Four Tips for Effective Coaching Conversations

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Jessica Crawford, District Literacy Coach in Michigan, highlights four coaching conversation moves she's learned over the years from other leading instructional coaches. Read on for some new ways to help your conversations begin to forge stronger teacher partnerships.


s an instructional coach, I know that collaboration is key for a successful coaching partnership, and coaching conversations lay the foundation for that collaboration. I've chosen to center my personal goals around the conversations I have with my teachers, and I've used several different resources to shape my approach.

Here I'm sharing four of my go-to resources for effective coaching conversations and how I've applied them to my own practice!

Use key questions

The most influential book I have read in my coaching journey has been The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More, & Change the Way You Lead Forever by Michael Bungay Stanier. In this book, Stanier lays out seven essential questions that leaders in any arena of life can use in their coaching to produce great results.

Before incorporating Stanier's work, here's how my check-ins with a teacher would typically go:

Me: Hey there! How’s it going?

Teacher: It's going alright.

Me: That's awesome. [Pause] Well, if you need anything, let me know!

Now I start conversations by asking Stanier's kickstart question: What's on your mind? When I do this, I see teachers pause and truly think before answering when I ask this question and their answers become much more honest.

I hear responses like: "I've been thinking if I should use this tool to support my students," and "I recently learned more about a new phonics approach I want to try with my students, but I'm not sure where to start." These responses open up many more opportunities for collaboration to work toward the teacher's goals and support student growth.

I like to follow up with the question Stanier deems the most powerful: And what else? It forces me as the coach to dig deeper to get to the root of the thought or challenge the teacher says, since rarely do the first answers we hear show the entire picture.

I highly encourage you to look more into Stanier's work to better understand all seven questions. And, just like I did, start small! Include just one question at a time to start ramping up those coaching conversations.

Hone your listening skills

Starting a conversation is fantastic, but to truly impact our coaching conversations, we have to be a good listeners. Before I started coaching, I thought being a good listener and co-worker meant I should help and have the answers for whatever my conversation partner was bringing up.

I became the speaker, talking about what I would do, or have done, in the situation. I did not pause and think to process the conversation truly. And, most egregious of all, I would interrupt with my own ideas! This did not, in fact, lead to better conversations; It actually shut them down.

Thankfully, I had the opportunity to attend a training focused on coaching and do my professional development before my first year as a coach began. I knew listening was going to be my first goal. Jim Knight directs us to listen with empathy in his book Better Conversations: Coaching Ourselves and Each Other to Be More Credible and I work hard to build these habits into my coaching work.

Whenever I enter a conversation, I remind myself to commit to listening to what my partner is saying. I've become mindful of my thoughts during conversations and use self-talk to ensure I do not interrupt and immediately start giving advice or inadvertently turn the conversation to be about me. It's a constant work in progress but has reaped many benefits: I have built trusting, strong relationships with the teachers and coaches I have the privilege of working with each day.

Offer strengths-based feedback

I'm a natural cheerleader; I was one all four years of high school. I'm the eternal optimist that always focuses on the positive. While these are fantastic qualities to have, that's only one part of giving feedback and being an effective coach. A coaching colleague, Hope Chapman, shared this analogy of the difference between a cheerleader and a coach: "a cheerleader is all about encouraging from the sidelines while the coach has a responsibility to get 'in there' with colleagues and speak to the things we see to help our colleagues grow."

Diane Sweeney and Leanna S. Harris urge us to use strengths-based feedback in their book Student-Centered Coaching: The Moves. Sweeney and Harris tell us, "Strengths-based feedback enables the coach to celebrate what is going well and also think about what the next steps would be." There are three moves we can add to our coaching toolboxes to use in giving strengths-based feedback in our conversations: clarify, value, and uncover possibilities.

Sweeney and Harris provide sentence stems to use in each phase of the framework, and I find these helpful in celebrating what is going well and working toward the next steps for growth for both teachers and students. The teacher and I collaborate on what the next lesson may look like, what instructional strategies to incorporate to support student growth, or plan how to support students no matter the level they are working at.

Acknowledging difficult feelings

Education has always been a complex field with many challenges. Coaches often wonder what they should do when a teacher is overwhelmed, frustrated, angry, or upset. Since the pandemic's start, many more challenges face teachers, administrators, and coaches every day.

In Cognitive Coaching: A Foundation for Renaissance Schools, Arthur L. Costa, and Robert J. Gramston provide us with a problem-solving map to support teachers. First, we honor the existing state the teacher is in. We name the emotion and situation the teacher is facing, showing our empathy for the situation. Second, we frame the desired state and acknowledge the teacher's goal. Finally, we state that the teacher is looking for a way to make that happen.

"You're (emotion) because (situation) and what you want is to (be/feel/have)(goal). And you're looking for a way to make that happen." — Cognitive Coaching

Having this sentence stem in my toolbox has been invaluable as it lets me acknowledge how they are feeling and then focus on the next steps and how we can move forward in our collaboration. I can then employ other tools from my toolbox—like questioning and effective listening—to support the teacher in finding their way through.

Final note

Conversations are one of the most powerful tools coaches can use with teachers. Remember to take small steps in incorporating new-to-you strategies into your coaching work, and view every conversation as an opportunity to practice your skills!

About our Guest Blogger

Jessica Crawford is a District Literacy Coach in Michigan with 15 years of experience in education. Jessica is passionate about literacy and sharing her love of reading and writing with students. She collaborates with teachers to ensure all students have access to literacy-rich classroom environments that enable them to practice the behaviors of reading, writing, listening, and speaking.

Be sure to check out Jessica's blog and follow her on Twitter!

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