Seven Levers of Highly Effective School Leaders

‘What matters most must never be at the mercy of things that matter least’

Johann Wolfgang Goethe

Highly effective school leaders prioritise what most improves school culture and teaching.


How well do American books about teaching transfer across the Atlantic here in England? Before I started teaching, I read Doug Lemov’s Teach Like A Champion. I got a lot out of it. Its practical micro-techniques such as Cold Call, Do Now, and Check for Understanding were very helpful as a new teacher. My Head of Department had read it, and warned me that some of the techniques may have worked in America, but wouldn’t work here. She was particularly sceptical of techniques like Do It Again, the idea of repeating transition routines until they were perfect and until they minimised wasted time: English kids, apparently, wouldn’t put up with that. If I had to retitle it for an English readership, whose healthy sense of scepticism is the main contrast I see with hearty American optimism, I’d name the book How to improve your classroom teaching. A couple of years later, I read Lemov’s second book, Practice Perfect, the subject of last week’s UK education book chat. I got a lot out of this, too, and I have blogged about here. If I had to retitle this for English sceptics, I’d retitle it How to improve teacher training.

Leverage Leadership

Now, Lemov has written the foreword to another book: Leverage Leadership: A Practical Guide to Building Exceptional Schools. Again, a pragmatic retitling would name it How to improve school leadership. Seen like this, it’s the third in a masterful series of books about teaching, training and leadership by the Uncommon Schools network, who have been highly successful in raising student achievement in schools in disadvantaged areas. So what can we learn from it about how to make school leadership better?

It starts by clarifying the core purpose of school leaders: to make teachers more effective. Lemov’s foreword starts with a startling statistic: that in a study of how 65 school leaders used their time, they spent 47% of their day on managing administrative and organisational tasks (compliance, schedules, budgeting, disciplinaries, responding to concerns etc) and just 6% on leading instruction (observing, coaching, training, co-planning etc). Over 90% of their time was not focused on what Paul Bambrick-Santoyo identifies as the seven most important instructional and cultural levers that leaders have for helping teachers improve.

Improving Instruction


Instructional Levers

1. Data

‘After spending ten years observing school systems, I am convinced that data-driven instruction is the single most effective use of a school leader’s time’.

‘How can schools determine whether students have learned what they need? Assessments are the roadmap to rigour, but useless until they affect instruction. If observations are tiny peepholes, analysis throws open the doors’. Intuitive data reports, specific action steps and fast turnarounds are the keys that unlock those doors. For more on this, you can read Driven by Data.


2. Observations

‘By receiving weekly observations and feedback, a teacher develops as much in one year as most do in ten’.

‘The primary purpose of observations should not be to judge the quality of teachers, but to find the most effective ways to help them to improve student learning. Give less feedback, more often, so every teacher is observed and gets feedback every week. Use short weekly 15 minute observations and weekly scheduled 15 minute feedback meetings. Paradoxically, this makes them less, not more stressful; there’s no worry that one bad lesson gives a false impression. Plan just one specific action step; we learn best when we can focus on one piece of feedback at a time’.


3. Planning

‘Leaders set the foundation for great lessons through great planning.’

‘Take the time to ensure that every teacher asks the right questions in planning: what must students master by the end? Start with the assessment, set the core content; design measurable objectives; reduce high-cost activities (all using tools like one-page templates). For more on this, you can read Teaching As Leadership.


4. Training

‘Professional development only matters if it translates from principle to practice, driving real improvements in student learning.’


‘Design it around what to teach, how to teach and how to make it stick. Ask of sessions: “what will teachers be able to do at the end of this session?” “How do we know it’s driving real improvements in student learning?” For more on this, you can read Practice Perfect.


Instilling Culture


Cultural Levers


5. Ethos

‘The continual message should be: nothing is as important as learning’.

‘What do you want students and adults doing in the school? Ethos is formed by repeated practice – using every minute of every day to build good habits of the mind and heart that help them achieve. Build meticulous minute-by-minute routines: expectations, procedures and consequences the same across every classroom. It’s the details that matter most. Create measurable indicators and monitor them with school-wide walkthroughs’. For more on this, you can read Teach Like A Champion.


6. Culture

‘Why don’t I leave? This culture, this staff, this school… I wouldn’t want to work anywhere else in the world. Even though things were tough, being part of a team like this is what keeps me going’.

What is the staff culture you want to build? What do you want teachers to say about their school? How do you want them to feel? Less burnout and absenteeism; higher satisfaction and commitment. Great staff culture comes from the careful development of habits that build a strong staff community. Prioritise it from the first interactions of the year – 90% of a school year is determined from the first few weeks of school. Summer training – opportunity for training in instructional best practices and school routines. Teachers need to know the school’s core mission and be unified in putting it into place. Get the right people in the right places.’


7. Coaching

‘Train school leaders in coaching to help teachers improve. Reliability and receptiveness matter. Each leader needs to lock in observation time and weekly conversations in their calendar.’

8. Time

Years after writing the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey could not resist bringing out The Eighth Habit. Similarly, there is an extra priority that enables all the others: defend your time, schedule your priorities.


‘Lock in instructional and cultural leadership, and lock out almost everything else. Six steps: 1. Block out student ethos routines (entry, break, lunch, dismissal etc). 2. Lock in team meetings (training, leadership). 3. Block out teacher meetings (for observations feedback, lesson plan reviews, data analysis). 4. Lock in observations. 5. Build in time for staff culture checks (vibe, burnout etc). 6. Build in time for big picture, long-term projects’.


Seeing is believing

‘Systems and routines can seem daunting or unnecessary to some teachers. Until they’ve seen the results and the videos, they don’t know how to make it happen.’

A big takeaway for me from this book is the power of video for improving school effectiveness. After all, the Latin meaning of video is ‘I see!’ The book is packed full of videos and recommends that teacher and leadership training does the same. Perhaps seeing what’s possible in other schools, including those like Uncommon in America, might change the minds and win the hearts of even the most sceptical teachers in England…

About Joe Kirby

School leader, education writer, Director of Education and co-founder, Athena Learning Trust, Deputy head and co-founder, Michaela Community School, English teacher
This entry was posted in Education. Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to Seven Levers of Highly Effective School Leaders

  1. Tilly says:

    Hi Joe, another fascinating read. Working in a school that is currently undergoing huge changes that are very much needed, a lot of these ideas really resonate with me. In particular, our new Principal is intent on improving the culture of the school. It’s fascinating how a feeling of positivity and staff supporting one another can be built in just a few weeks.

    I think the main change has stemmed from the “nothing is as important as learning” ethos you discuss. All of SLT, Vice-Principals and the Principal are now timetabled to spend the majority of their day supporting staff in classrooms and leading learning. As of next year, the Principal and Vice-Principals are also taking on the most challenging GCSE classes

  2. Hello Joe — There are only two edu-writers with faster fingers than mine, Martin Kozloff on the DI list and you. I’m impressed by the great job of summarizing stuff you’ve undertaken. It reminds me of a subscription I used to have to a service that summarized all the best business books for me.

    Want to improve the culture of the school? How ’bout something real simple like, “What we’re going to do in this school is set kids up to succeed with reading and math.” Interesting to note, that these two skills are never, Ever, EVER mentioned! It kills me.

    When I directed a school we built our culture on one simple motto, “Do unto others…” Amazing how well it worked in all situations. Now that I’m back in business it provides the backbone of everything we do.


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  6. An impressive post Joe. As someone working on developing a strong staff learning culture at present, this post has a lot of things to take into consideration. I’ll be sharing with my head asap. Thanks for writing this post!

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  11. Having enjoyed TLaC, I went and bought this book on your recommendation and have found several ideas that I will be trying out in the Autumn term. I think the very specific emphasis on the use of time is very helpful. I agree with your retitling suggestions, though I also think there’s something quite refreshing about the Americanisms. Thanks for writing this summary.

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