Listening Matters

Melissa CunninghamBlog, Connect Better, Lead Better

TL;DR:

  • Sometimes all we need is someone who will listen to us.
  • As an instructional coach, listening matters—it is essential for building relationships.
  • Coaches should share ideas, but ultimately, the teacher needs ownership in developing an idea and implementing it.

In the last coaching blog, we discussed the importance of relationships.  Relationships are the foundation for strong and effective instructional coaching partnerships.  Without this foundation, coaching falls apart.  Like Theodore Roosevelt said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”  You can have the best toolkit of best practices around, but if the relationship isn’t there, coaching is likely to crumble. Thus, listening matters. Listening to the needs of the teachers who coaches support is an essential trait for success.

What’s interesting is that when I talk about the qualities of effective coaches with my colleagues, smart and knowledgable are almost always identified as top qualities.

No one would deny that an effective instructional coach needs to have a strong understanding of effective instructional practices, but if we look at the research behind change and teacher growth, coaching is more effective when an instructional coach is good at effective questioning and listening.

Truthfully, this is an area I continually am looking to improve upon.

In order for true teacher growth to occur, coaching research tells us that the goal a teacher sets has to be something the teacher truly cares a lot about and feels is a goal that can be truly accomplished. Click To Tweet

It sounds so simple: listen better.

But, I’ve found it to be more difficult than it appears.  In order for true teacher growth to occur, coaching research tells us that the goal a teacher sets has to be something the teacher truly cares a lot about and feels is a goal that can be truly accomplished.  The keywords here being the goal the TEACHER sets. It’s easy to fall into the trap of identifying what we think teachers should work and improve on, but without teacher motivation to want to improve in that area, it falls flat.

Think about this:  Are we more likely to implement something new because we are told to or because we’ve decided for ourselves that we want to?  It may sound childish, but it’s human nature.  So, if we want to be effective coaches, at first, we have to put our own opinions and ideas aside and truly listen.  So, how do we become better listeners?

We’ve heard this saying time and time again: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

It’s one of the 7 habits of highly successful people from Stephen Covey.  Again with coaching, teachers themselves need to identify where they want to grow.  As a coach, we can help by collecting data, facilitating data analysis with the teacher, and asking questions to help a teacher be reflective in their own practice.  And, we can be good listeners by paraphrasing what a teacher identifies as an area of need and asking clarifying questions to ensure we understand what the teacher is setting as a goal.

We have all been in situations where we are more focused on being ready to reply to what someone said rather than truly listening and understanding what the person said.  To change this, it takes practice.  One of the easiest ways I have found to work on this is by practicing the art of paraphrasing.

Instead of being ready to reply with an idea or a next step, I work to listen and repeat back what I think I’m hearing.  More times than not, this has helped avoid miscommunication and misunderstandings of what I think teachers want to work on vs. what I really heard.

Also, if we are being honest, sometimes, we all just need someone to listen to us.

We don’t need advice, and we don’t need ideas.  Instead, we just need to be heard.  Not only does this lead to teachers identifying what they really want to work on, but it also continues to build our trusting relationships with staff.  We trust someone who has our best intentions at heart and cares about what we have to say, not someone who has their own agenda.

I try to work by the rule of thumb that the teacher should be the one doing most of the talking and the heavy lifting. With students, we talk constantly about the importance of getting students to discuss ideas and the idea that the one doing the talking is the one learning.  The same goes for our colleagues.  As a coach, we can ask questions to guide and facilitate learning and reflection.  If we are doing most of the talking, who is really doing the learning?

Once we identify a goal, we begin to talk about what strategies we want to implement.  As a coach, it is important to share ideas, but at the end of the day, the teacher needs ownership in developing an idea and implementing it.  We all have different teaching styles, philosophies on teaching, and values of what we deem important in the classroom.  A good instructional coach can use good listening and questioning skills to help the teacher make an idea their own and fit their own needs.

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Lastly, one of the best questions that I love to use in coaching that I learned from Jim Knight is, “What’s most important for us to focus on today?”

Not only does this immediately focus the coaching conversation, but it deems that what’s on the teacher’s mind is the most important thing for us to discuss.  It shows that we value the teacher’s input, and we respect that he or she knows what’s most important for us to accomplish and discuss that day.  As coaches, we can, of course, come with ideas and strategies to suggest.

However, one of the best ways I have found to prepare for coaching meetings has come from one of my coaching colleagues, and that’s to prepare for different ways the conversation may go with effective questioning.  Instead of just preparing numerous resources and ideas, I have found that my coaching conversations always go better when I think ahead of time about the different ways a conversation may go.

In a recent video I watched from Jim Knight, he discusses the stage of routine, where we might prepare questions to ask ahead of time and may have a hard time veering from them.  With more practice, we can move into the proficient stage, where questioning becomes more natural, and we can naturally ask questions depending on where the conversation goes.

Overall, I think we could all agree that listening is more important now than ever.  With tensions running high, many of our colleagues are feeling that they don’t have a lot of control over what’s going on right now.  As coaches, we can counter this by empowering them to find what they can control, identify where they want to improve in their teaching right now, and just listen.


ABOUT MELISSA CUNNINGHAM

Melissa Cunningham is a passionate middle school educator who has had the pleasure of being in the middle school setting for all 12 years of her career. Her roles span from language arts and math teacher to assistant principal and now, instructional coach. She is especially passionate about student leadership and choice in the classroom, while cultivating the skills of collaboration, problem-solving, and creativity. Outside of school, she enjoys photography, writing, reading, hiking, and spending time with my husband, friends, and family.