Let’s Probe! The words to unlock non-judgemental coaching conversations.

One of my main insights from the last year working with schools on CPD and coaching is that the extent to which teachers and leaders feel judged plays a huge role in how well the CPD/coaching process goes.

If teachers feel they will be judged – scrutinised, criticised or generally subjected to the opinions of others who presume to have the authority-status to pass judgement – they can be massively defensive and prone to playing safe. Or they can over-do the need to big-up their current practice, looking for affirmation at the expense of continuing the quest to improve. In this scenario, it’s hard to shift practices towards more effective habits because it’s difficult to unlock and explore existing habits in an open, non-threatening manner.

In contrast, where teachers feel primarily supported – trusted to engage in a low-stakes, open exploration of real-world challenges of implementing and sustaining new practices – they are more open to new possibilities. They are open to the idea that they can change what they do and will be supported for trying. They don’t feel the need to mask their difficulties and imperfections.

I’ve explored the wider culture needed in various posts:

Don’t judge. Just help.

Evidence of our deep ‘judge and rate’ culture can be seen and heard everywhere. Nearly everyone does it – it’s in us! Great teacher; great lesson.…

The need to conspicuously, religiously refrain from judgemental language and attitudes is vital. I’m getting better at this – and it’s a learning process in itself. There are no good or bad, strong or weak lessons or teachers – just problems to solve. We’re not there to pass judgement from on high, to RAG rate or measure (oh the delusional folly of it…)… we are there to support, offer insights, problem-solve and make plans.

Here, I want to focus on the details of the coaching process that can happen one-to-one or in a team. My go-to reference for this is the Bambrick-Santoyo feedback in instructional coaching process:

I’ve found that following these steps really closely has huge benefits; the first two elements are key. Kicking off a discussion with precise praise puts everyone on the front foot, feeling positive. There are always positive praise-worthy aspects of a lesson and it’s powerful to cite specific examples, emphasising what was done and why it make a positive impact on students (as far as we can tell). Essentially, within a precise praise example, you are emphasising what teachers would do well to consolidate, to do more of – or, in a group scenario – to pick up from others.

However, the part of this that, for me, is the golden key is the next step:

Lets’ Probe!

I find that, after the precise praise, it helps to headline this phase by saying ‘Ok, let’s probe!‘. This makes it totally explicit that we are now going to explore where things are hard, where the problems and challenges lie, where the imperfections lurk. This isn’t ‘even better if or a list of suggestion of what teachers were doing wrong. It’s different – challenges are not failings and everyone has challenges to overcome. Sometimes the challenges are theirs – aspects of their performance or decision-making or personal confidence. Sometimes the challenges are the students’ – aspects of the learning process they struggle with despite the teacher’s best efforts.

When we say ‘Let’s probe’ – the agenda is clear. Let’s share our experiences of where things do not flow as we’d like. Sometimes I find that I say ‘Let’s probe; where do you find things hard?‘. It’s non-judgemental. We are explicitly acknowledging that teaching is very demanding; it really is hard and that is understood. However, now we have a chance to be honest about it so that we can look for solutions to the specific problems we face.

In addition to teachers’ own sense of their problems, the coach or team leader can add in their observations of challenges and difficulties from recent learning walks and engagement with lessons over time:

  • Sometimes I notice that…
  • From what I’ve seen, where things seem less effective, it’s where…
  • One of the challenges I’ve observed is that….
  • From my perspective, it can be difficult to … why is that?

In a team, I find that it pays to be very deliberate about organising this part of the process with people talking in pairs. Recent episodes of this have been amazing. If you have 4,6,8,10 people in a room, it can be stiflingly awkward for people to share things. Adult group dynamics are such that Pontificator Guy will launch in and dominate – as always – and Shy Guy will hang back silently – as always. A defensive or overly-positive tone can be set by the first people to chip in. However, if you pair people up – pair-share style – and then say ‘Ok, let’s probe… where do we find this hard; what are the challenges?’.. everyone starts talking. Everyone starts to share. There’s a kind of privacy in the pair that allows people to speak freely. All the benefits of the strategy you use for students, relate to adults.

Then we call people back together and, Cold Call style, invite people to share their thoughts. This opens things up hugely. There is honesty, candour, openness .. and it’s all non-judgemental. With the problems laid out, we can then look for solutions.. but we know what we’re dealing with in terms of the attitudes people have and the way they perceive the challenges.

Of course this then needs to lead to an effective problem-solving and planning phase, as we continue through the coaching process. But it’s much easier to select the action steps that are likely to stick and translate into improved habits down the line, if the initial probing conversation is open and honest.

So, give it a try. Individually or in pairs, flush out the challenges, anxieties and frustrations, so we can deal with them: Let’s Probe!

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