Asking the right questions at the right time is the true power of coaching. It’s not easy to get comfortable with questioning, especially if the process is new to you, so today I’m sharing five features of a great question to help you get started!.
1:: Connect to Prior Experience
The first feature of a great question is to connect to prior experience, to help the teachers realize what they already know about whatever kind of question they’re asking you. The question stems I would use in this instance focus on getting teachers to think about other similar experiences they’ve had with these students in their classroom:
- In this scenario, how would you, why would you, what would you…
- Knowing your students and how they’ve responded in the past, how would you, why would you, what would you….
These types of questions let teachers recognize that they already have the answer within them. They’ve already had this experience (maybe in a slightly different context) and when they make connections to their prior experience they will recognize they have strategies and skills to handle this new experience as well.
2:: Inquire Deeper
The second feature of a great question is to inquire deeper into the teacher’s actual goals. Sometimes we can be a little stressed when a teacher asks us a question, feeling like we have this pressure to answer immediately, but we’re not actually really sure what they’re asking. So it can help to give yourself a little bit more background about what they really need or want by finding out what they really need or want. A question stem that might work for this is:
- Tell me a little bit more about what you’ve done so far.
- What’s worked and what’s been challenging?
That might help you identify areas of strength for the teacher and areas of growth that you might want to work on with the teacher and really kind of pinpoint what their question is.
Another standard question that I ask all the time (and if you’ve been following me for a while, you know it’s one of my favorites) is:
- What do you want students to know and be able to do?
Sometimes teachers can get trapped into this is what I’ve always done, and it can be hard to think about the overarching learnings they want for their students when it’s kind of mixed up in the activities or the project or the assessment that they’ve done in the past. So this question kind of lets go of those previous tasks and focuses on what the students really need to know and be able to do by the end of the unit. And then you can have a deeper conversation about how you can support them in reaching those goals.
3:: Empower Independence
The third feature of a great question is to empower independence. This comes back to connecting to prior experience, but it’s also part of the issue of sometimes teachers becoming dependent on coaching and expecting that you’re with them for this same project every single year. I’m sure like me, you’ve had the experience of doing a great collaborative project with a teacher, coaching them through a whole amazing project. And then they come back to the following year and say, when are you coming into my classroom to do this again with me? And you were thinking that the whole time you were helping them become independent.
So here’s some kind of simple questions that help them think about the fact that you might not be able to be with them the next time they do something like this – and they will actually be capable to do it 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?
You can combine questions like that with a note taking template so they have space to write down their thoughts & ideas while they’re working with you.
Another question that can empower independence that’s a little bit different is:
- What’s your first thought?
- What’s your gut reaction?
- What’s your first instinct?
I know often when I am being coached, my coach will say that same thing. What’s your gut instinct or what’s your first thought. And even though it is a very simple question, it really prompts a lot of deep thinking and it makes you realize you do have an idea. You do have an inspiration. You do have a first thought. Maybe it’s not the complete final answer. Maybe you’re not going to get all the way there just with that gut instinct, but it can start leading you down a path that allows you as the coach to ask better questions and allows the teacher to dig into their own previous experience and their own skills that they already have.
4:: Be Open About What You Don’t Know
I mentioned earlier that sometimes we, as coaches, feel the pressure to have every answer and that is just not realistic. So being transparent about what you do and don’t know is really important. One of the ways you can address that is to say something like:
- That’s a great question. Let me do some research and get back to you.
- That’s a great question. Let’s work on finding out the answer together.
- That’s a great question. Do you want to dive deeper into that with me?
Anything to let them know that maybe you don’t have the finished answer right now at this moment in time you’re demonstrating a growth mindset with the teacher you’re working with because you’re asking them to be growth minded as well.
Some other ways you can kind of dig deeper to find out how you can support that teacher is to ask questions like:
- 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?
- 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?
So talking a little deeper to identify exactly what they need and being open about what you know, and don’t know can help both of you have that deeper conversation to get towards that ideal outcome.
The fifth feature of a great question is allowing the teacher time to talk while you listen. Sometimes that time to talk is also an opportunity to determine which type of question you want to ask them. So you can empower them to keep talking by saying things like:
- tell me more about…
- …and what else….
Both of these allow them that time to keep sharing their thoughts and ideas and help you better understand what they need.
One of my favorite questions that came from a coach, better conversation with my co-host Clint Hamada, is if you did know the solution, what would it be? I love the idea of allowing teachers to have the idea that they might actually know how to solve their own problem that they came to you for. And then you can talk it out for a minute.
With all of these questions, obviously you have to pick and choose what’s right in the moment. If the teacher has five minutes and they’re panicked and the kids are lining up at the door, you’re not going to ask them “if you did know the solution, what would it be” because that will just be super frustrating. So pick and choose these types of questions as they fit appropriately with the teacher’s needs that you’re working with in that moment in time.
Hopefully these sentence stems and question starters are helpful for you! As you’re using them, take notes, make sure you write down what you need to follow up on so that you do actually follow up and follow through. Even if you’re taking notes, it’s really important to be present in the meeting at that time. So the teacher knows you’re genuinely listening.
If you have strategies or question stems or question starters that work really well for you, please leave them in the comments below because we’d love to hear from you. And of course, if you have questions about coaching, comment them below as well, we’d love to support you by creating a video just for your needs.
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