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Asking Just the Right Questions as an Instructional Coach

By Kim Cofino
10-Apr-24
Asking Just the Right Questions as an Instructional Coach


We all know how to have a conversation, but coaching conversations are different. Coaching conversations are about holding space for your coaching partner to reflect and recognize their own capacity. Most importantly, they are not about “fixing” a teacher or immediately solving a problem. Coaching conversations require time for thinking, which means they require a specific set of skills, including asking just the right questions.

Often, instructional coaches might feel pressure to find a solution to any challenge presented in a coaching conversation right away, which may lead to rushing through a coaching conversation. But the deep value of the coaching process is empowering your coaching partner to “see that they are the expert in their own journey,” as Kim Lelek described in one of her reflections in The Coach Certificate and Mentorship Program. Intentionally slowing down the pace of coaching conversations gives us the chance to think deeper, to reflect more meaningfully, to feel a sense of purpose and achievement, and to recognize the deep value in the time we spend together.

Asking the right questions at the right time is a key skill for all instructional coaches to develop. It’s not always easy to get comfortable with questioning, especially when giving the “answer” feels like a safer space. As Laura Lipton says, “in any stance, a coach is a growth agent. The coach has one goal: to increase capacity and decrease dependence. If you embrace that goal, giving advice falls in the face of that” (Cofino, 2020). The key is to work towards feeling comfortable slowing down the conversation so that you have the time to process and ask just the right question.

If asking the right question at the right moment is new to you, or you’re feeling a pressure to “have all the answers” as an instructional coach, here are five features of a great question to help you get started!

1. Listen, Paraphrase, and Pause

The most important feature of asking a great question is listening and seeking to truly understand. Ensuring that you’ve really understood what your coaching partner needs might mean they need more time to talk. Creating space for them to continue can involve intentional pausing and paraphrasing, as well as specifically inviting them to share more with a question. 

Simple ways to invite your coaching partner to share more include phrases like:

  • tell me more about… 
  • and what else….
  • I’m curious, help me understand…

Phrases like these provide an opportunity for your coaching partner to keep sharing their thoughts and ideas and help you better understand what they need. As you are listening, paraphrasing helps ensure that you have properly understood what your coaching partner is sharing and demonstrates your active listening. It’s also a great opportunity to determine which question you might want to ask them next. 

Slowing down the conversation with pauses also provides thinking time for both you and your coaching partner. Sometimes a little bit of silence can allow a new thought to surface. You may also need time to think about which question you might ask next, and in that case, you might want to say, “I’m thinking about what you’ve shared, is it ok if I take a minute to consider the next question I’d like to ask?” Being able to ask just the right question comes from truly understanding what your coaching partner means and needs.

2. Inquire Deeper

Oftentimes in coaching conversations, the question at the forefront actually isn’t the question that needs answering. There can be a bigger or deeper concept that needs to be uncovered, and to understand that, we may need to inquire deeper into the teacher’s actual goals. 

This can be a challenging moment because we may feel pressure to solve the “urgent” problem. But in many cases, what is urgent connects to an underlying issue that is actually more important in moving forward productively and with longevity. In this case, having a deeper understanding of your coaching partner’s goals is essential.  

Some questions that might work are: 

  • What do you want students to know and be able to do? 
  • Tell me a little bit more about what you’ve done so far. 
  • What’s worked and what’s been challenging? 

Questions like this might help you identify areas of strength for the teacher as well as areas of growth based on the big-picture student learning outcomes and needs. It can be easy to get trapped into “this is how I’ve always done it” thinking, and these questions allow your coaching partner to let go of those previous experiences, to allow them to focus on what the students really need to know and be able to do. Once you have this deeper understanding, you can focus your coaching conversation on how your coaching partner can get to their goals for student learning. 

3. Connect to Prior Experience

Once you have a better understanding of your coaching partner’s needs and goals, it often helps to ask a question designed to help uncover what they might already know by connecting them to their prior experience. They may not make the connection to their prior experience in this context, so the purpose of these types of questions is to help your coaching partner think about other similar experiences they’ve had, either with these students or others in their classroom:

  • Given what you know about your students now, how might you…
  • When you had a similar experience in the past, what worked and what didn’t?
  • Have you seen this work in another classroom? What worked well and what didn’t?
  • Knowing your students, what might they need to be successful?
  • If you were advising another colleague on this same topic, what might you say?
  • If you did know the answer, what would it be? 

These types of questions let teachers recognize that they already have the answer within them. In most cases, it’s likely that they’ve already had a similar experience (maybe in a slightly different context) or have seen this work in another setting. When they make connections to their prior experience, they will recognize they have strategies and skills to handle this new experience as well. 

4. Empower Independence

The goal of instructional coaching is to build independence and decrease dependence. When we are guiding our coaching partners to recognize that they do have internal capacity, one simple strategy can be to ask them for their first thought.

Some simple ways to phrase this are:

  • What’s your first thought?
  • What’s your gut reaction?
  • What’s your first instinct?

Even though these are very simple questions, they can prompt a lot of deep thinking. The key is to help your coaching partner recognize that they do have an idea or inspiration. It may not be a final, complete answer, but this first thought can lead you down the path. Asking a question like this can also allow you, as the instructional coach, to unpack other previous experience, beliefs, or expectations. 

When our coaching partners get stuck without a first idea, we may need to shift the perspective to help them see a potential pathway forward. A good way to do this is to imagine what the teaching and learning experience will look and feel like when things are working. As Steve Barkley described in an early episode of the #coachbetter podcast, “Teachers have to create the behaviors in the student that cause the learning. This happens when teachers can describe what they want the learners to be doing” (Cofino, 2019). Once we have the vision of what we want the learners to be doing, we can unpack the difference between what they are doing now and what we want to see and start to focus on what we can do to get there.

To shift their perspective, you might consider asking questions like: 

  • What would the ideal outcome look like in your classroom?
  • What do you want to see students doing? 
  • What attitudes or behaviors do you want to see them exhibiting?
  • How do you want to feel in your classroom?
  • When you’ve seen this in other classrooms, what did it look like, sound like, feel like, etc.?

Envisioning the future is a wonderful way to explore exactly what your coaching partner hopes to achieve. It also has the added benefit of providing specific outcomes that you, as the coach, and your coaching partner can work towards along the way.

Another important element of empowering our coaching partners to be independent is to explicitly state that our goal is helping them recognize their own capacity - and this means they may be doing elements of this work on their own.

Some of those question stems or sentence starters could be:

  • When I’m not here, how will you remember how to …
  • The next time you do this on your own, what do you need to remember? 

This is often when a meeting agenda can be very valuable. When using a shared document, you can combine questions like that with a note taking template so they have space to write down their thoughts and ideas while they’re working with you.

5. Be Open About What You Don’t Know

Although we may feel the pressure to have every answer as instructional coaches, that is just not realistic. This means it’s important to be transparent about what you do and don’t know. When you do this, you are also modeling being a learner.

You can be transparent about what you know and don’t know by saying things like:

  • That’s a great question. Let me do some research and get back to you. 
  • Hmmm… I haven’t thought about that before. Let’s work on finding out the answer together.
  • I’m curious about that too. Do you want to dive deeper into that with me? 

It is always appropriate to let your coaching partner know that you don’t have the answer right now, but that you can work towards finding it, either with them or independently. Being a partner in learning means that you have the opportunity to learn and grow alongside your coaching partner.

Consider Your Timing

As you are considering when and how to use these questions, please remember to consider your timing. If a coaching partner has stopped you in the hallway, with five minutes to go before a lesson and their students are lining up at the door, that would not be a good time to ask, “If you did know the solution, what would it be?” Having a list of questions is just a starting point. Being able to select the question that works in the moment, and threading them together into a full conversation, is the next step.

Finding Your Voice as an Instructional Coach

Although I’ve provided a variety of questions in this article, finding your voice and the questions that work for you is an ongoing process. Some of these questions will feel natural and appropriate immediately for you, others may never feel right. As you’re using them, reflect on the process and outcome so you can find exactly what works for you. 

Developing your own flow and style of questioning is part of growing into your role as an instructional coach. Continuing to reflect on your coaching practice, either independently, with a colleague, with a coach, or in a course will help you continue to refine your questioning over time. No matter how much experience you have as an instructional coaching, there’s always an opportunity to grow your questioning and coaching conversation skills!

References

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/ 

Lelek, K. (14 July 2022). Guest Post: The Coach Final Project: Kim Lelek. https://coachbetter.tv/kim-lelek-final-project/ 

 

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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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