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Avoiding “What Would You Have Done Differently” and Other Well-Intentioned Temptations in Coaching

22 Sep 2017 by Emily Doyle

Imagine you’re a cook in a restaurant. It’s what you do every day, you are passionate about it, and consider yourself pretty darn good at it. One evening, the owner of the restaurant decides he is going to attend a meal “as a guest” and is served one of your featured dishes: chicken pot pie. You emerge from the kitchen, excited to find out what he thinks, and his response: “Taste this. What would you do differently next time?” 

It wouldn’t exactly feel good.

And yet, we see a similar scenario play out again and again in the most well-intentioned coaching conversations with teachers. You know what I’m talking about. The coach films a teacher, they sit down and watch the video together, and the coach asks, “Now that you’ve seen yourself reading that story to the kids, what would you do differently next time?”

There is something really tempting about jumping to the “problem areas” and zeroing in on “how it can be better next time.” But taking a strengths-based approach to practice-based coaching means avoiding some of the common phrases that can seem so right at the time. Let’s dig into a few examples:

“What would you have done differently?”

Why it can backfire: As discussed above, this one doesn’t feel so good to the teacher because it implies that she did something wrong. 

What to say instead: Use open-ended questions to guide the teacher in reflecting on areas of strength and areas for growth. It is more powerful for the teacher to get to thinking “I want to try something new next time” on her own, rather than being told that what she is doing is not good enough.

“Good job.”

Why it can backfire: It’s not that “good job” is inherently wrong. It is when coaches don’t provide specific examples of what was good that this one backfires. At best, the teacher feels good but isn’t sure why. At worst, she has a misguided notion of good teaching practices. We see it all the time—coaches want to be “strengths-based” and so they pepper in “good jobs” and “nice works” all over the place until those phrases become meaningless.

What to say instead: Next time you are tempted to say “good job,” instead, try beginning your sentence with “I noticed that you [insert specific example here].” So, “Good job reading that story” becomes “I noticed that you asked a lot of prediction questions during If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. The kids really had to think!” This paints a detailed picture in the teacher’s head about what went well and how it affected the children. 

“I want you to try ...”

Why it can backfire: It’s not necessarily a bad idea to give the teacher some ideas about what to try in the classroom. But make sure your advice-giving doesn’t get in the way of listening to the teacher and helping her to set her own goals.

What to say instead: Instead of jumping into goals, prompt the teacher with questions that help her reflect on her interests and expand her ideas. Then, if it’s necessary, it’s okay to jump in to scaffold the teacher in generating a few ideas if she’s stuck. A good way to check yourself is to audio-record the conference (if the teacher if comfortable). When you listen back to the recording, ask yourself: Who is doing most of the talking? If that person is you, then you might be doing too much talking and not enough listening. 

Remember, coaching teachers isn’t about imparting your wisdom or giving them all the answers (and yes, it’s okay if you don’t have all the answers!). It’s about developing a partnership. If you found this post helpful, then check out our free e-book: Coaching Tips for Sticky Situations

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