Questions: The Currency of Coaching

Collaboration Montage

Ellen Eisenberg, Executive Director of The Professional Institute for Instructional Coaching (TPIIC), explains the importance of giving your coachee a voice and how to use questions to drive conversations.


sking questions is a focused way to begin conversations around teaching and learning. Similarly, as a coach, helping teachers identify goals is an effective way to start working with colleagues. Let the teachers voice their thoughts, opinions, hopes, and goals by asking questions about what goals are important to achieve and in what order it makes the most sense to accomplish them.

Giving the Teacher a Voice

Giving your colleagues voice and choice is critical in establishing a trusting relationship. This shows your colleagues that your opinions are not as important as their own thoughts (i.e., your ego is not front and center). The idea of helping the coachee come to their own conclusions through the questioning process is the takeaway without regard to the position, experience, or grade level of the person being coached. Take to heart the words of Isobel Stevenson (Connecticut Center for School Change) in the June 2017 issue of Learning Forward Journal, The Learning Professional, when she said:

"Asking the right question at the right time affords the possibility that there is another way to approach an issue."

Know how and when to pat and push, nag and nurture without overstepping the boundaries of the connections you're making. Understand that there are barriers—either self-imposed or involuntary—that might influence the reactions to working together. Remember, collaboration is not natural; teachers are accustomed to working in isolation and exposing one's own supposed "weaknesses" does not happen automatically, easily, or without angst. After all, the first encounter with "support" that a teacher experiences is usually being observed and evaluated by an administrator. That's why it's crucial for coaches to begin their coaching interactions slowly, steadily, non-invasively, and always related to goal setting.

A Coach's Visit

Coaches never evaluate practice, they assess needs by visiting, not observing; supporting, not directing; and valuing, not dismissing differences in opinion and ways to approach teaching and learning. Their visits are non-evaluative and deliberate. Just like teachers must assess their students' needs in a classroom, coaches must understand, acknowledge, and plan how to move practice forward, approaching their colleagues with respect and understanding.

Coaches make data-driven decisions about how to support colleagues and rely on these same colleagues to keep the communication cycle consistent and transparent. They work with their teaching colleagues to help build capacity, improve student outcomes, and increase student engagement. More importantly, they know the appropriate questions to ask in the "before," the "during," and the "after" sessions to help their colleagues identify, deliver, and gauge their own effective instructional practice.

Final Note and Tips

Be aware, coaching is a messy and humbling experience—albeit an incredible learning one—for all! Coaches should be familiar with their own learning style, strengths, and areas of need in order to support colleagues to their full potential. When practicing the habit of asking questions when working with a coachee, the coach continues to grow their own skill set as well. If we engage in a process designed to promote growth and learning for all, that really means growth and learning for everyone.

I'll leave you with a few coaching tips for asking questions:

  1. Model the "I don't know the answer" process which goes a long way towards collective problem-solving and shared responsibility.
  2. Don't try to be sorcerers or magicians or the only "holders of the truth." Instead, be the experienced colleague who wants to collaborate regularly, share new learnings, "give and get" constructive feedback.
  3. Offer "side-by-side" support and shift the paradigm of teaching and learning.
  4. Be the change agent who continues to ask the kinds of questions that get to the heart of effective instructional practice.
  5. Ensure that learning is a priority for all.

About our Guest Blogger

Ellen B. Eisenberg is the executive director of The Professional Institute for Instructional Coaching (TPIIC), and the former executive director of The Pennsylvania Institute for Instructional Coaching (PIIC) from 2009-2018. Established in 2018, TPIIC is a researched-based resource for developing and supporting the delivery of consistent, high-quality professional development and professional learning around instructional coaching and mentoring designed to help teachers implement effective instructional practices.

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