Whether you’re working with high-performing teachers or struggling teachers—or those in between—a performance conversation can bring with it much anxiety. That was definitely the case when a concerned school-level leader approached me about an upcoming meeting with a struggling teacher. He had been working with this teacher for weeks – student focus and classroom management were deteriorating and nothing seemed to be on the upswing. The leader, let’s call him Todd, shared his well-considered approach.
He planned to highlight the issues and offer some possible solutions – a pretty common approach and one that can be effective. It was clear from his initial outreach, though, that he had some reservations about this approach. Insteading of responding with my suggestions or reactions (feeding my natural inclination to solve the problem), I took a play from the Multipliers playbook, going into Extreme Questions. I went into a “Listen to Learn” mode – fully curious about his approach – asking things like:
- What’s your sense for how aware this teacher is about her areas for improvement?
- What might have made it hard for her to implement your previous suggestions?
- What areas of your approach are you most concerned about?
- What’s the most important outcome of this meeting, from your perspective?
With a better understanding of Todd’s challenges, we moved toward possible alternatives and options to guide his meeting. One of the alternatives I offered is a 3-step question approach intended to raise the leader’s awareness, as well as the teacher’s, but more importantly, to put the teacher in the driver’s seat when it comes to action planning. It’s a series of questions that quickly and effectively gets to the point [the need for improvement]; generates possible solutions [possible improvement plans] and directs the conversation [ensures you’re having the right conversation]. While the approach that follows is couched in the context of a struggling teacher, it is an approach that works equally well with a high-performing teacher looking to take their skills to the next level.
Step 1: Inquire about their baseline
Ask: “On a scale of 1 to 10, how well do you feel you are doing on X [in the classroom, working with struggling kids, incorporating the new curriculum…], with a 1 being ‘pitiful’ and 10, a ‘never been better’]. Let’s say the teacher responds with an eight (8), and maybe you think it’s closer to a three (3). Your first thought might be – “uh, she’s living on a different planet than I am” – and you’re probably right. You are each seeing things from your vantage point and experience level. While you may have experience and expertise on your side, no one knows the day-to-day of her classroom as intimately as she does. At the end of the day, the delta is unimportant, no matter how dramatic the difference. Acknowledge her rating; accept it – maybe something like: “Thank you, it is so helpful to hear your perspective.” Meeting the teacher where she is, gives you the privilege to move on to step 2.
Step 2: Get curious about improvement
You might be ready to offer some guidance at this point – hang on to those suggestions and instead ask:
“If you wanted to get better, moving yourself one notch to the right on the scale, let’s say to a 9, what are one or two things you might try?
With this question, not only are you focusing the conversation on improvement, but you’re unearthing possibilities from the most fertile land – the person who has to make the change. When we enable others to come up with their own solutions, even if it’s not as “good” a solution as our own, people are far more effective at implementing self-designed strategies. Self-designed solutions come with a higher degree of ownership, which increases the likelihood of implementation, and ultimately effectiveness.
Now, that’s not to say you can’t use your curiosity to help a teacher stretch her initial thinking or clarify an idea, but it’s critical that the teacher sees her finger prints in the plan, and can recognize it as her own. Now that she’s got some possibilities in hand, move on to step 3.
Step 3: Let motivation guide the outcome
At this point, both of you might be brimming with ideas and excitement – or you might not. Sometimes when leaders approach people about performance struggles, subordinates feel an obligation to engage in the conversation. When the self-designed solution comes out of obligation, the likelihood of successful implementation diminishes. For example, the teacher may have come up with a reasonable approach, but in the back of her mind, she’s really thinking it would be better to work at a different grade-level, subject or student population. In these cases, it’s better to use your effort and guidance to drive different conversations. It’s your role as a leader to understand motivation and steer toward appropriate outcomes. This final question can help you do that:
On a scale of 1 to 10 [1 – couldn’t care less to 10 – it’s all I think about], how important is it for you, personally, to get better in this area?
Ratings on opposite ends of the spectrum drive decidedly different conversations. On the upper end, you’re talking about ways to support her in implementing her solution (e.g. resources, professional development, time for peer observation); on the lower end you’re likely to shift to a conversation to counsel her into a different role (whether that’s inside your building or not). Either way, you save time by having the right conversation and not wasting your time discussing supports and tools to a person who just wants out, or vice versa.
When you listen to learn, suspending your own thinking to give space for another’s thinking, you save time in the long run. You’ll both be better equipped to engage and work toward more effective outcomes. Whether you use this set of questions, or another – arm yourself with a heavy dose of curiosity and let it guide the discussion.
Stay tuned to hear how Todd’s conversation went… in the meantime, share alternatives that you’ve found effective in the comments section!