7 Essential Questions to Kick-start Your Instructional Coaching

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Allison Peterson, IC at Westminster Academy and founder of the #NewtoCoaching Community, shows how to use Michael Bungay Stainer's 7 Essential Questions to guide your coaching conversations.


hether you're a new instructional coach or a seasoned pro, new coaching conversations are always difficult to start! Almost immediately, someone will tell you to "do coaching cycles," but they probably don’t spend much time training you in what coaching cycles are, what to achieve during them, or how to enroll teachers.

If you find yourself saying, "That sounds like my situation, Allison!" then you're not alone. Let me help you work your way towards an intentional coaching cycle by using the seven "Essential Coaching Questions” from Michael Bungay Stainer’s book, The Coaching Habit.

The process

When a teacher comes to you with a problem, it's normal to immediately give them a solution. However, we should replace this urge with a questioning strategy. There are two really good reasons for doing this:

  1. The teacher gains more ownership of the solution since she thought of it herself
  2. Your idea, although probably a great one, would likely not have been the right solution for her. No two brains are alike and just because it makes sense to you, doesn’t mean it makes sense to her!

So instead of providing a solution or telling them what you've done as a teacher in your own classroom, try asking one of the following questions and let them do the thinking.

1) What's on your mind?

This question has a unique way of cutting through small talk, and helps to narrow the conversation to what's actually important.

If you're trying to work towards a coaching cycle with a teacher, but you haven’t been able to break through the chit-chat about her kids, for instance, ask her, "So what's been on your mind about your class lately?" See if that breaks the ice enough for you to begin a coaching conversation!

2) And what else?

This question is meant for expansion, getting the teacher talking even more so that she shares more of his thoughts and ideas. Michael Bungay Stanier claims this is the "best coaching question in the world" because it also has the power to make you more curious and less quick to rush into giving advice or providing solutions.

Asking, "And what else have you been thinking about your students?" invites the teacher to share more of his concerns and worries with you. Once that happens, you actually have something to coach her on. It may still be too early for a coaching cycle, but now you're getting somewhere with a teacher who has potentially only been making small talk with you up until now.

Let's pretend for a moment that the teacher told you all about a student she's concerned about. She is behind and hasn't been able to catch up and the teacher doesn't know how to help her. Now we're getting to the good stuff, so let's ask...

3) What's the real challenge here for you?

Now that you have a starting point—a student who is behind—Michael Bungay Stanier would recommend that you go ahead and ask, "What's the real challenge here for you?" and wait a full seven seconds. You can do it: you're a good teacher and you used to do it with students all the time!

After the brief pause that will feel like agony, the teacher will surely answer the question with a response that may sound something like: "Well, I just don’t know how to get them to turn in their work!”

4) What do you want?

This is your first breakthrough with the teacher, so now try asking, "What do you want?" This usually enters the conversation naturally because the teacher probably already told you what she's tried so far to solve this problem—e.g., she's called the students' parents or talked to them one-on-one.

You may be tempted to give advice here and tell the teacher what she needs to do with this student. BUT WAIT! Instead of jumping in with your solution, ask the teacher, "What do you want to do next with this student?" Or perhaps, "What do you want the next step to be with this student?" The teacher's answer may surprise you, and it may not be the thing you were going to tell her to do.

The teacher will come up with a solution that makes sense to her and makes sense in the sequence of interactions and support that she had already been following with this student. And she suggested it!

Now, even if the teacher's solution is far from what you would recommend she do, stick with it and let her own her solution to the problem. If it seems like the wrong direction, don’t panic—you will have time to coach her again later.

5) How can I help?

Of course you want to offer help, but again it needs to be help that is relevant and appropriate for the situation. And if you start guessing at what that would be, you are taking shots in the dark. So let the teacher decide in the light where they can see the whole picture.

When you say "How can I help you?" you're doing two important things:

  1. Letting the teacher invite you into the situation as a partner (ding ding ding! One step closer to a coaching cycle!)
  2. Communicating to the teacher that you are available and willing to help—he hadn't considered you as a resource previously, so now you've made progress!

Based on the answer, you can find a time to follow up and support her specifically on this student issue. You can schedule a time to meet and work with her on a new strategy or visit her classroom to give feedback. There are all sorts of directions you can take from here because you've just opened the door to coaching with this teacher. All you have to do is step inside!

Now the last two questions are super handy, so keep them in your back pocket for future conversations with that teacher.

6) What are you saying no to?

This question is all about clearing space for new things by removing old things. You can use this question with a teacher who is trying a new strategy but feels overwhelmed by maintaining her old systems while she adds this new layer.

When you sense that happening with a teacher, you can ask her, "If you are saying yes to this, what are you saying no to?" The question may surprise her and give her the permission she needs to let something old go to make way for the new idea or strategy in her classroom. You can also ask her a variation of this question which is, “What can you remove so you can make room for this?”

Pro tip: Teachers need permission to let something go—something that they've been holding on to because they think they are "supposed to" do it—especially during this intense COVID-19 teaching world. You can use this question to help teachers release old burdens and make their load a little lighter.

7) What's most useful to you?

And finally, I saved the best question for last. This question will transform your coaching, so start using it regularly and watch the fireworks start! By asking the question, "What's most useful to you?," you drive reflection and intentional learning with the teacher. It also provides a learning opportunity for both of you. 

After asking this question at the end of a PLC, PD, or meeting, the teacher will be able to reflect on her learning and grasp something specific that was useful to her that he can take back to her classroom. As the coach, you also get the chance to learn a little more about this teacher and how he thinks. And when you have a better grasp of how each teacher thinks and processes information, you can support them better!

This question is also a bridging question—it can help you bridge from one coaching conversation to the next. If you collect the answer to this one question in a Google form, for instance, you now have a list of how and who to follow up with to have a coaching conversation.

Final note

Did you see how easy that was? By asking Michael Bungay Stanier's 7 Essential Coaching Questions, you can turn every conversation into a coaching conversation! In fact, using these questions in your next coaching conversation can open the doors to another meeting next week, and another meeting the week after that. Wait, did you just start a coaching cycle? I think you did!

🎉 Bonus: I recently did a Facebook Live recap of these 7 Essential Coaching Questions that you can watch to learn more. Plus, I also created a 16 page Guide to the 7 Essential Coaching Questions for New Coaches, that you can use to learn how and when to use these coaching questions with teachers.

About our Guest Blogger

Allison Petersen is the founder of the #NewtoCoaching Community where new instructional coaches can learn, connect, and be encouraged as they transition from the classroom to instructional coaching. In addition to training and supporting new coaches, Allison helps independent schools launch instructional coaching programs.

She has been a K-12 instructional coach for seven years and is currently launching a coaching program at an independent school in South Florida.

Be sure to follow Allison on Twitter @alcp!

Illustration by Icons 8.

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