convince people that larger achievements are possible."

Please fill out the form below if you would like to post a comment on this article:


There are currently no comments posted. Please post one via the form above.