Questions and Stems for Coaching Conversations

Coaching Articles - Essays for coaches

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Language is a tricky part to much of our work as teachers and coaches. Even if we aren't acquiring a new language, communication can be a challenge. Here are some ideas about communicating in coaching conversations.

Questions and Stems for Coaching Conversations

by Jan Miller Burkins

Good Idea by Susan Hinckley

The key to effective conferences with teachers is often striking that balance between asking and telling. There are many views on coaching conferences. Some suggest that coaches should never make suggestions to teachers but that teachers should arrive at their own conclusions about their instruction and what they can do to improve. This philosophy is often framed as inquiry. I appreciate this philosophy; however, it can be hard to execute. Oftentimes the coach has some ideas that will help the teacher, but rather than just sharing the suggestions, the coach engages the teacher in an "inquiry" process that is basically the teacher trying to guess what the coach is thinking. Such conferences translate into a series of hints from the coach and guesses from the teacher.

At the other extreme, there are coaches and supporting literature that actually step into an evaluative stance and tell teachers exactly what to do in their classrooms. Such extreme exchanges blur the line between coaching and administration and communicate a lack of respect for the expertise of the teacher. In addition, they can compromise the coach/teacher relationship.

In an effort to find a middle ground between these two extremes, one strategy is to try to strike a balance between supporting teachers as they reflect on their instruction and offering them some insight that comes from our being an additional set of eyes. This is often a struggle, and I don't always find this balance; it is easier to achieve in theory than in reality. The key for me, however, has been having some sound questions ready. Here are a few you might find helpful.

Why do you say that?
What do you mean?
Tell me more.
Describe the thought process behind your decision.
What else?
How do you know?
I am hearing you say that....
What did I miss?
What will you do next?
Explain that, please.

Questions for preobservation conferences:

What is your primary goal for your lesson today, and how will you know if you have met it?
On what would you like me to focus my attention while I am watching the lesson?
What are your students' strengths in this area? Challenges?

Questions for postobservation conferences:

What did you learn from your lesson today?
What does the students' work tell you about the lesson?
Were there any tricky parts to your lesson? What were they, and how were they tricky?
What was your favorite part of the lesson, and why?
What worked for you and your students in the lesson today?
What would you do differently if you taught this lesson again?

Stems for giving positive feedback (something beyond "The lesson was good."):

Here are some research-based strategies I saw you use today...
Here is something I learned from you today...
I saw you... This is a sound practice because...
I enjoyed being in your classroom today because...

Stems for making suggestions:

You might try....
Here is something you could consider.
Another approach to this might be....

Questions that invite action:

What are your next steps?
What do you need from me?

Adapted from Practical Literacy Coaching: A Collection of Tools to Support Your Work by Jan Miller Burkins. 2009 International Reading Association, pp. 52-53.