Wednesday / May 29

Three Key Coaching Skills Every School Leader Needs to Support Teachers’ Planning Initiatives

Marianne, a classroom teacher, asked me if she should try digital portfolios for her students’ writing or stay with print only.

We were meeting for our fall teacher evaluation conference. As her principal, I am obligated to sign off on faculty member’s goals and plans. The beginning of the year is motivating to explore new practices. Moving from print to digital portfolios is a major initiative, a shift that can cause both excitement and anxiety.

I was also exited and anxious about this idea, and almost responded with praise and advice.

Instead, I paused, took a breath, and then paraphrased what I heard her say: “You are looking for the best environment for your students to post their writing and reflect on it. Is that accurate?”

When Coaching Meets Leadership

In the past, I have quickly responded to ideas from teachers like Marianne in a variety of ways.

  • “I like your idea!”
  • “Can I offer a suggestion?”
  • “Have you read this book on this topic?”

Put another way, I have centered discussions on my impressions and how I perceived the information.

What I’ve discovered regarding supporting instructional improvement is, if innovation is expected, then I need to be an engaged listener to what teachers are proposing as innovations.

I become an engaged listener through many  practices, but largely accomplished through three key coaching skills:

  • Paraphrasing
  • Pausing
  • Posing questions

Also referred to as “collaborative norms” in the world of Cognitive Coaching, these three coaching skills have become the foundation for my work in supporting teaching and learning.

The bedrock for this foundation is trust. When I engage in deep listening, I trust that teachers:

  • Have the knowledge and skills to plan for new instructional approaches
  • Are creative in developing solutions to complex issues
  • Can adapt and respond to unanticipated situations as they arise.

This trust, created by withholding my initial  judgment, conveys my faith in teachers’ capacity for success. And it often leads to success, even if the project doesn’t go exactly as planned (and it almost never does in complex work like education). Repeated success over time – supported by trust – can lead to teacher self-efficacy, or what I simply refer to as confidence.

The Three Coaching Skills in Action

Next is a description of how I applied the coaching skills from the initial example. While names and details are altered, this is based on an actual conversation I had with a teacher. A rationale for why I used each coaching skill is provided in the third column.

Speaker What was said/done Rationale for response
Me “You are looking for the best environment for your students to post their work and reflect.” I paraphrased here to show the teacher I was listening and to confirm their thinking.
Marianne (nodded)
Me “I am wondering…what are the pros and the cons of each option – digital or print portfolios?” I posed a question to help the teacher organize her thinking and subsequently make a good decision.
Marianne “With writing portfolios, the students will probably reflect more. They just seem to enjoy reading over their own writing in print vs. the computer. But it is difficult for me to assess their work in this way. With digital, it is the opposite: I can see how they are doing, but I am concerned they won’t self-assess as well.” Based on this evidence, it seemed the paraphrase fostered deeper thinking around the instructional options.
Me (silence) There was a lot of information here, so I paused to allow the teacher to process what she just shared and for me to consider my next response.


At this point in the conversation, I sensed that we needed an additional option to consider.

How did I know that I could offer an idea? I had committed to being an engaged listener andtrust was established between us.

Still, I wanted to be sure my input was welcome, which is why I asked permission first.

Speaker What was said/done Rationale for response
Me “You want your students to reflect on their writing, and you also want to be able to access their thinking and work through digital means.” I organized the teacher’s thinking – two goals – through a paraphrase.
Marianne (nodded) The teacher confirmed nonverbally, supported with a pause from me.
Me “Would you be okay with me sharing one possibility with you?” I asked permission to put an idea on the table, positioning the idea as “one possibility” to ensure the teacher still felt empowered.
Marianne “Sure, that’s fine.”


Marianne seemed interested in what I might have to contribute. Below is what I offered.

“What I know about portfolio assessment and writing is that it is an opportunity for authentic reflection. It can be helpful if in print because it is private; our inhibitions go down. We know we are not going to be judged, and subsequently we feel safe to share whatever is on our mind. Knowing this, is there a way to allow students to organize their writing in a binder, while expecting them to select one piece periodically and share it online, say once every six weeks? That way you both can assess it and they have control in their writing lives.”

Even in my idea sharing, I incorporated my coaching skills, such as posing a question (“Knowing this, is there a way to allow students to organize their writing in a binder…?”)

This teacher eventually decided to house students’ writing in a digital portfolio. I was influential because I supported Marianne’s capacity to make instructional decisions.

This is empowering for leaders; they don’t have to be an expert in all areas of education. Although it does help to be knowledgeable, I acquire this wisdom by listening to teachers through continuous coaching conversations that are centered on their challenges and innovations.

Written by

Matt Renwick is an elementary principal in Mineral Point, Wisconsin. Previously he served as an assistant principal, athletic director, coach, and classroom teacher in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin. Matt was recognized as a Friend of Literacy by the Wisconsin State Reading Association in 2020 and received the Kohl Leadership Award in 2021. His other work includes 5 Myths About Classroom Technology: How do we integrate digital tools to truly enhance learning? (2016) and Digital Portfolios in the Classroom: Showcasing and Assessing Student Work (2014). You can find Matt on Twitter @ReadbyExample.

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