Archimedean leadership (3): Do leverage observations work in practice?

Archimedean leadership (3): Do leverage observations work in practice?

This format is the first time I feel observations have been used as a positive tool for my teaching and not as a judgmental tool and ‘confidence knocking’ exercise.”
Anonymous teacher’s feedback on leverage observations

I enjoy cooking and am fairly proficient, but I follow new recipes closely, saving experimentation for second attempts.  Recipes are come from people who know better than me: it’s worth learning from them.  Likewise, following the ‘recipe’ for leverage coaching (described in my previous post) provided many insights into its merits.

This term, almost every teacher at GFS has been part of leverage coaching.  I coached twelve colleagues fortnightly in September and October; six teachers weekly this half term: in total I’ve conducted around seventy observations of teachers ranging from NQTs to heads of department with several years’ experience.  My reflections try to capture what I’ve learned about the leverage coaching model’s strengths; I’ve drawn primarily on my experience, but have included some of what I’ve learned from colleagues.  Broader reflections and possible limitations of the model follow in future posts.

Little and often: frequent observations make change easier

  • Most importantly, teachers know their coach will visit within a week looking for their action step: this nudges teachers to act on good intentions.  (This may seem controlling, but as Doug Lemov explains in this important post, leaders are holding colleagues accountable to themselves, ensuring they pursue changes they have chosen).
  • Having an observer see how an action step is working (or not) supports teachers in refining a change to ensure it works.
  • Leaders don’t have to worry about burdening a teacher with more than one action step: even if I see two changes worth making, I can save one for another week.
  • Finally, coaches don’t have to search for non-existent evidence of an action step; again, I can wait until next week.

Scripted feedback comes out right

Following the recipe, strange as it may sound, I scripted almost everything I intended to say in feedback (see Part II for examples).

  • This helped make meetings purposeful and efficient; I could concentrate on listening and reacting to colleagues, rather than wondering how to reach my point.
  • Scripting helped me communicate about possible changes without criticising or evoking defensive reactions from colleagues: “Did you notice the student not listening to you?” is a double criticism; asking “How happy were you with students’ apparent concentration?” avoids this.
  • Scripted conversations may sound very one-way; in fact, I often planned a range of scripts for one meeting, anticipating colleagues’ possible reactions (I’d also contend the model empowers teacher – I’ll come back to this in Part IV).

Practice, practice, practice

It’s tempting not to: this is Britain after all.  But practice works.  One of my favourite experiences was a colleague’s first feedback meeting (at which I was present, observing feedback given by a senior leader).  The observer identified an action step (sharing the lesson’s purpose earlier).  My colleague countered (as I’d have done) that a) he wanted to maintain suspense and b) the moment we’d left he’d gone on learning objectives.  In an ordinary observation, that would have been it: my colleague would have concluded the leader was wrong; the observer would have been left dissatisfied, nothing would have changed.

Leverage coaching is different: the next step was for leader and teacher to put the action step into practice.  They examined the teacher’s next lesson and considered how to meet the action step.  Three things happened:

  1. They found a simple way to tweak the lesson and ensure all students understood what they were working towards earlier.
  2. The rationale for the action step and the ease with which it could be achieved became clearer.
  3. I felt that they moved from ‘observer and observed’ to colleagues collaborating on a shared problem.

This anecdote derived from a ‘planning’ target; practice is equally powerful in changing the way we manage our classrooms, preparing phrases which are more likely to be usable in teaching.  A shift, from suspicion to interested realisation that this might actually help, was clear from some colleagues’ body language in their first feedback meetings.  Practice and co-planning make change clear and usable; it taps into the pleasure teachers take in doing their job better.

(And so) leverage coaching works

Leverage observations cause rapid, sustained change in teachers’ practice.  In all but three or four observations I saw teachers employ the previous week’s action step in lessons.  I saw lessons flow more smoothly as teachers had tweaked their instructions or positioning to get all students on task more quickly.  I witnessed students learn more, more quickly, being challenged to articulate and develop their thoughts through teachers’ use of ‘No Opt Out’ or the additional challenges added to a teacher’s starters.  Since the observations are unscheduled and frequent, I felt confident the changes were general and sustained.  My colleagues tend to concur: surveyed, 61% agreed leverage observations had ‘helped them develop as a teacher,’ 31% strongly agreed and only 8% disagreed (caveats they added will be addressed in Part V).

In my view the model works.  I also believe leverage coaching changes underlying aspects of school culture; I explain this in Part IV.
Part V considers the next steps for our school, and how these principles might be applied in other schools.

(Part I outlined the problems which leverage observations may solve;
Part II set out and exemplified each element of the leverage observation process).


Uncommon Schools: classrooms, schools, CPD.

Using practice in CPD.

Doug Lemov on tacit accountability

Paul Bambrick-Santoyo and Doug Lemov’s book Leverage Leadership: A Practical Guide to Building Exceptional Schools.