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The Coach Approach To Giving and Receiving Feedback In Schools


This post first appeared in Education Week’s Finding Common Ground. 

Feedback, among the most impactful, and yet also among the most variable influences on student achievement, matters. It matters profoundly.

Educational thought leader John Hattie (2009), whose investigation of more than 800 meta-analyses represents the largest collection of evidence-based research into what actually works in schools, has found feedback to be among the top 10 influences on student achievement. While Hattie’s  research primarily describes the effect of feedback from teachers to students, he asserts that his findings pertain to professional learning as well. Simply stated, for schools to improve, feedback to both educators and students is essential.

Yet, Hattie offers a cautionary note. While skillfully shared feedback can catapult learning to new heights, poorly offered feedback can have minimal impact, or worse, can potentially have negative impact, leading to disengagement and resentment.

So how can educators learn both to give and receive feedback in a way that is impactful, leading to professional learning and growth? And, even more challenging, how can principals function in a coaching role when they are required to evaluate? How can teachers feel safe to experiment, take risks, and reveal vulnerabilities with a person who makes important decisions about their employment? These are among the core questions my colleagues Jessica Johnson, Kathy Perret and I explored in researching and writing The Coach Approach To School Leadership: Leading Teachers To Higher Levels of Effectiveness (ASCD, 2017).

A coach is someone who can give correction, without causing resentment.

John Wooden

Renowned UCLA coach and ten time NCAA national championship winner John Wooden’s definition of a coach as someone who can give correction (or, perhaps feedback) without causing resentment, gives rise to two vital keys to offering impactful feedback.

  1. To give feedback it is vital to recognize that feedback messages are filtered through learners’ perceptions, so what works as effective feedback for one learner might not work for another learner. (Hattie, 2012)
  2. Giving feedback hinges on the ability to reflect on progress toward transparent, challenging goals connected to clear success criteria. (Hattie, 2009; Wiggins, 2012)

These keys are so central to the process of giving and receiving feedback that it is important to delve more deeply into each.

Key Number One

To give feedback it is vital to recognize that feedback messages are filtered through learners’ perceptions, so what works as effective feedback for one learner might not work for another learner. (Hattie, 2012)

An important Insight I wish I had when I began my journey to become a “principal-coach”, redesigning the role of principal to function as much as possible as a coach, is that qualities of trustworthiness such as reliability, dependability, capability (Horsager, 2011), benevolence, honesty, and openness (Tschannen-Moran, 2004) are vital, yet insufficient. While aiming to explore curriculum and pedagogy, coaching conversations very quickly move to more sensitive and vulnerable depths, prompting educators to identify gaps between who we currently are and who we aspire to become. Engaging in these delicate, yet potentially transformative conversations requires us to be nonjudgmental. This is a new skill for many educators, who have learned in formal programs and through practice to focus on grading and evaluation.

. While difficult, many techniques of instructional coaches can help. Two frameworks in particular have been very valuable to me. The first embraces the use of four prompts:

  • I noticed . . .  
  • I wonder . . .  
  • What if . . . ?
  • How might . . .?

By utilizing these prompts, educators functioning in a coaching role can train themselves not to offer their own opinions or advice, but instead to support reflection. This enables us not only to understand learners’ perceptions, but even more significantly to help our learners, whether students or professionals, to uncover and recognize their own perceptions and self-understandings.

Once comfortable with suspending judgement, educators can extend coaching conversations using the ORID framework, involving a progression through four types of questions:

  • O – Objective questions (to relieve stress and invite participation)
  • R – Reflective questions (to elicit emotional responses and personal reactions)
  • I – Interpretive questions (to generate possibilities for the future)
  • D – Decisional questions (to develop solutions leading to future actions)

Through practicing use of these nonjudgmental prompts and questions, educators seeking to utilize coaching can gain ever greater skill supporting self-reflection meaningful to teachers.

Key Number Two: Goals

Giving feedback hinges on the ability to reflect on progress toward transparent, challenging goals connected to clear success criteria. (Hattie, 2009; Wiggins, 2012)

Receiving feedback is challenging. As much as I have always wanted to appreciate feedback, I have often noticed a tightness in my shoulders, an acceleration of my heartbeat, or a fluttering in my stomach awaiting reaction to my work. While I long for critique to help me improve, I simultaneously hope for praise, and then feel embarrassed by my yearning for a pat on the back. I want to learn, stretch my thinking, improve my practice, yet often feel insecure and crave reassurance and affirmation. It’s my sense that these reactions are common.

It’s only recently, as I have had the opportunity to lead a Project-Based Learning school in which we do not give grades, but instead help students prepare for public exhibitions, as well as to publish their work in digital portfolios, that I have truly been able to appreciate nonjudgmental, goal-centered feedback. I’ve watched with admiration as students aged 5 through 10 take in feedback with delight, viewing it as a gift that will help them prepare their work so that it is ready for exhibition and ready to publish. The experience of supporting students to give and receive feedback has enabled me to grow as well, focusing on ambitious goals. It has also helped me truly to recognize the transformational potential of feedback that is connected to goals of importance to the individual to whom the feedback is being given.


Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning. London: Routledge.

Hattie. J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers. London: Routledge.

Horsager, D. (2011). The trust edge. New York: Free Press.

Tschannen-Moran, M. (2004). Trust matters: Leadership for effective schools. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Wiggins, G. (2012, September). Seven keys to effective feedback. Educational Leadership, 70(1), 10-16.


Photo courtesy of Pixaby

You can learn more about The Coach Approach To School Leadership: Leading Teachers to Higher Levels of Effectiveness on Principal Center Radio and download the first chapter for free

Coach Approach on Principal Center Radio

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Listen to Podcast on Coach Approach & download first chapter here

Join my co-authors Jessica Johnson, Kathy Perret and me with host Justin Baeder, talking about one of our favorite topics – using instructional coaching techniques as school leaders.

If You Can Meet With Triumph And Disaster: On Emotional Balance

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The players’ entrance to the Centre Court at Wimbledon

Walking out onto center court at Wimbeldon, the last sight players encounter before emerging into public view are the words, not of an athlete or a coach, but of writer Rudyard Kipling: If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two imposters just the same.

The words could be viewed as a meditation, encapsulating core values of resilience, perseverance, and humility. They temper the wisdom of positive psychology beckoning us to embrace happiness and optimism, almost to excess. While happiness and optimism are vital for sure, I’ve come to crave greater emotional balance.

A plethora of articles in the past several years beckon us to recognize that an exclusive emphasize on happiness can be counterproductive. Conflict energizes, mistakes are necessary to achieve top performance, and similarity fosters complacency and breeds overconfidence. Emotions typically viewed as negative like anger, embarrassment, and shame are vital to foster greater engagement, directing our attention to serious issues and prompting us to make corrections that eventually lead to success. Disagreement, typically viewed as unpleasant and unharmonious, when conducted with respect opens our thinking promoting far more effective and creative problem solving. Owning our mistakes without blame or shame, rather than hiding or avoiding them, promotes progress.


A turning point for me in my own understanding of myself came while watching Pixar’s Inside Out, now one of my very favorite movies. Seeing myself as the character “joy”, I was jolted both by how helpful, yet how annoying and blindsided a single-minded quest for joy can be. Having long emphasized, or rather overemphasized the positive, I realized I had inadvertently denied myself, and others around me, vital opportunities for learning and growth possible by embrace of a wider range of emotions and experiences.

The recognition came not only from the movie, or a number of articles, but from the painful ups and downs of life and the growth that is possible when we open ourselves to experience pain as well as joy. Reflecting with my dear friends, co-moderators of #educoach – a weekly twitter chat, and co-authors of our recently published book The Coach Approach To School Leadership: Leading Teachers To Higher Levels of Effectiveness, I reflected on how our frequent conversations on celebrating the positive, perhaps to excess,  were necessary, but insufficient. We talked more and more about finding greater balance in our own approach to coaching teachers, reflecting on balance, which in our idealistic perspectives on educators and schools, we had sometimes neglected.

With all the sharing that occurs in our age of social media, all of the opening of ourselves, it is paradoxical that much of our essence remains more hidden than ever. “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye,” wrote Antoine de Saint-Exupery in The Little Prince. His words continue to ring true, with many of us choosing to hide the messy, complicated, broken places in our lives which ultimately, when embraced, can enable us to become the best of who we are.

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same:
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build’em up with worn-out tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings,
And never breathe a word about your loss:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

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