This is a professional piece I wrote for the institute:
By Rebecca Taylor
Questions, questions, questions. As teachers, we have to deal with questions constantly. Our students question the content, parents question homework, and administrators question lesson plans. We question ourselves, each other, and sometimes even the choice of education as our life’s work. Whether you are a coach in an official capacity or underground with teachers at your school, understanding how questions frame our thinking and can move us forward or stop us dead in our tracks can be a critical point.
Coaching requires a safe place, an equitable place, one where teachers can ask their questions and are comfortable doing so. Building that rapport takes time and an understanding that working with adults in a coaching role is very different than working with students in our classroom. Everyone is at a different place in their understanding and implementation of research-based best practices. Asking careful, thoughtful questions can help or hinder a teacher in this “professional dance”.
Taking the pose of “more experienced” teacher doesn’t mean that you know all that needs to be known about a practice or their particular curriculum. Often teachers assume that just because you are a coach, you have all those elusive answers. Most likely, you don’t. You might have more training and more experience than they do, or you might not. You won’t know their students the way they do or what came before or will come after in this teacher’s planning and instruction. Being a coach usually means NOT answering questions and instead responding with even more questions to refine the teacher’s understanding.
My experience as a coach has taught me that this practice of asking questions isn’t always met with open-mindedness. I have to expect some of that, and not allow it to feel like a personal attack. Teachers want answers. “Just give me the right answer”, they would sometimes say, especially when they felt they knew little about the content or strategy being discussed, worrying that they are the only ones who don’t have this important information, which is why coaching needs to be private. How you build rapport with that other professional is paramount.
There are several ways that coaches can build the kind of relationship that allows teachers to reflect deeply on their practice through questioning. These tips come from years of coaching experience, but are by no means a foolproof nor an exhaustive list:
- How often have you had someone in your classroom and not been able to read their expression? From the first day you meet the teachers you will be working with, be aware of your body language and facial expression,. This is critical as all eyes will be on you. Even an expression that is essentially neutral can feel unfriendly. Your open and friendly expression can reassure a nervous teacher that you are there for them, to support them.
- Where should you start? When in a teacher’s classroom, unless there is a district mandated direction, ask what the teacher would like for you to look for. Asking the teacher, “what would you like me to watch for?” Or, “are there any specific students I should be aware of?” can help a teacher remember to tell you that Lea has a learning disability or Eduardo has been known to be disruptive. Having that background knowledge is important for both of you. Then, if you are scribing notes of what you see, stick to the facts only. Always leave your notes with the teacher when your conversation is over, which is a great way to be transparent.
- Thinking back on your own development as a professional, how long did it take you to implement new strategies with fidelity? Relationships take time, and coaching is one of the more intimate of professional relationships. Don’t expect teachers to get to the deeper thinking right away. Systemic change, even on the small scale of one teacher’s practice, can take 3-7 years.
- How do I know what questions to ask? A great question stem for coaches is “Tell me more about . . . “. This opens the conversation up and is not judgemental. Don’t worry about reaching resolution. This is a journey, not a destination.
- How effective is it when you “tell” the students in your classroom compared to the effectiveness of discovering the learning for themselves? LISTEN. Listen to what the teacher is saying and try not to answer their questions. It will be difficult, because you might think you have just the instructional strategy that will solve their dilemma. Through questioning strategies, you can guide their understanding. In the end, they should feel ownership over their professional learning. You can also restate what the teacher is saying. “It sounds like . . ., am I capturing that correctly?”
- What if my administrator or another teacher asks me how it is going? No matter what other teacher or administrator asks you about a teacher you are working with, do not divulge any information, including what your conversations are about. This includes even complementary information or praise for the teacher. You are the safe haven and they need to know you will keep their conversations and what you see in their classrooms with the utmost confidentiality. It only takes ONE comment to someone else to destroy all the rapport you’ve built. If someone does ask, tell them that they will have to talk to the teacher. You can share general information, such as what training you have done, but make sure you do not mention any teacher by name or give information that makes it clear who you are talking about. This last point can be very difficult, but this is where you die on your sword. You are only as valuable as a coach as your integrity to their privacy and confidence.
- How much time should be spent with a teacher? Because change takes time, teachers NEED time to apply the strategy discussed, reflect, and then discuss their learning. Coaching is all about the “next step” in a teacher’s professional development. Just like with your students in your classroom, one-size-fits-all coaching doesn’t work. Check back with teachers from time to time to continue supporting them.
Coaching conversations can be one of the most powerful forms of professional development available today. This support can build over several years, instead of the one-shot training with no chance to ask questions or gain feedback once teachers are back in their classrooms. The questions we ask and how we answer them can drive deeper understanding so that, in the end, our students reap the benefit.