Coaching conversations: The key questions

Written by: Martin Matthews | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Coaching can be a powerful technique to help middle leaders support teachers in challenging circumstances. Martin Matthews looks at the basics and considers some key coaching questions

He was just lying there in the road, not moving and then he got up and started walking in circles. I felt awful. I didn’t mean to reverse over him. I feel so bad, because he set fire to his tail the other day when he walked past a candle I had lit for Valentine’s day...”

I nodded – partly in sympathy, partly in bemusement.

She tried to stop herself from sobbing: “A burnt tail and run over in the same week – the vet said he’d be fine, but I feel awful.”

“Okay,” I said. “Shall we talk about your performance management targets a little later? Would you like a cup of tea first?”

I was a middle leader at the time of this discussion and was meeting with a colleague about her performance management progress.

When you attend leadership courses, you learn many things and are faced with “what would you do if” scenarios.

However, what they don’t teach you – probably because they can’t – are the realities and complexities of leading and supporting human beings each with their own needs. I certainly don’t recall a scenario of how to support a hard-working colleague who has run over and set fire to her cat in the same week. I might have to draft a letter to the National College for Teaching and Leadership about that...

Leadership

The word “Leadership” permeates our schools and drives a lot of what we do in education. As teachers, we are reminded that we all have a role to play in leadership, whether we are the headteacher or an NQT in the classroom.
Leadership, at his best, should be about setting goals, challenging students to develop and providing colleagues with support and guidance to enable them to improve. For new leaders, a lot of what is learnt about leadership is on-the-job, step-by-step and it can sometimes be a steep learning curve.

Middle leaders play a large part in the leadership of a school. The clue is in the title, they are very much in the middle. Often they find themselves responsible for performance management reviews, lesson observations and much more.

Observation

He finished the lesson. I knew it was over as the PowerPoint had “the end” written on it with little animations of fireworks, presumably in celebration of the culmination of the learning cycle he had just delivered.

The students finished the last sentence they were writing and the NQT put his board marker down as he deflated into his chair. As the students packed up, I noted his face seemed to be a mixture of relief that the observation was over and reflection – had he covered all the points on his lesson plan? Had his differentiated objectives been met? Had his hugely detailed 756-slide (approximately) PowerPoint been enough?

The questions seemed to be all over his face – that mixture of elation and defeat that often covers teachers’ faces after an observation. The students who had, for the most part, diligently gone through the lesson with him began to troop out of the classroom talking in muted tones.

I walked over to him and sat down. “So, talk me through your lesson,” I said. He sighed. “I think I covered everything I needed to.” “Okay,” I replied. “But,” he continued, “something was missing.”

It was clear to us both – he had done everything “right” in his lesson, yet something was wrong. At this stage, I could tell him what I thought was wrong with his lesson or I could encourage him to come to conclusions about it for himself.

Coaching

So, you are a middle leader. You’ve got an upset colleague (with an unfortunate feline friend) who you need to undertake a performance management review with and a deflated NQT in need of some air.

For a middle leader in this situation a good place to start might be coaching. The basic concept of coaching is that you, as the leader, should not be imparting your opinion or your supposed greater wisdom on others, but rather you should be encouraging the person you are coaching to reflect for themselves.

Coaching requirements

Key skills a coach might need:

  • The ability to establish and maintain rapport and trust with a colleague.
  • The capacity to listen to what people are saying and make meaning from it.
  • The skill to develop and pose questions that will allow others to develop and reflect.
  • The desire and drive to help others develop their confidence in what they do.
  • The ability (by you) to not lecture, dictate or try to turn your colleague into a version of you.

And for a coaching session you will need:

  • You (the coach).
  • Them (the person you are coaching).
  • A quiet room, with the computer off.
  • Time to talk. Seriously. Make sure it’s not just five minutes as you race through from break duty to “once more unto the breach” with year 8.
  • A pen and paper (optional – but could be useful. Although, as a coach you should try not to make notes while the person you’re coaching is talking – they need your full attention).
  • Coffee/tea (caffeinated if it’s been a long week, decaf if your colleague has spent the last lesson peeling year 9 off the ceiling).

Step 1: Analysis of the lesson/issue

Once you have both sat down, you need to take time with your colleague to analyse the issue at hand. You, as the coach, should pose questions to your colleague to allow them to come up with answers for themselves. Key questions the coach could pose include some of the following ideas:

  • Start by talking me through your lesson. Or is there something about the situation you want to talk about?
  • What went well/is going well? This is an important point to focus on. If your colleague is deflated, you need to help them find some positives. Even in the worst of situations, there are usually some.
  • What did not go well in the lesson (or is not going well in a situation)?
  • What is stopping you moving forward or developing?
  • What positives can you build on?
  • Have you forgotten to consider anything?
  • What might you wish to change?

Remember, you are posing questions for your colleague to respond to. You are not aiming to give the answers out.

Step 2: Setting direction

Once an analysis has been completed, then it is important that a direction of travel is set. Key questions might include:

  • How would you like things to be in your lessons/the situation causing concern?
  • What would things look like if everything was going as you wanted?
  • How do you think others might see this situation? (Here, it could be worth posing further questions that try to evoke positivity.)
  • What are the possibilities for development?
  • What is achievable in a set time?
  • What would you be committing yourself to doing if you undertook plan X?

Step 3: An action plan

The main goal of this step is to pose questions that allow the person being coached to develop a plan of action. Key questions might include:

  • What are the main tasks you would need to complete to achieve your goals?
  • What other considerations might you wish to reflect on?
  • What can you do immediately to make a start on this?
  • What support might you need? Who would you seek assistance from?
  • What will your plan look like?

It is important that your colleague leaves the coaching session with some sort of action plan, or an agreement that they will write one up within a set amount of time. As the coach, it could be useful for you to summarise what has been discussed and check the person you are coaching agrees.

Presenting yourself as a coach

While the coaching session is in progress, make sure you think about how you are presenting yourself to the person being coached:

  • Are you listening effectively?
  • Are you considering your verbal and non-verbal communication?

On a busy day, it could be easy for you to think, “I’ve not got time for this”, “I can’t believe she ran over her cat again”, but what’s important is that you make time for your colleagues. It is imperative that they know you are interested. It is not hard to nod along as they speak, although be careful not to appear like the Churchill Dog – “oh yes”. And don’t forget to smile.

Making yourself available

Coaching can happen anywhere, anyhow. Some obvious times for planned coaching could include after a lesson observation, during performance management processes, or when reflecting on an incident that has occurred (in a corridor, at a parents’ evening and so on).

However, middle leaders need to be aware that they might be called upon for advice and support. We need to make sure we try to make time for people in our busy days, to offer support, listen and coach.

Giving advice

The playwright Bertolt Brecht said: “Terrible is the temptation to do good.” In an article on coaching, I am advocating listening to colleagues and guiding them to think for themselves. For some people, it might seem like an easier option to just tell people how to be – but as Brecht suggests, that has its own perils.

Having said that, clearly there are times when all leaders can (and perhaps should) use their experience to give advice.

All I am asking you to do, is to think carefully about whether the scenario you are faced with is one that is best served by telling someone what to do, or by guiding them so that they can reflect for themselves.

  • Martin Matthews is an experienced secondary school teacher in Cheshire.


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