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How to Structure a Coaching Conversation

Recently, I observed a new coach asked me for feedback on her coaching. In an email she wrote, "I know something's wrong with how I'm going about this, but I don't know what!"

After observing the 50 minute session, it was clear to me that problem was that her conversation had no structure or direction. It just meandered around, comfortably and easily, but it didn't go anywhere. In our debrief, I started by asking the coach what her goal was for the conversation. She looked at me quizzically. "Goal?" she said, "What do you mean?"

"Where were you trying to guide the teacher?" I responded. "To explore which aspects of his teaching? To reflect on which of his beliefs or mindsets? To think about what?" Again, she looked blank. And embarrassed. And then her eyes welled up and she looked away.

"It's okay," I said. "There were some clear indicators of good coaching in that conversation." She made eye contact briefly. "Really," I said. "There was a good feeling between you two. Clearly he trusts you—his body language was open, he laughed, he engaged in conversation."

The coach smiled a little. "Yes," she said. "I feel like we have a good rapport."

"And you asked some good open questions," I added. "I can tell you respect him, that you are curious about him and the decisions he's making in his classroom."

"I do," she said. "So what should I have done?"

"Did you plan for the conversation?" I asked. She shook her head. "Then that would be a first start. You need a plan and a basic structure for the conversation."

Basic Planning for a Coaching Conversation

Ideally, all coaching is connected to a client's goals or an area of inquiry. For example, a teacher might set goals around developing positive relationships with students, increasing engagement, or using formative assessment to guide instruction. Or a teacher can create inquiry questions around these same areas. This gives the coaching an anchor, focus or goal. A coaching session is therefore planned to guide a teacher towards these ends.

However, the coach I was working with in the anecdote that opens this blog wasn't yet ready to develop goals with her client, so we went straight for basic planning. Here are the three key questions to think about to prepare for a coaching conversation:

  1. How can I make this conversation meaningful to the teacher? What do they care about that we can talk about?
  2. What's one question I can ask the teacher to help them reflect on their practice?
  3. What's one instructional practice that might be useful for this teacher to reflect on and make a change in? How can I help this teacher reflect on this behavior and make changes?

Basic Structure for a Coaching Conversation

A basic structure of a coaching conversation includes the following:

  • An opening. A brief time to connect, say "How are you? How was your weekend?" and get warmed up. In order to manage this time, it's helpful to make an agreement with your client to use a timer and to set five minutes or so. After a while, you may not need to use it as you'll both be in the rhythm of a quick check in.
  • A transition into the conversation and an agreement about what you'll talk about. I say, "So let's talk about our session today. I have a couple of things I thought we could talk about, but I really want to hear if there's anything you want to make sure we talk about or if you have any hopes or goals for our time." Invite your client to share their thoughts first. Then see how your agenda items fit in, or don't. Make the decision about what to talk about together. Say, "What feels like it would be most useful for us to talk about?" Or suggest starting with one topic and then moving to another. Suggest time parameters for each topic—so that you'll have enough time and get agreement on this from your client.
  • The conversation. Keep the conversation focused on the goals or topics you've agreed on. That's the key. Remember to make it meaningful and relevant to the client. See if you can integrate the question that will be most useful to help the teacher reflect on their practice. See if there's an authentic opportunity to guide reflection on behavior.
  • Closing. Always make sure to save five minutes for wrapping up. During this phase, you can ask a reflective question like, "What new understandings did you get about teaching (or yourself) today?" Or, "What was useful in our conversation today?" And also confirm any follow up or next steps. If you've agreed to do anything (send a resource, make a connection with another teacher, analyze data) be sure to restate those commitments. If the teacher has made any agreements about anything they'll do, also restate those. Finally, make sure you have your next session scheduled.

Clearly, there's a great deal more to learn about the middle section—the conversation—but with a basic structure, coaching sessions can be a lot more intentional. ¬†

Next week I'll return to observe the coach I'm working with and I look forward to seeing how her conversations shift with some basic planning and basic structure.

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