Let me ask you a question…

The Tricky Nature of Questioning in Coaching

We’ve already established this quarter that coaching is not about being an expert. It’s not “I Know” as much as it is “I Trust” (Goldberg).  The module for this week’s post dealt with how to build that trust. One key element was to ask questions rather than provide answers.  This is the approach Les Foltos advocates in from the beginning of his book; the kind of interaction in which good coaches, “emphasize inquiry over advocacy”(Foltos). However, simply asking questions is not enough. Questions can take any number of forms and, in fact, it is possible to ask questions in such a manner as to appear even more the expert than with making statements.  Because of this, it’s important to get these questions right. We, as peer coaches are to “rely on questioning strategies rather than advocating for any particular solution to the issues facing their [our] peers” (Foltos).  With the importance of asking questions in my mind, I wanted to know exactly how to ask non-judgmental or agenda-laden questions when coaching. Or to look at it another way, how do we move from the “I Know” to the “I Trust” only by asking effective questions?

Seek and Ye Shall Find

Doing research on the internet is always a crap-shoot. One never knows what one will find when looking for answers in the ether.  There have been numerous times for this blog alone where I have been frustrated and not found exactly what I was looking for. This is not always bad, however, and it can often lead to even other avenues of inquiry which are equally beneficial, but the situation is generally one of searching and frustration.  So needless to say, I was shocked when upon searching for an answer to my question, I came across a blog post on EdWeek that almost word-for-word addressed my question!

Elena Aguilar, whom I cited in last week’s blog post on not being an expert, had written a post 2 years ago that was practically a direct answer to my question. In fact, her post was prompted by a question she received from a new instructional coach looking for help as she entered her new position. The new coach was looking for things she could do over the summer to help her prepare and Aguilar provided a list of 5 things she could do to get ready (see chart below). One of those items involved asking non-judgmental, probing questions.  The probing question is different from the clarifying question (which we also practiced recently) in that it is not seeking to understand a specific piece of information, but rather it is designed to prompt the teacher being coached to reflect on their practice. Getting teachers to reflect is goal.  According to Aguilar, “a coach’s primary role is to elicit reflection. You can do this by asking open, reflective questions.” Aguilar then provides two pages worth of sentence stems to help new coaches frame their questions. In terms of practice, this is exactly what I was looking for. The stems are arranged by general category and clearly be evaluated for their probative nature. Here are the categories with a single example of each:

General Coaching Sentence Stems
  1. Active listening stems (“In other words…”)
  2. Clarifying stems (“Let me see if I understand…”)
  3. Nonjudgmental responses (“I’m interesting in learning more about…”)
  4. Probing stems (“What’s another way you might…?”)
Facilitative Coaching Stems
  1. Cathartic (“What’s coming up for you right now? Would you like to talk about your feelings?”)
  2. Catalytic (“Tell me about a previous time when you…How did you deal with that?”)
  3. Supportive (“What did you do to make the lesson so successful?”)
Directive Coaching Stems
  1. Informative (“There’s a useful book on that topic by…”)
  2. Prescriptive (“Have you talked to ___ about that yet?”)
  3. Confrontational (“I’d like to ask you about… Is that OK?”)

The stems operate on various levels and are applicable in a variety of situations depending on the teacher, the coach, the school, the administration, but they provide a basic framework. They form a staring point for me as I look at how to ask the right questions.  Aguilar acknowledges their limitations, but points out their value as well. “You can modify these stems to make them feel more like you–but there are some useful parameters to keep in mind. First, don’t ask ‘why’ questions–sometimes it’s ok, but as a general rule it’s better not to. ‘Why…?’ can sometimes make someone feel a tiny bit defensive. It’s a request for an explanation and often doesn’t yield deep reflection. If you want to know ‘why,’ you might try saying something like, ‘It sounds like that evening didn’t go as you’d hoped. I’d love to hear more about how you made that decision…'” (Aguilar). The thing that struck me most about this is the avoidance of “why.”  I always thought “why” questions were the highest level questions since they got at the causative nature of things and got us to reflect, but apparently there’s a built-in hostility with these questions (although it’s a “tiny” amount) so they should be avoided. I think in some cases, “why” is OK (and she acknowledges that as well), but I’m glad Aguilar provided so many alternatives. She provides a few more useful suggestions as well, “Another parameter is to keep your sentence stems short. Long rambling questions confuse listeners. After a while, you’ll find the stems you use most often, in a range of contexts. One of mine is, ‘Tell me more about that.'” (Aguilar). Two excellent tips here: keep the questions short and you’ll have a few go-to questions that you’ll use a lot. These are both good pieces of advice for me going forward.

Ultimately, I’m still trying to figure out exactly how I can use questions to help make other teachers better. There’s still something that feels artificial (“disingenuous?”) about it. I want to help people, not drive them to frustration by peppering them with questions. It’s going to be a journey and I’m just getting started. I’m still shedding the skin of the expert and molting into a coach, but Aguilar has given me some good tools I can use to flesh-out the philosophies I’ve already been exposed to. I look forward to the next step.





Aguilar, Elena (July 2, 2015). “New Coaches: Try This at Home” Education Week.  Retrieved from: http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/coaching_teachers/2015/07/new_coaches_try_this_at_home.html

Foltos, Les (2013).  Peer coaching : Unlocking the Power of Collaboration. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin.

Goldberg, David. “A Distinction between Expert and Coach: ‘I Know’ versus ‘I Trust. ‘” Big Beacon: A Movement to Transform Engineering Education. Retrieved from: http://bigbeacon.org/2013/06/a-distinction-between-expert-and-coach-i-know-versus-i-trust/

ISTE (2011). “ISTE Standards for Coaches.” International Society for Technology in Education. Retrieved from http://www.iste.org/standards/standards/standards-for-coaches


The Expert and the Coach

There are coaches and there are experts…

This quarter in EDTC 6105 we’re looking at coaching – a logical next step which looks at how we, as ed tech leaders, can help our fellow teachers improve. The ISTE standards this time around (1b and 1d) focus on  “contribute[ing] to the planning, development, communication, implementation, and evaluation of technology-infused strategic plans at the district and school levels” and “implement[ing] strategies for initiating and sustaining technology innovations and manage the change process in schools and classrooms” (ISTE), but the prompt for the module is a more general question, “what is essential for successful coaching?” In the context of all of this, we read a couple chapters from Les Foltos’s Peer Coaching and this helped generate the question I am pursuing here; namely, how does one be a peer coach, but not an expert?

Not an Expert

Foltos points out several things a peer coach should be in his first chapter. In defining the relationship between the coach and the teacher being coached, he says the relationship should be friendly, personalized, manageable, private and supported.  He goes on to further define the relationship as one characterized by respect and trust. It is in this context that Foltos makes the argument which gives me the most trouble: coaches should not be “experts.” Foltos lists a number of attributes a coach should have: able to build trust, build on what a teacher needs, communicates well and listens to teachers, is flexible, provides a safe environment, and is recognized as a strong/outstanding teacher, but then goes on to say, “Even a brief reading of these attributes makes it clear that teachers want a coach to be a peer, not an expert” (Foltos 26).  He goes on to elaborate that, “Experienced coaches seem to understand instinctively that if coaches position themselves as experts, their colleagues may feel inferior” (Foltos 26). Both of these statements clearly identify being an expert as a barrier to the peer coaching relationship and they make sense in the context of trust Foltos is establishing.  And trust is important.  In fact, in his article on why coaching won’t work in education, Peter DeWitt identifies the lack of trust as a central component.  “Unfortunately, there are schools that enter into coaching, but they put coaches in situations that will only foster resentment and not growth among teachers. Perhaps it’s these days of accountability and point scales on teacher evaluations, but there is a lack of trust between many teachers and leaders. Where there is a lack of trust there will also be a hesitancy to try something new” (DeWitt). DeWitt’s point is well-taken, but he’s specifically discussing the misapplication of coaching principles as established by Foltos and others. So trust must be paramount, but does being an expert automatically violate that trust?

Having “Expertise”

When Foltos discusses being an expert, it carries with it certain connotations which cast it in a negative light. As Foltos uses it, it’s less about a coach  possessing expertise (the definition of being an expert) and more about a coaching teacher telling another teacher what to do. This is, of course, antithetical to the coaching relationship based on trust. Yet connotations not withstanding, being a “strong/outstanding” teacher is necessary in order to be a coach.  You can’t coach something you know nothing about.  So at some level there’s an acknowledgement by someone that the coach must know something about teaching – and must be good at it. Other authors agree. DeWitt argues that “The coach is seen as someone who has a level of expertise. Don’t confuse expertise with experience. Age doesn’t matter here as much as understanding the dynamics of a classroom, how to engage students, and the pressures of accountability” (DeWitt). For DeWitt it’s not about age or experience as much as it’s about expertise.  Elena Aguilar compares coaches to mentors and establishes the importance of being an expert in each, A mentor is an insider in a system, an expert in a field, who supports a novice,” yet, “The key difference between mentoring and coaching in schools lies in the purpose for the support and the formality around the process. Coaching is far more formal than mentoring, and has a more expansive end goal” (Aguilar). For Aguilar, knowledge/expertise is vital to each role, but the coaching role goes much farther than the mentor.  There seems to be a recognition that a level of expertise is required in order to coach.  Foltos admits the contradiction between being an “expert” and “expertise” when he writes, “The real irony here is that expertise is essential for Peer Coaches who want to avoid taking on the role of expert” (Foltos 26). So at the end of the day, it appears it is actually how this expertise is manifested that makes the difference.  There’s nothing wrong with knowing…but a coach cannot define their relationship with their collaborative teachers in this context.


It’s All About Trust

When looking at the conflict between being an expert vs. having expertise and how this all applies to coaching, it all comes back to trust.  My resource for this module is David Goldberg’s post on the Big Beacon engineering education website (what’s good for engineers is good for all of us).  In his post, “A Distinction between Expert and Coach: ‘I Know’ versus ‘I Trust’” he sums up his argument almost before he even gets started (classic engineering technique). The title itself is a dead giveaway to where he’s heading.  To make his argument he clearly defines both an expert and a coach:

Expert. An expert is a person with specialized knowledge and knowhow.  In a sense, an expert is an “I know” and who use that knowledge to the benefit of their employer or client.

Coach A coach is, in a certain sense, on a dimension of interpersonal interaction anyway, the opposite of an expert.  A coach does not know what his or her client should do. Great coaches trust their clients to find out what’s inside of them and discover their own authentic path.  In this way a coach is an “I trust.” Coaches use that ability to believe in the resourcefulness, creativity, and wholeness of their clients to find their own authentic path. (Goldberg)

Goldberg’s perspective here is an elaboration on his earlier Huffington Post article where he defines coaching as, “a form of one-on-one inquiry and reflection in which the client is aided by the coaches listening and asking questions in ways that help the client find and overcome obstacles and then identify and realize possibilities.” In this context, “the coach comes to the engagement without judgment or any ideal sense of what the client should or should not be doing. In this way, the client can safely explore his or her own authentic path, style, and career in a safe, supportive environment” (Goldberg 2013).  It is this latter half of Goldberg’s characterization where we can see he is alluding to trust. The coach must trust the one being coached to find his or her own path while the coach must be trusted to provide the safe and supportive environment.  Trust is also a key component to Barrett McBride’s examination of “The coach and the Expert,” and she too acknowledges the difficulty of setting aside the role of expert to assume the role of coach (McBride 2017).  It is difficult to trust – for both sides, but it is absolutely essential for successful peer coaching.

What is Essential for Successful Coaching?

Trust.  If I had to pick one specific word to answer the question for this module it would be “trust.”  The key to this trust is building relationships and it’s no coincidence that the first chapter of Foltos’s book is about the nature of the coaching relationship – and about 1/3rd of that chapter is about trust. I can now see that having expertise does not violate that trust. In fact, it’s a useful component to the coaching process, but approaching someone AS an expert – playing the “role” of expert (in Foltos’s terms), can undermine the coaching relationship before it even gets started. I think I’ve gained some insight here into the coaching process. It’s much more nuanced than perhaps I first thought.  It also contains a relational dynamic that is going to take a fair amount of work to navigate successfully.  But, of course, that’s why I’m here – I’m hardly an expert.

I think Peter DeWitt summarized the complex nature of the coaching dynamic quite clearly when he wrote his post on why it won’t work. I don’t know if he truly believes that all peer coaching in education is doomed to fail, but I think he’s acutely aware of the potential challenges that might inhibit successful implementation of the trusting, relationship-based, coaching model.  He writes:

“When done correctly, instructional coaching can be so beneficial to our profession. However, there needs to be a positive school climate in place along with coaches who have credibility with their colleagues, and a principal who will support the process. Coaching is not about surface level learning, and too many times schools may say they have coaches but they are only doing it in name alone.  Coaching is about deep, long lasting relationships between a teacher and coach. If we are entering into the coaching relationship we need to do it in a way that won’t be a waste time” (DeWitt).

We certainly don’t want to waste time an energy on something that can’t work.  I think successful coaching can work, but we have to realize the nature of what we are doing. We have to learn to build relationships.  We have to learn put aside our own agendas – our “expert roles.”  We have to  learn to trust.


Aguilar, Elena (July 31, 2017). “What’s the Difference Between Coaching and Mentoring?” Education Week.  Retrieved from: http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/coaching_teachers/2017/07/whats_the_difference_between_c.html

DeWitt, Peter (September 10, 2015). “4 Reasons Instructional Coaching Won’t Work.”  Education Week.  Retrieved from: http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/finding_common_ground/2015/09/4_reasons_instructional_coaching_wont_work.html

Foltos, Les (2013).  Peer coaching : Unlocking the Power of Collaboration. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin.

Goldberg, David (May, 29, 2013). “5 Times in a Career When Academics Should Hire a Coach.” The Huffington Post. Retrieved from: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-goldberg/5-times-in-a-career-when-_b_3347761.html

Goldberg, David. “A Distinction between Expert and Coach: ‘I Know’ versus ‘I Trust. ‘” Big Beacon: A Movement to Transform Engineering Education. Retrieved from: http://bigbeacon.org/2013/06/a-distinction-between-expert-and-coach-i-know-versus-i-trust/

ISTE (2011). “ISTE Standards for Coaches.” International Society for Technology in Education. Retrieved from http://www.iste.org/standards/standards/standards-for-coaches

McBride, Barrett (2015). “The Coach and the Expert.” Coaching Supervision Academy.  Retrieved from: https://coachingsupervisionacademy.com/the-coach-and-the-expert/