Seven Ways Principals Can Improve Professional Conversations
Coaching has quickly become one of the most popular forms of professional development in North American schools. More and more, coaches are partnering with teachers to improve instruction to increase student achievement and well-being, without being evaluative or directive. When done well, coaching is a managed conversation during which a coach assists a teacher as they identify goals, pinpoint strategies to hit those goals, and make adaptations to the strategies until goals are met.
Many principals report that they are unable to take on all of the responsibilities of coaches because their role as an evaluator interferes with the open, peer-to-peer, nonevaluative conversation that characterizes coaching. Additionally, principals report that the many tasks they must do to lead a school make it impossible for them to find the time to coach effectively. Coaching that is rushed or done poorly wastes teachers’ and principals’ time.
That said, principals can adopt some of the strategies of coaches to enhance professional conversations in their schools. We suggest principals adopt a coaching approach, when appropriate, with the following seven strategies:
1. Position teachers as partners. Coaching usually involves conversations between people with equal power rather than conversations between supervisors and direct reports. Coaches position teachers as decision-makers in conversations, recognizing that telling others what to do, especially professionals, is rarely a good strategy for change. Through this approach, principals resist the temptation to give others advice and work from the assumption that teachers already have valuable knowledge about a topic and are more than capable of making professional decisions to support students.
2. Listen. When principals act as coaches, they work from a core belief that they want to hear what the other person has to say. Listening, then, is not a trick to manipulate people into doing what the principal wants; rather, listening is an action grounded in a genuine desire to hear the teacher’s perspective.
Most people don’t even do the basics as listeners. Fundamentally, listening involves simple actions such as making sure that a conversation partner does most of the talking, pausing and affirming, refraining from interrupting, and setting moralistic judgment aside. Effective listeners ask for clarification when they’re not certain of what is being said and often confirm understanding by paraphrasing. Powerful listening involves trying to unpack the deeper meaning buried in the words people say.
3. Question effectively. Coaches ask questions out of genuine curiosity. In other words, they don’t know the answers to the questions they ask, and they avoid manipulative questions, such as leading questions or advice disguised as a question. Coaches ask open questions that have no right or wrong answers and ensure that teachers know the coach is not judging their answers.
4. Choose dialogue over constructive feedback. For many people, constructive feedback involves a predictable structure. When giving feedback, we often describe three good things and one less-desirable thing (often called an “area for growth”). The trouble with constructive feedback is that most of us don’t hear the good news, since we are simply waiting for the bad, and when the bad comes, educators often feel defensive or see the feedback as too simplistic given the complexities of the classroom. Furthermore, constructive feedback sets up the principal as the giver and the teacher as the receiver, with teachers infrequently having the chance to share what they know about their students and their strengths as a teacher. An alternative is the dialogical approach of coaching.
Through mutual dialogue, people still share information, but they share it provisionally. Rather than telling teachers what they did right or wrong, coaches (and principals taking a coaching approach) explore ideas together. Often this involves a conversation about what sociologist Parker Palmer and others refer to as a “third thing,” something external to both teacher and principal that serves as a prompt for conversation. For example, a principal and coach might discuss a video of a lesson, examples of student work, or data gathered in the classroom, and both teacher and coach freely say what they think.
5. Focus on solutions. Another strategy for principals involves focusing conversations on a positive future rather than trying to identify a problem’s cause—a solution-focused approach. One way to do this is to use scaling questions such as:
- “On a scale of 1–10, how close was ______ to your ideal class, with 10 being the best score?”
- “Why did you give it that number?”
- “What would have to change to make it closer to a 10?”
One well-known, solution-focused question has become known as the “miracle question.” The question is always a variation of the following: “If a miracle happened tonight while you were sleeping and this problem completely disappeared, how would you know tomorrow that the miracle had happened?” A question such as the miracle question turns the focus away from what is wrong to what could be right, and coaches can then extend the conversation by asking other questions such as:
- “What would your students be doing?”
- “What would you be doing?”
- “How would your students feel?”
- “How would you feel?”
- “What else would be different?”
Problems can decrease motivation and energy, and when we spend too much time thinking about problems, we lose hope. A solution-based focus should increase energy, hope, and the likelihood that things will get better.
6. Set PEERS goals. Coaching is ultimately about setting and hitting goals, and many educators are familiar with SMART goals, an acronym that refers to goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. Based on a reading of the literature, we suggest modifying that goal-setting model as follows. Effective goals should be:
- Powerful (make a significant difference in children’s lives)
- Emotionally compelling (are very important to teachers)
- Easy (are the simplest and clearest way to accomplish a goal)
- Reachable (are measurable and involve an identified strategy to hit the goal)
- Student-focused (“Students will …” versus “Teachers will …”)
Once PEERS goals are set, principals can provide support when possible or necessary so that teachers can meet their objectives.
7. Identify resources. Principals can use coaching to empower teachers and help them identify resources to achieve success. This often involves questions such as:
- “What do you already have in place that can help you hit your goal?”
- “What have you tried so far that is already working?”
- “What people or resources already exist that you could use to get closer to your goal?”
In some cases, principals might also want to share resources that might be helpful—but they should always offer suggestions as a choice. It is best to offer at least three choices. Telling people what to do often increases resistance and decreases empowerment. Coaching is about empowering others to solve their own problems rather than solving the problems for them.
Although coaching is excellent for professional development, there are still times when principals need to be more direct. For example, principals need to appropriately address teachers who bully children in the classroom, who are a toxic force during team meetings, or who fail to meet the basic responsibilities of the job. At other times, a principal may need to set the direction for a school, a team, or an individual teacher. But more often than not, a directive approach does not promote change, and it can lead to resentment and a decrease in motivation. Leaders clearly need an alternative to directive forms of communication—and coaching is the solution.
Jim Knight is senior research associate at the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning and a senior partner at The Instructional Coaching Group. Christian van Nieuwerburgh is a professor of coaching and positive psychology at the University of East London and executive director of Growth Coaching International. John Campbell is executive director of Growth Coaching International. Sharon Thomas is a senior consultant at The Instructional Coaching Group.