Coaches’ Words and Questions | Steve Barkley

Coaches’ Words and Questions

wooden blocks in a white and grey board with the text words matterSteve Martin, a co-author of Yes! 50 Secrets from the Science of Persuasion, illustrates how words we use can have unexpected impacts.

People consider having to travel north as more difficult than traveling south. (We process north as uphill.)

After watching a video of one car hitting another, people are asked to predict the speed of the car at fault. If the question is posed as, “How fast was the car going when it bumped into the other car?”, people estimate a lower speed than if the question asks, “How fast was it going when it smashed into the other?”

Here are some conscious decisions I make in my coaching language.

Teachers’ Words

A starting point for me is focusing on capturing and using the teacher’s words as much as possible. Evaluators and supervisors tend to use the words of the system or program. Coaches use the words of the teacher. Here are some phrases I recently recorded in my notes during a pre-conference with a teacher.

  • Content heavy
  • Big picture
  • Lecturing
  • Interact with the material
  • Hard work
  • Deep level
  • Productive struggle

As the preconference continued, I asked, “What would students working hard in this activity look and sound like?” Tell me more about productive struggle. If we explore ‘engagement’ or ‘student critical thinking,’ I’d do it by staying with the teacher’s words of hard work and productive struggle.


I usually avoid asking,” How can I help?” and avoid the word help during coaching unless the teacher uses the word in her request to me. If the teacher says, “Can you help me with this?”, then I am comfortable using help in my response at some point. The word help can suggest to people that the coach is at a higher/more advanced level than the teacher. I may use the question,” What role might I play that would best support you?”

(See earlier blog where I explore Jim Knight’s writing about helping.)

“Coaches should structure conversations with teachers as dialogues between two equal partners.”
(Jim Knight)

Problem or Struggle

I sense these words can carry a negative connotation for some folks. They can interpret my labeling something a problem, as an evaluation of them. “I noticed you struggling to get the students focused,” can be read as a negative evaluation. I frequently tackle these situations with questions; asking the teacher where she would have liked a different student behavior or response than the one that occurred. “What were you thinking and considering when you asked the students to begin the writing activity?” Whatever words the teacher uses in the description, I am then comfortable using in our conversation.

“How do you think that went?”

I have observed many coaches using this question to “break the ice” for starting a post-conference. My concern is that it is asking the teacher for an overall evaluation before the opportunity for input and reflection has occurred. Answering this question, in general, can have a teacher feel cornered. The teacher is thinking it was “pretty good” but then she hasn’t seen the observation data you collected. I might instead ask, when did you see students responding similarly to what you pictured while planning? When was it different? It’s helpful for the coach to know what the teacher observed and how she processed it.

Have you thought about it? Have you tried it?

These questions are sometimes used by the coach to make a suggestion. A problem may occur because the closed-ended question can corner the responder. If I am asked, “Have you tried having the students work on this in groups?” and I haven’t and say no, I can feel the need to either offer to try it or defend why I wouldn’t. If I tried it and it didn’t go well, I may feel compelled to ‘confess’ to my “failure.” I suggest using a more open-ended question or maybe a statement: “As I was observing, I wondered what the impact of doing that task in a group or pair might be?” Or, “How do you think the outcome would change if students were paired to do the activity?” The open- questions or statements tend to provide the teacher with more space to reflect and share her thinking. Her response provides me as a coach with more understanding.

What words/phrases have you learned to use or avoid in your coaching?

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One Response to “ Coaches’ Words and Questions ”

  1. Terri Bianco Says:

    Insightful as always, Steve. Thanks for the good examples and reminders!

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