The Power of Questions in Instructional Coaching
Advice is overrated. I know that may sound strange coming from someone who is writing a blog which is essentially providing advice, but just hear me out. How many times has someone offered you “advice” on how to do your job? How many times has that “advice” actually been beneficial to you as a professional? Teachers take their work very seriously and very personally, so “advice” – however well-intended – can often seem like a jab more than help. One of the biggest mistakes a new instructional coach can make is to start right out of the gate with advice and recommendations for teachers. As much as we think jumping in and providing answers will be helpful, we have to realize that if we can get our teachers to generate solutions on their own, the odds of affecting long-term and permanent change increase dramatically.
Tip #1: Ask the Right Questions
Asking questions is an essential task for any instructional coach, and one of their greatest assets. Asking the right questions, however, makes all the difference when it comes to figuring out the best way to support teachers. Every teacher and every situation is unique and comes with its own needs. When a coach understands what a teacher is actually thinking or feeling, and not just what they presume the teacher is thinking or feeling, they can make more informed decisions about how to support their growth. Remember the old saying that you shouldn’t assume things? This is exactly why. As an instructional coach, you need to remain judgement free when working with teachers, but assumptions are an indicator of judgment. Questions, however, show inquiry and curiosity. The right questions can not only help you uncover a teacher’s challenges, but they can also push teachers to articulate their thinking, increase their self-awareness, and uncover new possibilities for their learning and development.
I am sure at some point in your life someone has told you that you have two ears and one mouth because you should listen twice as much as you speak. As an instructional coach, this couldn’t be more true. Though it may not inherently seem this way, much of our work revolves around the conversations we have with teachers. At first, it can be tempting to dominate those conversations because there is so much we want to share and we dread those awkward silences, but it is important to take more of a backseat approach. Having the ability to ask a few, high quality questions is an essential tool for successful instructional coaches. The right question can be a catalyst for powerful reflection, problem solving, and ultimately change. Learning the difference between the right questions and the wrong questions will help strengthen your practice as an instructional coach, and will help set your teachers up for success.
Tip #2: Empower Teachers through Questioning
Think about the way you approach your coaching conversations. There is a difference between being interrogative and having a dynamic dialogue. Coaches should not attempt to be attorneys, interrogating teachers by only asking questions to which they already know the answer. This type of conversation is disingenuous and not only could it begin to foster some feelings of judgment, but the teacher will only grow relative to your instructional knowledge. The goal of instructional coaching is to uncover each teacher’s untapped potential and expertise, not to look for “gotcha” moments or impose your own personal teaching style. Probing questions like, “What would you like to see happen in your classroom?” or “What would have to change in order for you to be able to do X?” can empower teachers to generate their own ideas and solutions for the challenges they face. These types of questions allow you and the teacher to develop a shared vision so you can work together to achieve a desired outcome.
As a new instructional coach, it is easy to catch yourself guiding the conversation by asking scripted questions – after all, that’s what we are trained to do as new teachers. As a teacher, we learn to always anticipate what responses students will give us so that we are prepared to steer the conversation in whatever way necessary. Unfortunately, kids do say the darndest things and as teachers, we were always prepared for that. It is easy for an instructional coach to take the same approach when working with teachers. Through classroom visits, new coaches may find themselves inadvertently analyzing the lesson for what they deem to be the main strengths and weaknesses, rather than collecting objective observations. When it then comes time to debrief with teachers, you might find yourself asking questions that lead the teacher to identify those same strengths and weaknesses you did, in spite of their own personal thoughts or feelings.
Unfortunately, this type of coaching is not a true conversation or dialogue and won’t optimize your chances for success. This approach does not honor the teacher’s input on what they self-identify as their challenges and does not acknowledge their professional expertise. This type of conversation is simply one-way feedback and though it can appear helpful at first, it may end up doing more harm than good. One-way conversations can make teachers feel devalued and directed, rather than encouraged and supported.
Tip #3: Use Intentional Questioning to Spark Authentic Conversation
So how do we change these interactions? By asking the right questions.
We know that good questions can spark curiosity, independence, and self-confidence. Ultimately, coaching conversations should be a forum in which teachers can discuss their thoughts and opinions about their practice, with support from the instructional coach. It is not our place to provide blind recommendations or “advice” without first letting teachers identify the areas of need. Questioning is essential in this identification process.
Think of it like a visit to the doctor’s office. You visit the doctor because you have some ailment or need. It is the doctor’s responsibility to know which questions to ask to understand your symptoms. If the doctor does not ask all the right questions, you can be misdiagnosed and left untreated. The same is true for our teachers. It is important to be intentional about the questions you are asking in order to elicit true reflection from the teacher so that we do not misdiagnose their challenges. We don’t want to offer any ‘Web-MD’ solutions. By that I mean, have you ever noticed no matter what symptom you search on Web-MD the diagnosis may come back as cancer? There is no one-size-fits-all explanation or remedy to instructional challenges. As an instructional coach, you will find that teachers typically have an idea of what their greatest challenge is, but it is not uncommon to discover that their challenge is actually something else and has just been misdiagnosed. It is your job as the coach to use the power of questions to really understand the needs and wants of your teachers, as well as what solutions will be most beneficial to their classrooms.
It can be difficult for a new instructional coach to generate powerful questions and authentic conversation because it requires a lot of thinking on your feet and making changes on the fly. There is nothing wrong with an instructional coach using sentence stems or preparing some guiding questions to ask teachers in coaching meetings. The thing to remember, however, is to not let the conversation become an interview. If you come to coaching meetings with prepared questions, consider putting them away until you feel you really need them. You might find that you are able to kickstart the conversation on your own. The more conversations you have, the easier and more natural these conversations become.
Quality questions are going to be one of the most important tools in your instructional coaching toolkit. Without quality questions, no significant growth or development can occur. It is important that you as the coach find questions that really help your teachers reflect on their practices and encourage them to problem solve on their own, with our support. Instructional coaching is just as much about supporting teachers as it is building capacity within them. You want your teachers to get to a place where they can continue growing on their own after their coaching cycle is over. This foundation of reflection is laid through questioning and conversation and will be essential in helping you and your teachers achieve their goals.