It was good last week to read a Tes piece by Simon Creasey, asking how often school leaders should walk the school corridors in order to strike a desirable balance between being visible around the school and appearing to micromanage.
Mythologies have grown up around such activity. I’ve never liked the expression “learning walk”, which seems too often to describe informal observation and assessment of teacher performance, though I may be doing it an injustice.
Nonetheless, I was a great believer in getting out of the office and around school.
Creasey cites the well-known approach “management by wandering about” (I prefer the more purposeful “walking”). MBWA gets the leader out of the office into the territory of the school’s core activity.
Creasey suggests that, for MBWA to achieve anything, it must have a purpose. Primarily, I’d say, this would be to see and feel the atmosphere. Hopefully, you would witness the institution’s ethos and sense of order at work.
The wandering headteacher
However, the wandering leader might encounter anything. The eruption of a class or teacher, or both, may not require intervention, but it won’t hurt for whichever party was at fault to realise that the head was nearby.
I used to come across the occasional shamefaced student sent out of class for a minor misdemeanour. Sometimes I’d have a stern word, on other occasions I'd raise a scornful eyebrow. But it was noticed. And I hope the teacher felt supported.
(It didn’t always work. I once witnessed a teacher ejecting a boy he’d caught eating in class. When the lad’s classmates reminded the teacher that he was diabetic and needed to eat, one of the nicest teachers I’ve known rocketed out of the class, full of remorse and apologising profusely to the boy in question. There was nothing to do but laugh with him about it.)
Poncing About Looking Pleased
Still, MBWA isn’t foremost about discipline. Nor do you wander the corridors to lecture teachers on how they could do things better. Creasey warns heads (I’d hope unnecessarily) “not to be a bore”.
Whether you actually enter classrooms or merely pause, note and pass on, MBWA should be what One-Minute Manager author Ken Blanchard labelled “catching people doing things right”.
In fact, in my years as a head, I developed my own concept: PALP, Poncing About Looking Pleased.
Most perambulation in an orderly school will uncover a strong sense of purpose and focus.
The school going about its ordinary business furnishes ample opportunities for teachers or pupils to observe that you’ve spotted something “done right”: the basis for a quick, reinforcing word next time you bump into them.
It’s no different from the way watching children involved in sports fixtures, plays, concerts, debates, offers an icebreaker: “Tough game last Tuesday. You guys did well to pull that goal back.” They know they’ve been noticed.
The magic in being noticed
Creasey finishes by discussing how frequent and how regular such walks should be. If they’re predictable, teachers might start to time things so as to show you something great. And excessive regularity or frequency might suggest a lack of trust.
At one stage, when the school I was running became (fortunately) very full, we felt obliged to adopt a walk-on-the-left rule in some corridors at lesson changeovers. That furnished another excuse to be out and about – even if students complained that I habitually stood on the wrong side and confused matters. I never was very good at left and right.
Did I get out and about enough, though? I used to think I did pretty well…
…until, a couple of years after I left one school: a friend who had a niece there said she complained that the new head was always walking into lessons (irritatingly, she claimed, especially when the teacher didn’t even notice).
“At least Dr Trafford didn’t wander about annoying people,” she concluded. “He was always stuck in meetings.”
Damn. And I’d tried so hard. Perhaps my next piece should be about humility.
Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist, musician and former independent school headteacher. He tweets @bernardtrafford