Coaching Questions: Going Slow to Go Fast | Steve Barkely

Coaching Questions: Going Slow to Go Fast

Mike Sturm posted a blog focusing on one of Stephen Covey’s  7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Seek First to Understand.

Sturm states, “To me, this habit is the most important of the 7, without question. The essence of this habit is a temperament that favors curiosity, open-mindedness, empathy, and patience — all rolled into one. In order to really seek to understand, you cannot have already judged a person or situation. You need to develop a desire to understand — meaning a desire to see things from others’ point of view, to see their reasons, and feel what they feel.”

I recently describe this approach to instructional coaches as “going slow to go fast.” I suggested that they slow down and ask questions to understand the coachee’s view.

Strum suggested that the benefits of seeking to understand include:

  • You learn better
  • You prevent yourself from saying things you’ll regret
  • Your emotional intelligence skyrockets
  • Your ability to influence improves dramatically

I often point out to coaches that I work from the position of avoiding sharing what I am thinking until I know what the teacher is thinking. Before I share my interpretation of the students’ engagement in learning, I ask the teacher what she saw and heard and how she interpreted it.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was from a horse master. He told me to go slow to go fast. I think that applies to everything in life. We live as though there aren’t enough hours in the day but if we do each thing calmly and carefully we will get it done quicker and with much less stress.

Viggo Mortensen  (

To illustrate going slow to go fast, I share this scenario with coaches in workshops.

 A fifth-grade teacher tells you that she believes reading aloud is an important component of reading workshop time, but she doesn’t use it often because the students don’t listen during the reading. They fidget and are seldom able to respond to questions she asks.

When I ask coaches to discuss what questions they might ask this teacher, they frequently list these:

  • What are you choosing to read?
  • How long are the passages?
  • Where are students seated when you read?
  • What do you see and hear the students doing?

I then share the first questions I would ask:

  • What benefits do you believe reading aloud offers?
  • Which of these benefits is most important to your students?
  • Are these benefits important to all your students or more important to some?
  • How much do you want to invest in making read- aloud lessons work effectively? Why?

After the workshop participants compare my questions to theirs, we discuss my approach:

My questions are asked to uncover an understanding of the teacher’s thinking about the read-aloud strategy and her commitment to wanting it to be effective. Most workshop participants’ questions are driven by a desire to problem-solve quickly. (Going fast)

If the teacher doesn’t understand the value of the read-aloud to her students, my coaching focus should be on that rather than trying to “fix a problem” the teacher may not be interested in solving. Time spent on getting a strategy the teacher doesn’t value implemented is likely wasted time.

If the teacher identifies the benefits and shows an interest in using the strategy effectively, I might proceed with questions like these:

  • Pick a lesson or activity (any content area) where you’ve seen your students listen well.
  • Describe what you saw.
  • Identify another 3 times you’ve seen that.
  • What is common about those times?
  • What is the critical issue to focus on…improving your students listening skills or motivating your students to use the listening skills they possess? Why?

I am anticipating the teacher saying motivating students to use the skills they have, since she has just identified times they have listened well.

If I were to model a read-aloud lesson with your students, what would you recommend I pay attention to when planning?

Hopefully, the teacher would suggest I focus on students’ interest. I would then ask, “What do you know about their interest?”

If she can talk about their interests, I would offer to model using that information. If she doesn’t know interest, I would explore how we’d identify interest?

When set to model, I would ask the teacher to observe and collect the following data:

Where did you see the students listening the same as in previous lessons, less than in previous lessons, more than in previous lessons?

This modeling and data collection would set the stage for repeated models, experimentation, and hopefully an acceptance of the coach observing the students as the teacher did a read-aloud.

Often coaches will offer at the very start to jump in and model. I believe this slower and deeper approach is more likely to bring about teacher change and increased student learning.

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