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.

Written by Nick Zaveri, @ZaveriNick

Finding “Flow” in the Classroom

The Climb

I began bouldering while in grad school. Invited by a group of experienced climbers, I immediately felt like a fish out of water but decided to go for it regardless. If you have never bouldered before, it goes something like this:

You start on the ground, struggling to pull on a snug pair of shoes and then clouds of powdered chalk billow in the air as you smooth it over your hands. Looking up at the stacked wall above you, you scope out the hand and footholds to which you will soon cling. You begin your climb methodically: foot-foot, hand-hand. You can feel the muscles in your fingertips engaging with every new motion. 

 

In Flow

I instantly fell in love with the sport (despite the callused hands and cramped feet), and couldn’t  figure out why. Then it hit me. Up there on the wall, with my hands and feet gripping the holds, I was forced to be “all in.” In order to reach the end (or at least not fall flat onto the mats below), I needed to be fully engaged in the activity – mind and body. Psychologist, Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi, called this feeling “flow.”

We experience a state of “flow” when we are fully engaged in the moment, present to an activity that is equally as challenging as it is enjoyable. While in this state, people tend to perform at their highest, as a result of being focused on the task and … happy. Perhaps you have experienced something similar – a moment when you looked up at the clock, startled by the amount of time that has passed. It might have happened while reading your favorite book or cooking your favorite meal.  Either way, you were in “flow.”

 

Flow in the Classroom

An important question for us to consider as teachers is: have our students ever had this experience? And, if so, where? At home? With friends? Is it possible for us to recreate flow in our classrooms? I’d like to think that Csikzentmihalyi’s answer would have been, “Yes, but it might take some adjustments.” The building blocks of his theory of flow can be traced back to the Hierarchy of Needs, created by psychologist Abraham Maslow. The concept behind this theory is that, in order for humans to achieve their full potential, they must first have their basic and psychological needs met. Once these needs have been fulfilled, they can begin their quest towards self-actualization, which Csikzentmihalyi later identified as “flow.”  

What does this have to do with our classrooms?  I’m going to answer that question with another: Do our classrooms meet the basic and psychological needs of our students? While teachers cannot ensure that every one of the basic needs are met, there are several aspects which they can accomplish by examining the physical and digital spaces of their classrooms.

As important as these elements are, we must also remember that our approach as teachers is key to our students’ sense of well-being. In order for them to feel safe and nurtured, it is necessary to promote an atmosphere that follows suit.

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