Reflective Coaching: Training for All Teachers

Assessment expert Dylan Wiliam says that student thinking is the primary goal for descriptive feedback. He contrasts that goal with what often happens when teachers use judgement instead of feedback with students: threatened ego. When we invoke the need to save one’s honor or self-perception in a student through our comments on his performance, there’s little to no learning or growth in that student.

Interestingly, it’s the same with teachers and principals. When we critique, evaluate, or provide feedback to them in such a manner that raises their defensive walls for self-preservation, there’s little to be gained; the interaction isn’t constructive. The question, then, is how we turn such interactions with one another into clinical, analytical experiences that create thoughtful insights within the teacher instead of a sermon on good teaching from us, or a fight to justify one’s actions and save the ego from the teacher.

Consider Reflective Coaching

The world of reflective coaching is a great place to start. Many schools train specific teachers to be the building’s cognitive, instructional, or transformational coaches (Peter DeWitt, “Which Coaching is Best for You?, Finding Common Ground column, Education Week, January 25, 2017), which is a great way to go—freeing these teachers from teaching duties so they can help their colleagues analyze and improve their teaching practices. My premise here, however, is that the skillsets for such coaching are invaluable for teachers. They can use them daily as they work with students, reflect individually on their own decisions and actions, and as they interact with colleagues on important policies and issues that arise. Absent these reflective coaching skillsets in teachers, all three of these experiences are much less productive, and doing them creates more stress and dysfunction in everyone involved. At that point, many of us start blaming circumstances or others for that dysfunction, and we make impulsive, ill-considered decisions. Little is achieved.

Let’s empower teachers (ourselves) by getting these reflective coaching skills and insights into their (our) daily repertoire. The ultimate goal here is our self-efficacy: We can self-monitor/analyze/reflect, revise practices based on those reflections, grow professionally, and ultimately, improve student learning in our classrooms.

The University of Texas (Austin) has a wonderful overview of the basic goals of reflective coaching. They include:

  • Clarify lesson goals and objectives;
  • Help determine evidence of student achievement;
  • Help teachers anticipate teaching strategies, decisions, concerns;
  • Help teachers summarize their impressions and assessments of the lesson;
  • Help teachers recall data supporting those impressions and assessments;
  • Help teachers infer relationships between student achievement and teacher decisions/behavior;

Gosh, I would pay money to get someone to help me with these elements of teaching over the years. We’re so subjective in what we do, and this provides a way to pull back the camera lens and see the larger picture with objectivity. In truth, I’m a much more effective teacher and I find more meaning in my work with students when I take the time to do these things, such as I did when going through National Board Certification or working as a peer observer for my school district. Having someone work with us on these things is like having an additional editor/muse/facilitator/encourager on board, an Obi-Wan Kenobi to our Padawan selves.

The Process

Most reflective coaching models require a three-step process: a discussion prior to what the coach is going to observe the teacher teach, the observation itself, and a post-observation discussion/reflection time between teacher and cognitive coach. This is similar to many school division “Peer Observation” programs. In the pre- and post- conversations, there are tips to make them more successful, each of which can be translated successfully for teachers working with their students individually:

  1. Be present and attentive – Make every indication that we are not distracted by other thoughts or rushing to finish the conversation; include what the person says in follow-up questions to show proof of attention paid.
  2. Honor the person – Find a way to respect the experience they bring to the discussion, make sure they feel like they are contributing to the goal.
  3. The teacher does most of the talking, not the coach. Put another way, the teacher speaks in paragraphs while the coach speaks in short sentences here and there.
  4. Avoid simplistic, sugar-coated platitudes and moralizing.
  5. Listen without judgment and regulate your internal editor. Don’t give in to intellectual biases and impose them upon the other; empathize with first-time eyes. Try to remember what it was like to perceive these ideas the very first time we encountered them.
  6. Channel Stephen Covey: Seek to understand, then to be understood.
  7. Model the ideas, if needed.
  8. Ask questions without a specific answer in mind. We sometimes unconsciously telegraph that there is one, correct answer when we are hoping for a particular response in the other person, and we don’t come across as genuine and exploring when we do.
  9. Use the first person plural rather than first or second person singular, i.e., “When we write we sometimes….” Instead of, “When you write, you…”
  10. Use tentative language (seems, might) and open-ended questions that come across as a mutual explorer expressing curiosity.
  11. Speak in such a way as to continue thoughtful dialog, not to prove that you are right or the problem is solved.
  12. Practice silence. It goes a long way and invites percolation.
  13. Paraphrase, a lot. This allows the teacher to see how their statements and thinking are coming across, then ask if they want to change their thinking based on how it was paraphrased.
  14. Work toward long term insights and gains, not just short-term fixes, though that can be done as needed.
  15. Focus on developing the intellect, not evaluation or judgment; seek phrasing and conversations that do not invoke the ego.
  16. The goal is teaching excellence and independence, and that might be achieved in the one we coach by using methods other than those that worked for us, so let’s not limit the other person to our preferred way of doing things.

Most cognitive coaches develop their favorite questions to start and maintain helpful conversations. If we’re just starting with this, identify five that seem to work well, then in subsequent coaching sessions add two or three more until we have a solid twenty or so at our mental fingertips. See Figure 1 for a starter list for reflective, analytical conversations, channeling Art Costa and Bob Garmston, and drawing from my own work.

Figure 1
Questions for Relective Conversations
 View full listHow do you feel it went?
Tell me more about…
And what was your response?
Could you have said it any differently?
What was your goal there?
What did you do/decide that added to (or resolved) the issue?
What do you mean by….?
Can you give an example of….?
What have you tried so far?
Was this effective… How do you know?
Let’s brainstorm some possibilities together.
What have you done in the past, and what was the result?
How’s [X] going? You were concerned/happy with it last time.
Why did you choose….?
How will you begin?
What will you need for that?
Describe the time when this was successful for you.
Have you talked to….? They may have some advice on this.
Let’s consider the situation from his/her point of view….
How will you know your lesson/assessment was successful?
What would you like me to look for as I watch the lesson/assessment happening?
What did you see students doing (or hear them saying) that made you feel that way?
What do you recall about your own behavior during the lesson?
How did what you planned compare with what you actually did?
When you do this again next year, what will you change?

Reflective Coaching for Students

Look back through the lists of advice and questions again, but this time consider how helpful they might be if we considered them when working with students: Be present and attentive, honor what the person brings to the conversation, make sure the student does the most talking, remember what it’s like to see this from first-time eyes, model if needed, don’t inject your intellectual bias, speak in such a way as to maintain the conversation, and so on.

When teachers are well fortified with these skills and ready-to-use questions, they have the mindset and actionable tools to make the most of one of the most powerful teaching strategies in existence, descriptive feedback. Even better, they help students self-monitor how they are progressing toward their learning goals, which as John Hattie and Visible Learning adherents promote (, has one of the highest effect sizes for impact on student learning.

‘An added benefit to developing these skills in all of us: We aren’t as divisive when discussing controversial issues with our colleagues or when implementing new building initiatives. We see the value of thoughtful, honoring-the-other, diverse-opinion-is-good conversations. We are willing to take the deeper dives into those topics with which we disagree with one another without fear of diminished status or threatening aftermath. When we have the tools of respectful discourse and investigation, we engage fully. With today’s political, cultural, and economic tensions, these skills matter more than ever.

There’s a lot of commentary about fast-thinking versus slow-thinking (as in reflective, deep dive thinking) these days, and reflective coaching certainly elevates the latter. I’m eternally grateful for all those mentors who were patient and advocated slow-thinking with me over the years. They didn’t judge me for my weaknesses or let them define who I would eventually become. Instead, these mistakes were launching pads for the journey ahead. These mentors respected the need for me to resolve these issues and improve things myself, not just acquiesce to dictates from above. They sat with me and helped identify my teaching/learning biases so I could move past them and see clearly, which helped open me to my students and their learning success. My coaches did this without any agenda other than a sincere desire to facilitate my professional growth, but I can’t help but think how their work with me also helped them analyze and improve their own instruction. What an honorable engagement, what a helpful tool it’s time to share with others.

Resources on Reflective Coaching

  1. “Reflections on Cognitive Coaching,” by Robert Garmston, Christina Linder and Jan Whitaker, Education Leadership, October 1993, Volume 51, Number 2, Pages 57-61
  2. Cognitive Coaching: Developing Self-Directed Leaders and Learners 3rd Edition, written by Arthur L. Costa, Robert J. Garmston, Carolee, Hayes, Jane Ellison, published by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2015
  3. The Art of Coaching: Effective Strategies for School Transformation, written by Elena Aguilar, published by Jossey-Bass, 2013
  4. Coaching Classroom Instruction (Classroom Strategies), written by Robert J. Marzano, Julia A. Simms, Tom Roy, Tammy Heflebower, Phil Warrick, published by Marzano Research, 2012
  5. Coaching Conversations: Transforming Your School One Conversation at a Time written by Linda M. Gross Cheliotes and Marceta F. Reilly, published by Corwin Pres, 2010