Archimedean leadership (4): How do leverage observations affect staff culture?

Archimedean leadership (4): How do leverage observations affect staff culture?

The medium is the message.”
Marshall McLuhan

The novel structure structure of leverage observations helped change teachers practice, as my last post explained.  New routines also carry deeper connotations about the teacher’s role and practice; this post considers the more profound and less obvious changes leverage coaching causes.

Unscheduled observations ‘move the mean’

Preparing especially for leverage observations doesn’t pay off.  I gave advanced warning only once, as I needed to find a PE colleague off-site; he went to the effort of laying out the cones he’d need before school: returning to the (public) field later, he found they’d all been pinched.

Unscheduled observations might seem to be a way for leaders to ‘catch teachers out.’  I believe they are crucial however, because it is our everyday practice which needs refinement: anyone can prepare a performance; the struggle, and the difference, are in how we teach a challenging group at the end of a long day without extra preparation.  Identifying ways to improve the way we teach day-in, day-out is what makes a real impact and ‘moves the mean’ of our performance.

This means leverage observations should add nothing to the planning burden (it should reduce it as teachers have received help in their planning during feedback).  And when a leader sees a technique used, they know the teacher has planned to do it spontaneously (in other words “Oh, I’m going to do it,” one colleague said, in pleased surprise, as I entered the classroom for an observation).  In the process, leverage observations help ensure that all lessons are of high quality.

Leverage coaching empowers teachers

Leverage observations appear directive: the observer identifies a focus, drafts an action step and suggests ways it may be achieved.  The reality is more nuanced and more inclusive:

  • Asking teachers to discuss and explain the praise which initiates the meeting immediately invites them to take responsibility for their success.
  • The action step chosen is agreed with the teacher, and often depends on what the observer learns in the ‘probe’ (I’ve sometimes drafted several possible action steps: for example, vaguely-explained lesson objectives may benefit from a refined way of sharing them, or a reconsideration of how objectives build throughout the year).
  • In helping put action steps into practice, leaders offer ideas and suggestions; teachers decide which to use and how.
  • The longer I’ve coached colleagues and the more they’ve learned to work within and trust the process, the more feedback meetings have been led by their reflections and target setting.  Some teachers arrived with action steps almost ready to go.

Finally, teachers get to see the action step work (if it has been well-designed and practised), and therefore experience an improvement in their teaching.

Leverage observation brings out the best in us

It help us do what we know we should be doing

Often, all I did was provide colleagues the time, stimulus and sounding board to think through an aspect of their teaching.  All teachers know they should reflect on lessons and plan with colleagues; making (and sticking to) time to do so can be a struggle: leverage coaching acts as a trigger.

The process elicits tacit knowledge

Often, questioning colleagues, I noticed they seemed dissatisfied with the phase of the lesson I was asking about.  They were conscious of areas they could improve (and of ways to do so), but had not yet done so.  Leverage coaching helped uncover this awareness and turn it into useful action.

“What looks like resistance [to change] is often a lack of clarity”

(Chip and Dan Heath, Switch)

On three or four observations I’ve not seen the action step used despite a good opportunity.  Each time, subsequent discussion has unearthed an important reason not to change: a gap in subject knowledge, for example, or a colleague not being certain where he wished to draw a behavioural line; almost all were soluble in another week’s action step.

Leverage coaching should improve staff culture

It really is non-judgmental

I referred to the possibility of leverage observations seeming designed to catch teachers out.  I hope experience has shown colleagues the structure is supportive.  A colleague arrived to a feedback meeting and began “Don’t judge me;” when I responded “That’s not my job,” I was being honest.  Not only do observers not create secret grades, the whole structure is designed to focus on solutions: if a leader sees a colleague struggle with something, the entire process is geared towards teacher improvement.  If leverage coaching doesn’t lead to improvement, the leader is likely choosing action steps poorly or offering insufficient support in applying them.  Either way, no judgment can fall on the teacher.

It offers additional support

This isn’t a reason for implementing leverage observations, but it seems important: during the conversations before and after feedback, colleagues and I have discussed all manner of concerns, personal and professional (mine and theirs).  The safe and collegial space (in my case, as a peer not a leader) acts as an additional, useful ‘check-in’ for teachers.

Teachers love it

In the first few feedback meetings, I heard ‘That’s been really helpful’ repeatedly.  “I’m excited to try this, I’ve never done anything like this” one colleague said; the next week, he returned to say that “I’ve tried both the ways we talked about…”  Visiting Uncommon Schools this year, I was impressed by teachers’ hunger for feedback: I now understand it better.  We often say that all teachers want to get better: this has been the best evidence I’ve seen for this axiom: leverage coaching taps into it.

So the model works.  Aspects of its implementation have been problematic however; Part V discusses the next steps for GFS and considers how observers at any school might use this structure.

(Part I outlined the problems which leverage observations may solve;
Part II set out and exemplified each element of the leverage observation process.
Part III explained how each aspect of leverage observations works in practice).

Visiting Uncommon Schools: classrooms, schools, CPD.

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


Sticker on my colleagues laptop (for the record, the sticker has nothing to do with leverage observations)