Explore essential tips for enhancing coaching conversations in schools and fostering a collaborative community for all educators and leaders.
What are Coaching Conversations?
Many teams are moving away from the traditional appraisal/performance review structure that takes place once or twice a year coupled with the traditional lesson observation approach. These were always top-down, and therefore, the “buy-in” was not always so great. Staff felt “done too”. The individuals whose appraisal it was did not have a great deal of control or autonomy over the targets. The whole process involved much telling, instructing, giving advice and feedback or making suggestions. Much of this was carried out whether requested or not. The skills required of the appraiser were telling.
The move is towards an effective coaching conversation approach where the individual ( no longer the appraisee but the coachee) drives the conversation. In the book, The Human Behind the Coach, Claire Pedrick and Lucia Baldelli refer to this individual as the “thinker”. It is them that do the thinking both before, during and afterwards. They decide what they want to focus their development on. They decide what their targets are. They decide what they want you to observe or focus on when observing them. This may be derived from teacher standards, whole-school development programme or indeed from the needs of their current cohort.
It is a much more of a non-directive approach in which the coach (previously the appraiser) is using a different set of skills. These skills require the coach to be proficient in asking powerful questions within the coaching session that raise awareness, to be able to summarise and paraphrase without judgment as well as being able to reflect and listen to understand. In the same book they describe this as you being in the wings while the thinker is on the stage. I love this visual image.
What does this mean for the coach then?
Potentially these are new skills. Learning to step back and give the floor over to the person who may be their junior both in terms of status and experience. In reality as you learn or develop these skills you undertake transforming your leadership skills alongside helping others become more self aware, help them turn experiences into learning opportunities.
I will look to review the coaching skills and behaviours now required and after that suggest a structure to the conversation that you might be able to adopt.
Questioning for Deeper Insight
First and importantly having a strong understanding of coaching questions and being able to use open ended questions to raise awareness in the coachee is crucial. Asking questions is a key tool in the coaching toolbox and part of the coaching technique. Questions beginning with who, what, where, when and how are beneficial questions that generally help extend a conversation and bring about deeper thinking.
The “why” question whilst it can do as the above do, it can also cause the coachee to feel judged and they can begin to almost justify their answer or become defensive.
Extensions to these questions also can bring about more depth. and bring about more powerful coaching conversations. They help develop and grow the coaching relationship. Such extensions might include, tell me more or give me an example(s).
These questions are looking to assist the coachee reflect deeper and become more self aware. These questions will look to dig deeper into the ideas, feelings and/or actions of the coachee. What is the history leading to the viewpoint being made? What assumptions has the coachee made to reach this viewpoint? What are the consequences of these viewpoints? What is the bigger picture for the coachee?
For example a member of your staff says they cannot speak aloud at meetings because “everyone will talk about them after”. As part of the coaching process, the coach can then ask a series of questions finding out more about this.
Types of Coaching Questions
A history question : Have you dealt with this situation before?
A consequence question: What impact has this had on you?
An assumption question: To what extent is it everyone is going to talk about you? What reasons do you think lie beneath this?
A bigger picture question: How do you think you can change this situation?
Coaching Feedback Techniques for Growth
Effective coaches will use various tools to provide feedback. Predominantly they are likely to use tools such as summarising and paraphrasing as part of their coaching practice.
The coach must be able to summarise what they have heard as part of the productive coaching conversation. The ability to do this succinctly and well shows the coachee you have been listening ( more of that later). It also allows the coachee to hear back what they have said. This can be very powerful.
Paraphrasing, as with summarising, allows for recap and/ or clarification and can also be used to challenge any assumptions being made. So for example as with the above case study: So, you do not want to talk to the group as everyone in the group will talk about you afterwards? Tell me more about how you know this happens. Paraphrasing is often used during the coaching conversation to check in on the coachee. It allows for feedback within the coaching experience.
Being able to use the skills of reflecting is very powerful. For example, as the coach you may say something like, I wonder if you did speak aloud and presented to the group whether everyone would talk about you? I am wondering what would actually happen if you did speak and everyone listened? These are in many ways another way of extending your questions. By providing this feedback you allow the coachee to grow as part of their Professional Development Programme. The feedback becomes embedded within a successful coaching conversation.
Active Listening in a Coaching Conversation
The last skill I mentioned earlier was that of listening, which is crucial for a coaching conversation. So what does this coaching skill require of the coach? It is about more than simply listening to understand.
It is about providing the right ambiance and atmosphere for the coachee to feel free to talk. It requires high trust, little interference and the right questions to be asked. It will require pauses and silences. The table below illustrates some of the effective listening skills required. Crucially you are not listening to reply. You are listening to evoke something within the coachee. At no point as you listen are you judging.
Listening is showing interest in other people's interests rather than judging their status or proving your own. Nonjudgmental feedback is required. In fact in this situation the status difference between you has to be invisible for any trust to build. Theodore Roosevelt said, “ No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care”. Attentive listening without judgment can show this.
These skills are not easy and do indeed need practice. For example, listening to someone for say just five minutes without thinking of any responses, comments or what you are going to say can be challenging. Try it - I would love to hear how you found it. The good news though is that these skills most definitely can be learnt. Developing a coaching culture is entirely possible.
Facilitating Reflective Thinking
Now we have looked at the skills required. Now to consider how you can frame the conversation in order to bring about reflective thinking for the coachee. The aim of all effective coaching conversations will involve developing personal growth and professional growth. What structure or coaching conversation template can you use to aid with this? There are many coaching models which you can choose from. Many of you will already know GROW and so I am today going to look at the model CLEAR. As with all coaching models they are a guide and may well be adapted to allow for an effective coaching to take place.
The C - contracting is about setting the scene. The conversation should take place in a setting that feels secure and safe. Ideally in a place where there will be no interruptions. This time should be a secure time. What are the boundaries of the conversation - is this a place where trust can exist, confidentiality exist and feedback from the coachee to you allowed. What will your feedback to them look like in a coaching conversation? In this context you are on a level playing field with no status differences existing.
The L - listening is an opportunity for you to demonstrate your listening skills as you ask those questions that will deepen the thinking of the coachee. They have asked you to focus on a certain aspect of their development so you may begin by asking them what it was about this that made them choose this. When did they show this? Or achieve this? When were they most successful at this? You then need to listen carefully to what is being said. You have an opportunity to demonstrate those listening skills previously mentioned and potentially to ask those extension questions.
The E- exploring section of the conversation allows for going deeper into the area of the focus. Following on from what you have heard you may ask follow up questions and also look to move the coachee in their thinking. For example questions such as, how could you extend opportunities for being better at this? If I asked you for three examples of what else you could do what can you think of?
The A - action(s) is all about what exactly happens next. Questions you might ask include: What are the ways forward? From the three suggestions made which one is most likely to work for you making the greatest impact? What support/ help will you need to achieve this? Whilst it is their way forward you may wish to create a sense that you are invested in them. To what extent you share the way forward in terms of responsibility may well depend on the circumstances and the actions being suggested.
The R- review is an opportunity for you to demonstrate your summarising skills. This is about you pulling the whole conversation together. What has the coachee gained from this? How committed are they to the actions agreed (you may give them an out of ten option)? How confident are they that they will be able to carry them out (/10)?
Trust and Rapport in a Coaching Connversation
When this coaching conversation takes place there is no doubt that the coachee will need to be brave. Need to be open and show their vulnerable side. The culture needs to allow for this. It needs to be one of a coaching culture where vulnerability is respected.
That said, please also be ready to be brave yourself. You too need to be vulnerable. As Brene Brown said of being vulnerable, “ it's having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome." As a coach you will not have full control over this conversation. The coachee should be driving it. You are working in partnership. You do not need to know all the answers. It's okay to show your vulnerability. Pauses and silences are fine. You are giving space for thinking. Lastly, be kind to you as you begin your coaching conversation journey.
7 Practical Tips for School Leaders
In an educational landscape that increasingly values the development of a collaborative school community, the role of coaching within schools has never been more critical. As leaders strive to foster environments where every member of the entire school community can thrive, from the principal to school superintendent, the implementation of effective coaching conversations becomes a cornerstone of this effort.
Here are seven practical tips for school leaders aiming to refine and enhance their coaching practice, ensuring it becomes an integral part of their institution's culture:
- Establish a Consortium of School Leadership Coaches: Gather a team of experienced educators who believe in the power of coaching. This consortium should work collaboratively to share strategies, insights, and provide support to each other, ensuring a unified approach to coaching across the school.
- Create a Safe Learning Space: It's crucial that coaching conversations happen in an environment where teachers feel secure and supported. A safe learning space encourages openness, vulnerability, and honesty, essential for meaningful dialogue and growth.
- Allocate Time Wisely: Effective coaching requires dedication. Allocate a significant chunk of time for coaching sessions, ensuring there's enough flexibility within the time frame to address immediate needs without rushing. Remember, building skills and reflective practices takes plenty of time.
- Focus on Innate Strengths and Career Aspirations: Tailor coaching conversations to highlight an individual's innate strengths and align them with their career aspirations. This personalized approach promotes job satisfaction and professional growth.
- Encourage Goal Setting: Assist teachers in setting clear, achievable learning goals. These goals should be specific, measurable, and tied to both personal development and the broader aims of the school as centers of learning.
- Build Relational Trust: Trust is the foundation of effective coaching. School leadership coaches must focus on building strong, respectful relationships with their colleagues, fostering an atmosphere of mutual respect and understanding.
- Provide Continuous Training: Equip your coaches with the tools and knowledge they need to succeed. Investing in the continuous professional development of your coaching staff, from workshops led by a trainer with coaching experience in education to peer-led sessions, ensures they stay at the forefront of coaching methodologies.
By implementing these tips, school leaders can cultivate a thriving coaching culture that supports the entire school community, from improving performance in an underperforming school to enhancing overall job satisfaction. This approach not only enriches the educational experience for educators but also significantly contributes to creating dynamic, responsive, and collaborative school environments.
Further Reading on Coaching Conversations
Here are five key studies looking at coaching conversations and their impact on personal and professional growth:
- Costa & Garmston (2015) discuss calibrating conversations as a method to support teachers in refining their practice through professional conversations, fostering career-long development and growth. This approach emphasizes reflection and higher-order thinking in planning and evaluating educational tasks, crucial for building a strong organization-wide coaching culture.
- Hopper, Holland, & Rewega (2002) explore conversational coaching's effects on individuals with aphasia and their spouses, highlighting significant improvements in communication. This study underscores conversational coaching as a developmental coaching approach offering valuable development opportunities and skill development in personal contexts.
- Shannon, Snyder, Hemmeter, & McLean (2020) investigate coach–teacher interactions within practice-based coaching (PBC) partnerships in early childhood education. Their findings suggest that reflective and feedback-focused conversations dominate, contributing to a culture of developmental coaching and highlighting the coaching opportunity for professional development programs.
- Saclarides & Lubienski (2021) examine the learning opportunities provided by coaching in mathematics education for elementary teachers. Results show that logistical conversations were more common than mathematics-focused discussions, pointing to the need for more targeted developmental conversations that prioritize skill development.
- Herd (2015) introduces the GROW and Motivational Interviewing coaching frameworks as methods to enhance professional development and personal growth. This approach underscores the importance of powerful questioning and active listening within coaching conversations, critical components of a developmental coaching approach for common coaching conversations.
These studies highlight the significance of coaching conversations in facilitating personal and professional development, emphasizing the importance of reflective, goal-oriented, and feedback-focused discussions.