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Top Five Elements for an Effective Instructional Coaching Conversation

By Kim Cofino
13-Mar-24
Top Five Elements for an Effective Instructional Coaching Conversation


Coaching conversations are a powerful opportunity to support our colleagues - whether they are part of a coaching cycle or a one-off reflective conversation. For new instructional coaches, unpacking the process of planning for an effective conversation is crucial. For experienced instructional coaches, continuing to refine your practice is an ongoing process. No matter how many coaching conversations you’ve had, there are always opportunities to continue to grow.

In this article I will highlight five essential elements for an effective coaching conversation. If these resonate with you, I encourage you to try them out with a coaching partner this academic year!

1. Personalize the Coaching Experience

One size doesn’t fit all in a coaching relationship. Each coaching partner is unique, and every coaching conversation is too - even if it’s with the same person! Every conversation will be custom to your coaching partner. It may seem enticing to try to ask the same series of questions in each conversation but that doesn’t work well in practice. Instead, we need to individualize the experience for each person we work with.

On a #coachbetter podcast episode with me, Steve Barkley spoke about the importance of personalizing coaching for each colleague. He said “as a coach I need to uncover the teacher’s agenda, and I need to work with the teachers agenda. I need to listen for the teacher to guide me into the agenda they have.” As experienced teachers, we all know how much teachers have to prepare for each class, and we have to prepare as coaches too! Even when you know your coaching partners well, it’s still important to take time to pre-think and pre-plan your coaching conversation.

This often means creating an agenda for your conversation and defining the general topics you will discuss - potentially even planning a few key questions you think will be appropriate for this meeting with this particular coaching partner. You’ll likely want to keep this agenda relatively open so that you can adjust for your coaching partner’s needs in the moment, but pre-planning your conversation is a great way to ensure that you include all elements of a successful coaching conversation, including:

  • A check in and welcome.
  • A review of previous conversations and summary of goals.
  • Defining the purpose for today’s conversation.
  • The conversation.
  • Feedback from the day’s conversation.
  • Confirming action tasks and next meeting.

You might also find that as you get to know your coaching partners well, you realize that they prefer a different environment for their coaching conversations. If you know they enjoy meeting for coffee, you might bring one or suggest a meeting in the cafeteria where you can get one. If you know they’re stretched extra thin, make sure you make the meeting time and location convenient for them and be very focused with your time management during the meeting. If you know they prefer to get away from their classroom for a meeting to be able to focus, invite them to your space or a shared space like the library. 

Ultimately, every conversation shouldn’t be exactly the same. The more you put into it, the more you get out of it. We don’t want our coaching conversations to feel like an assembly line. We do want our teaching colleagues to feel respected, valued, and understood. To personalize the experience for our coaching partners, we need to be intentional about planning the conversation to be responsive to their needs. We can do that by prepping for each meeting so that the teacher feels like you really thought about them as an individual. Ideally, we want them to have that moment of “yes! My coach understands me and my needs!” every time you meet.

2. Determine Outcomes for the Work

The role of the instructional coach can be different in different schools, and many teachers have worked with a variety of coaches in their careers. This means that there are many different interpretations of exactly what coaches do. To make sure that both you and the teacher are on the same page, it’s important to set the groundwork for your work together. 

At the start of your work together, you may wish to clarify: 

  • What are your coaching partner’s goals and expectations for working together? 
  • What are the expected learning outcomes for the students?
  • What will each of you (coach and teacher) actually do during your work together?
  • What kind of outcomes can we expect from this experience?
  • What feedback would the teacher like? How can the teacher give feedback to the coach?

It’s a good idea to make sure you’re both on the same page before realizing later that you and the teacher had different ideas about where the conversation was going to go.

Good questions to ask to set the groundwork for the conversation include:

  • What goals do you have for our work together?
  • What do students need to know and be able to do?
  • What is the desired outcome of this conversation?
  • Are we on the same page?

You can set these expectations at the beginning of your work together, and revisit at a more specific level each time you have a coaching conversation. Big picture goals for your work together can be refined to focus on what actions we will take in the time before you meet again. Bringing clarity to the work will help ensure that your coaching partner understands what to expect, and that we have shared outcomes for our work together.

3. Listen With Genuine Curiosity

To have an effective coaching conversation, it’s important to allow your coaching partner to be the focus. This usually means we have to listen more than we talk. Plus, when we listen with genuine curiosity it helps us come up with just the right question in the moment because we are seeking to understand the other person (rather than jumping straight to a solution or strategy).

As Laura Lipton says on a #coachbetter episode, “The coach has one goal: to increase capacity and decrease dependence. If you embrace that goal, [just] giving advice flies in the face of that” (Cofino, 2022). Fostering a sense of dependence on the coach misses an opportunity to build a growth-minded culture, where teachers are encouraged and empowered to be the architects of their own learning. 

It can be difficult sometimes to not jump in and offer advice or suggest a solution or strategy, but it’s more important to get a better understanding both of what the teacher needs and what kinds of solutions they already have from their own experience. As you are thinking about their current needs and previous experiences, you will begin to uncover the next best question and have your coaching partner say “oh, good question!”

When you hear that response, you know you’ve hit on exactly the right question!

To help get to that place, you may wish to consider:

  • Paraphrasing what you just heard (to ensure you understand).
  • Ask open ended (mediative questions) that will help your coaching partner process their thinking.
  • Using tentative language to help them consider different angles, wonder aloud, or generate ideas.

As you listen, you might also consider asking some questions like:

  • What makes you say that?
  • Can you tell me more about that experience?
  • How did that experience impact student learning?
  • Do you have any thoughts about what you might like to do next?
  • What might this look like, feel like, sound like in your setting?
  • Have you seen this done successfully before? What made it work?

It’s easy to think “if I just had a list of coaching questions, I would know exactly what to say,” but the truth is, the secret is in the listening. If you are listening with genuine curiosity, the right next question will come. It will take practice to make these experiences smooth and natural, and that’s part of the ongoing refinement of your coaching practice. 

4. It’s Not About Fixing a Problem

One of the most common ways that coaching conversations fail is if we view our role as “fixing” something about our coaching partner. That’s not what coaching is about. Coaching is about building capacity and independence within your coaching partner by helping them make connections to their previous experience and walking the path with them to take their next steps.

Therefore, one of the aspects of having a successful coaching relationship (and each individual conversation) with a teacher relies on that person knowing you’re not evaluating them. This is important to help encourage further conversations with teachers. It can be hard to remember in the moment when you are so enthusiastic about what a teacher is sharing but even positive feedback, such as “great idea,” is still evaluating their progress. Try using non-evaluative language as much as possible by focusing on student learning outcomes.

Along these lines, a great way to ensure you’re not evaluating and to help empower the teachers you work with is to promote a growth mindset by using phrases like:

  • It’s clear how much time and effort you’ve put into this.
  • What strategies have you tried? What other strategies might work?
  • What did you learn from this experience?
  • Is there another way we could try this?
  • It’s clear you are committed to making this work.

While it’s essential for your coaching partners to know that coaching is non-evaluative in the general nature of the work, we can also continually make an effort to reinforce this understanding by not directly (or unintentionally) evaluating what we hear in coaching conversations too.

5. Closure / Next Steps

For your coaching partners to feel like their time during a conversation is well spent, we need closure and follow up at the end of a meeting. Without this, it can feel like you just spent a solid chunk of time with no tangible outcomes or actions – and even worse, you are usually thinking about all the other things you could have done with your time. Don’t let that happen to your coaching partners!

It’s also very valuable to take just a moment to allow your coaching partner to reflect on the conversation they just had. This provides them time and space to process their thinking and to recognize and articulate that the time spent in a coaching conversation was valuable for them. 

You may wish to ask questions like:

  • What was the most helpful for you today? 
  • How are you feeling about today’s conversation? Are you ready for the next step?
  • Is there anything you’d like to change for our next meeting?

At the end of each meeting, make sure to take a few minutes for closure and setting next steps. Usually this means that both the teacher and the coach have action items based on the day’s conversation. This also gives you a perfect opportunity to set the next meeting – to follow up on these tasks. Plus, it gives you a clear focus for your next meeting too!

Creating Space for an Intellectual Spa

Coaching conversations can be like an “intellectual spa” (as Nicki Dinsdale said in an early episode of the #coachbetter podcast), but only if we are intentional in our planning and practice. These five tips will help you design coaching conversations that support deep professional reflection and growth. Nicki continues… “it’s almost like an indulgence that allows you to stop, think and reflect, giving you time to review ways that you’ve fallen into unintentional habits, and time and processing power to make changes.” If this is the environment we’re seeking to create with our coaching conversations, this likely means we need to be intentional in our planning to ensure we can make it happen. 

 

References

Cofino, K. (Host). (12, June 2019). Coaching is an Intellectual Spa with Nicki Dinsdale (39). [Audio podcast episode]. In #coachbetter. Eduro Learning. https://coachbetter.tv/episode-39/

Cofino, K. (Host). (2, Oct 2019). How to Personalize Instructional Coaching with Steve Barkley (55). In #coachbetter. Eduro Learning. https://coachbetter.tv/episode-55/ 

Cofino, K. (Host). (2022, February 2023). The Continuum of Practice for Instructional Coaches with Laura Lipton (150). [Audio podcast episode]. In #coachbetter. Eduro Learning. https://coachbetter.tv/episode-150/ 

 

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Kim Cofino has been an educator in international schools since August 2000. Having lived and worked in Germany, Malaysia, Thailand, and Japan, Kim has had a variety of roles in international schools, including (her favorite) instructional coach. Now based in Bangkok, Thailand, Kim is the Founder and CEO of Eduro Learning, author of Finding Your Path as a Woman in School Leadership (Routledge), host of the #coachbetter podcast, and the creator of the Eduro Learning The Coach, Women Who Lead, and COETAIL certificate programs. Find out more about Kim and Eduro at: https://www.edurolearning.com.  

 




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Comments

03/13/2024 - Ars
A very clear and transparent manner of communication ??. What really caught my attention was the capacity building. I have often seen people providing or suggesting solutions to their coachees, it's interesting to know how they were able to help but not enable .
I recently had a long discussion with a colleague on the difference between mentoring and coaching. This article puts things in the correct perspective for me. And I now know what justification to give to people when they claim "mentoring is an evolved form of coaching "

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