Part of our Cash in on Learning series by Richard M. Cash, Ed.D. Click to read other Cash in on Learning posts.
I didn’t begin my career in education. My first bachelor’s degree was in theater. My dad used to say to me, “What the heck are you going to do with a theater degree?” Well, not a lot. I went into retail and the restaurant business instead. I did move into management in both industries, learning productive management skills along the way. One of the tools I learned during those years was how to ask my staff good questions during routine meetings.
When I moved into education, I brought with me many of the management tools and strategies I acquired in my earlier life. As an administrator, I found that asking good questions in a staff meeting often uncovered issues I was not completely aware of, eventually bringing about changes that were initiated by the staff. Here are nine questions that are useful for igniting conversation, uncovering issues, and stimulating celebrations:
1. What’s working and what’s not working? This question can be used broadly—what’s working or not working in the classroom, the building, or a program. Don’t leave this as a stand alone question—always follow up with question #2.
2. Why is it working or not working? Even when things are working, we should always pause to reflect on why they’re working. Knowing what we are doing right can help us avert future problems and ensure that we continue to do what we know works. Considering why something isn’t working can uncover the need for more resources, training, materials, time, or effort. Just because something isn’t working doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea. It could mean that there needs to be refocusing of resources, energy, or people.
3. What accomplishments in student achievement are you most proud of over the past few weeks? This is a great question to get teachers thinking about the effect they have on their students and the school community. Be sure to coach the staff to always be on the lookout for accomplishments, no matter how small. Small accomplishments usually lead to bigger accomplishments. Additionally, hearing how others have been successful with students can give us all an energy boost to say, “I can do that, too.”
4. What have you learned about yourself as a learner this week? To encourage teachers to remain lifelong learners, asking what they have discovered about themselves keeps them thinking. The focus of this question is on learning—not on teaching. Sharing our thoughts and ideas about how we learn can spill over into our instructional practices.
5. Recently, who or what has inspired you to be your best self? We all need inspiration in our careers and life. Asking your staff who or what has inspired them can help others make those inspirational connections. Also note that the question states, “to be your best self.” As famed psychologist Dr. Carol Dweck states in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, a growth mindset means we value our successes when they are making us better rather than as a means to compare ourselves with others.
Note that the five questions above are aimed at the individual rather than the whole organization. I believe when individuals feel valued, listened to, and honored for their accomplishments and their learning, the organization only gets better. The remaining four questions are about the school organization and environment:
6. What are the characteristics of success, and how do you promote them to your students? This question can get teachers thinking about defining success beyond grades. Extrinsic rewards have little to no effect on achievement. In fact, students can view grades as punishment for not doing exactly what the teacher wanted or as reward for not putting forth much effort. By having teachers articulate the characteristics of success, teaching those characteristics to their students can become an intrinsic motivation booster.
7. Who continues to amaze or surprise you with his or her contributions to the school community? It’s a good idea to have staff applaud other staff or community members who have been valuable to the school and its operations. Letting those who do good for the community know their work is seen and appreciated can increase the overall morale of the staff.
8. Why is bonding with other staff members essential to a learning community? This question can help staff consider their individual and group actions as being important to a productive learning environment. I also find that “why” questions require a deeper level of thinking and reflection.
9. In what ways has the school community changed for the better? Or, in what ways can our school community change for the better? Focus your staff discussions on the positive aspects of the environment or on positive ways the community can change for the better. Avoid negatively phrased questions that can turn a staff meeting into a grouse session.
Depending on what you want to accomplish during your meeting, choose the top five questions to build individual growth or the latter four questions to improve group growth and cohesion.
Starting off a staff meeting with any one of these questions can spark interest, build morale, open up lines of communication, and get people thinking deeply. I’d love to hear what questions you have used in staff meetings that have proven valuable to building the learning community.
Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., writes the monthly Cash in on Learning blog posts for Free Spirit. He has given hundreds of workshops, presentations, and staff development sessions throughout the United States and internationally.
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