Principal as Coach: Effective Questioning Techniques

The Advice Monster

As school leaders, we have a tendency to use our own experience as a form of teaching. When approached by a colleague with a situation, our immediate response is to make suggestions, based on our background. The underlying theory is that if the solution worked for us, why can’t it work for others? We’re amazing, right? After all, we are “leaders!” The reality is that offering suggestions or advice in this way can be ineffective and disengaging for the people who look to us for support.

According to Michael Stanier, this tendency is the unleashing of our “Advice Monster” – the voice in our head that tells us others are looking for our ideas and suggestions to solve their problems. Stanier suggests that rather than feeding the Advice Monster,  the best thing we can do is to encourage discussion and reflection. In short, we should spend more time asking questions that prompt reflection and growth and less time providing direct solutions. Stanier believes that the right set of questions can empower people to define their own needs and determine the best course of action. In his book The Coaching Habit, Stanier offers seven effective questions for managers ask, but we will focus on three which will benefit the leader-teacher relationship.

The Focus Question: What’s the real challenge here for you?

This type of question is best used when a teacher is providing a list of problems they are facing. The first problem that a teacher presents is not usually the whole picture, but merely a piece of it. The whole challenge tends to be the combination of a series of smaller problems which she/he encounters. Teachers will benefit from reflecting on this question because it encourages them to “think big” and identify their overarching challenge. As an instructional leader, asking this question empowers someone to arrive at their own conclusion and explore these larger challenges.

The Foundation Question: What do you wish to achieve?

A version of: “What do you want?” This question can seem intimidating, but when used appropriately can open up a dialogue with a teacher to determine a goal. While the Focus Question helps teachers to identify the overarching challenge, the Foundation Question will encourage them to determine what it is they want to do about this challenge. Therefore, it is best asked after the teacher has identified her/his “big picture” challenge. Principals can even adjust the question to address a specific event. For example, ”What do you want feedback on for this upcoming observation?” In this case, a principal empowers the teacher to determine the focus for an observation. This also helps a principal narrow her/his lens, allowing for more relevant and clear feedback following the observation.

The Lazy Question: How can I help?

Teachers often wish they had an opportunity to ask for support. The Lazy Question provides them with this opportunity – an open space to articulate their needs and explore the different levels of support which their instructional leader can provide. Although it seems like a simple question, it can lead to a powerful discussion where the teacher begins to view her/his instructional leader as a mentor. Once a mentorship is established, a teacher will feel supported and open to continuous feedback. This will ultimately result in a strong relationship, rooted in the teacher’s professional growth.

 

Tech Tip: Evernote = Ever-organized

In order for principals to utilize these questions most effectively, they should modify them to best fit a variety of situations. Depending on their dialogues with teachers (and the teachers themselves), principals may find it necessary to make small changes to how the questions are asked. Principals should also practice these questions regularly and note the teacher response.  To ensure that they are used as part of debriefs, performance reviews, or other growth conversations with teachers, principals can use digital tools like Evernote to create templates to frame the dialogue. 

 

Interested in learning more about asking good questions?

Click for more information about Michael Stanier’s bookThe Coaching Habit.

Click to explore resourceful videos about how to effectively ask questions.