Coaching Conversations: Transforming your School One Conversation at a Time


Linda Gross Cheliotes & Marceta Fleming Reilly

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  • Back Matter
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  • Dedication

    To Arthur—my Muse

    To Alyssa, Brittney, Riley, Orianna,

    Jackie, and Ellie—our hope for the future


    View Copyright Page


    The “coach-like” conversations recommended by Linda Gross Cheliotes and Marceta Fleming Reilly in Coaching Conversations: Transforming Your School One Conversation at a Time are an incredibly powerful and often underestimated means of promoting improvements in teaching, learning, and relationships in schools. Gross Cheliotes’ and Reilly's view represents a significant paradigm shift regarding the role of the leader in promoting professional learning and cultural change. Conversations like the ones you will learn about in this book can alter beliefs, deepen understanding, energize and guide the school community, and strengthen practice.

    When I first learned about “life coaching” more than a decade ago, I realized that the attributes displayed by life coaches would be an important and useful addition to the skill set of school leaders as they navigated the web of relationships that comprise the core of their work. It simply made good sense, I concluded, to teach the most important of those skills to school leaders, a process that is the subject matter of this useful and practical book. Such teaching when done well and followed by persistent practice creates new habits that leaders can apply in chance hallway conversations with teachers, in professional meetings, and in various kinds of interactions with students and parents.

    There is an important caveat, however, to the increased use of conversations as a leadership tool: Not all conversations are created equal in their ability to promote professional learning and to stimulate individual and group change. The kinds of conversations described in Coaching Conversations share several characteristics. First, they are intentional. They have as their goal deeper understanding, stronger relationships, and a commitment to action that is sustained over time. Second, skillful conversations are grounded in deep and mindful listening that honors the speaker's perspective and demonstrates a willingness to be influenced by what others have to say. And third, skillful conversations are candid, leading to higher levels of trust and interpersonal accountability.

    Conversely, such conversations can be defined by what they are not. They are not disguised “command and control” methods of influence by which administrators issue directives and use fear and force to mandate compliance to those directives. Skillful conversations are not “serial speech making” in which one person after another delivers well-rehearsed monologues to a disengaged audience. Nor are they manipulative. Because they are intentional and candid, skillful conversations are straightforward with no hidden agendas.

    My views about conversation-based learning and mutual influence are based on several assumptions. I encourage readers to examine their own beliefs in these areas as a first step in fully engaging with the ideas and practices recommended by the authors.

    • Clear intentions are a precursor to improvement. It's hard to make things better if you don't know what you want to accomplish.
    • Leaders’ clarity is a precursor to continuous improvement in teaching and learning. Good conversations help leaders develop clarity regarding intentions, values, ideas, and practices while promoting clarity throughout the school community.
    • Clarity cannot be “delivered” to others. Clarity is achieved by grappling with the topic at hand until “brains are changed” and learning has occurred. Good conversations promote learning through a sustained focus and an ever-deepening consideration of important subjects.
    • Just-in-time learning is particularly potent because it is connected to real-life challenges and is motivated by a “need to know.” Good conversations by their very nature focus on the here-and-now reality of participants and generate clarity about and energy for future actions.
    • Leaders’ hopefulness and positive attitudes are contagious. Whether they intend it or not, leaders infect others with their emotions and attitudes. Good conversations create positivity—through conversation members of the school community develop a sense of possibility about the future and are energized to maintain the momentum of the change process.

    Coaching Conversations: Transforming Your School One Conversation at a Time is worthy of careful study. I encourage you to examine its ideas and consider how its many examples may apply to your unique responsibilities. Most of all, I urge you to diligently practice the skills Gross Cheliotes and Reilly describe until they become new habits of mind and behavior. The result will almost certainly be significant changes in yourself and improvements in the quality of your day-to-day interactions with others and in your school's culture. Together those changes form the bedrock of significant and permanent improvements in teaching and learning in your school.

    Dennis Sparks

    Dennis Sparks is president of Thinking Partners in Ann Arbor, Michigan. For 23 years he served as executive director of the National Staff Development Council. He can be reached at


    Coaching Conversations: Transforming Your School One Conversation at a Time provides a simple guidebook for school leaders that will introduce you to effective coaching conversation skills, which are critical for making systemic change. These skills will significantly increase your ability to engage and motivate the members of your school communities as you work collaboratively toward total school transformation. By investing a minimal amount of time to learn and practice the valuable conversational skills outlined in this book, you will experience a significant return on your investment.

    Michael Fullan's research (2006) demonstrates the importance of motivating people to change and grow through relationships based on treating others with dignity and respect. We advocate that coach-like conversations focus on building relationships through committed listening, asking powerful questions that result in deeper thinking, and utilizing reflective feedback that holds each person to high standards while at the same time preserves their personal dignity.

    Charles Payne (2008) establishes the case for relational trust as the most important factor in moving the lowest tier schools to higher levels of achievement. Through ongoing, respectful coaching conversations, space is provided for personal and professional growth and change within a framework of relational trust.

    The content we share in this book is based on the training materials we use in our Coaching For Results, Inc., workshops. Many people in CFR have contributed to the ideas, examples, figures, and text of its content. The examples and running dialogues we use throughout the book come from our work with school leaders. The names of the people and some of the details of the situations have been changed to protect their confidentiality.

    Coaching Conversations: Transforming Your School One Conversation at a Time was written for school leaders at all organizational levels. School leaders include principals and their assistants, directors, superintendents, professional development personnel, and also teachers in leadership roles, such as instructional coaches, content specialists, and lead teachers. Anyone within the school community whose role focuses on collaboration with others will be able to learn and practice the skills described in this book to transform their schools, their departments, their grade levels, or their districts.

    In the first chapter you will learn what distinguishes a coaching conversation from other interactions and how coaching conversations may transform your school community.

    Chapter 2 distinguishes in greater detail how coaching conversations differ from supervisory and mentoring conversations. In addition, you will learn the importance of using coach-like conversational practices even when your goal for a particular conversation may be focused on serious supervisory concerns.

    The goal of Chapter 3 is learning and developing committed listening skills, which are foundational to holding genuine coaching conversations and building relational trust. Until you truly understand by listening to both the words and essence of what another person is saying meaningful dialogue and change is unlikely to occur.

    In Chapter 4 you will learn the importance of speaking powerfully, which includes forming a specific intention for speaking, choosing words that align with your inner thoughts, and entering the conversation with positive intentions about the other person. You will also learn to use open-ended questions that provoke deep thinking by other people, which helps them generate possibilities that lead to actions.

    Chapter 5 introduces the reader to a very specific form of speaking called reflective feedback. This useful framework offers several options for delivering meaningful feedback. It can also be used to Coach-on-the-Fly as well as to structure a conversation about a difficult topic.

    Finally, in Chapter 6 you will read two authentic case studies that demonstrate the transformative power of coaching conversations. The first example describes a single coaching conversation that shows how significant insight and the beginnings of change are possible, even within the short time-frame of a single conversation. The second case study allows the reader to witness the progression toward growth and change of a school leader who has been engaged in a series of conversations with her coach over a period of several months.

    Transforming your school through coaching conversations requires dedicated practice of the skills outlined in this book. At the same time, utilizing these skills must be done authentically and honestly or people may feel manipulated or that the conversation is superficial. In other words, when coaching conversations are sincere, there is a high probability that trust will grow between the participants and that pathways for growth and change will develop.

    We have written this book because we have seen amazing transformations occur in school leaders as they think deeply about what they want, get clear about their purposes, and practice the effective communication skills we promote in this book. We believe that when put into practice, coach-like conversations have the power to transform school cultures and impact the quality of the school experience for all children.


    Many people influenced and supported the writing of Coaching Conversations: Transforming Your School One Conversation at a Time. We are grateful to our coaching colleagues in Coaching For Results, Inc., for their inspiration, support, and wisdom. We are especially thankful to Kathy Kee, Karen Anderson, Frances Shuster, Diana Williams, and Edna Harris for much of the development of the training materials and seminars on which this book is based. Their insights and knowledge have been invaluable.

    In addition, we want to acknowledge Dave Ellis for his creative work and his generosity through the Brande Foundation, which has supported the transformation of countless people through the training and work of numerous life coaches, including many founding members of Coaching For Results, Inc.

    Dennis Sparks, Stephanie Hirsh, and Joellen Killion, from the National Staff Development Council, first envisioned bringing coaching to school leaders. Their encouragement and support continues to fuel our work.

    We acknowledge and thank our coaching clients who have not only provided examples for this book but also contributed to our personal growth and knowledge by teaching us effective ways to support people to lead major change initiatives within their schools and their lives.

    To our families who have supported and encouraged our efforts, we offer our sincere appreciation and love for their understanding and patience.

    Additionally, Corwin gratefully acknowledges the following peer reviewers for their editorial insight and guidance:

    Sean Beggin

    Assistant Principal

    Andover High School

    Andover, MN

    Patricia Bowman

    Retired Administrator and Independent Educational Consultant

    Inglewood, CA

    Roberta Glaser

    Assistant Superintendent (Retired)

    St. Johns Public Schools

    St. Paul, MI

    Harriet Gould

    Adjunct Professor in Educational Administration

    Concordia University

    Fallbrook Campus

    Lincoln, NE

    Lynn Macan


    Cobleskill-Richmondville Central School

    Cobleskill, NY

    Rob Slauson


    Lincoln Southwest High School

    Lincoln, NE

    Dana Salles Trevethan


    Turlock High School

    Turlock, CA

    Bonnie Tryon

    President of SAANYS and Principal Instructional Planning and Support

    Cobleskill-Richmondville Central Schools

    Cobleskill, NY

    Paul Young

    Executive Director

    West After School Center, Inc.

    Lancaster, OH

    About the Authors

    Linda Gross Cheliotes, EdD, has more than 38 years of successful educational experience, including 14 years as a school administrator. As principal, she transformed her underperforming school to a National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence. Dr. Gross Cheliotes was named a National Distinguished Principal in 2002 and holds a doctorate in Organizational Leadership.

    For the past two years, Dr. Gross Cheliotes has been a coach and trainer with Coaching For Results, Inc., a national consortium of school leadership coaches. She is a founding member and coach for the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) principal mentor certification program. Dr. Gross Cheliotes currently works with the New York City Council of School Supervisors and Administrators’ Executive Leadership Institute, providing professional development for assistant principals who aspire to become principals. She has presented numerous professional development programs at the national, state, and local levels.

    Dr. Gross Cheliotes is a member of the International Coach Federation and NAESP and an Associate Certified Coach (ACC).

    Marceta Fleming Reilly, PhD, has 42 years of experience in education, moving from teacher to principal to school superintendent in Kansas. Her vision and passion were to create schools that were welcoming to students and families, and centersoflearning and success for the entire community.

    Dr. Reilly is now a leadership coach and has the Professional Certified Coach (PCC) credential from the International Coach Federation. She is a founding member of Coaching For Results, Inc., and dedicated to partnering with school leaders who are doing transformational work. She uses coaching conversations to help her clients gain insight and confidence, and she helps build their capacity to be extraordinary leaders, based on their individual, innate strengths.

    Dr. Reilly regularly conducts workshops about coaching conversations. She is a frequent speaker at state and national conferences and has been invited to present these ideas to audiences in China (2007) and India (2009).

  • Appendices

    Appendix A: Powerful, Open-Ended Questions

    Powerful, open-ended questions require more than a yes or no response. They stimulate thinking and reflection. Powerful questions lay the groundwork for moving forward with action and change.

    Samples of Powerful Open-Ended Questions
    • What new structures are you putting into place to achieve your instructional goal?
    • Because the success of your students is your passion, what strategies are you considering …?
    • When you faced a similar dilemma, what course of action did you find most helpful?
    • What is the most important outcome for our conversation?
    • What similarities are there between this situation and…?
    • What are the benefits of …?
    • How would you like to be in your interactions with parents?
    • Since collaboration with colleagues is a core value in our school, what plans are you considering for developing lessons with teachers in your department?
    • What resources will you need to …?
    • What are you taking away from our conversation today?
    • What is the most challenging part?
    • On a scale of 1 to 10, how important is this to you?
    • How do you feel about the amount of time you are putting into …?
    • How can I best help you think this through?
    • What do you need to do to …?
    • What are the next steps?
    • What have you learned from …?
    Appendix B: Reflective Feedback

    Reflective feedback provides specific information to others while also maintaining trust within relationships. There are three types of reflective feedback:

    • Clarifying questions or statements
    • Value potential statements
    • Questions or possibility statements

    Samples of Clarifying Questions or Statements
    • What responses did you receive from …?
    • Which resources were the most useful?
    • When you checked the curriculum for alignment with state tests, what did you discover?
    • I would like to discuss student engagement in the lesson.
    • The goal for this meeting is …
    • Let's review what you have decided so far.
    Samples of Value Potential Statements
    • You have really thought deeply about …
    • There is evidence of …
    • • The strength of the idea is …
    • Your idea is very exciting because …
    Samples of Questions or Possibility Statements
    • What other considerations are you thinking about?
    • What learning gaps, if any, have you noticed in your Title 1 students’ understanding of …?
    • I wonder what would happen if …?
    • What goals have your teachers set for differentiating instruction?


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    Burley-Allen, M. (1999). Communication self-assessment evaluation. Retrieved on December 17, 2009, from
    Coaching For Results, Inc. (2007). Strategies for powerful leading. Retrieved on December 20, 2009, from
    Crowther, S. (2009). A second look at powerful questions. Retrieved on February 19, 2010, from
    Ellis, D. (Ed.). (2000). Falling awake. Rapid City, SD: Breakthrough Enterprises.
    Fullan, M. (2006). Turnaround leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
    Payne, C. (2008). So much reform, so little change. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
    Perkins, D. (2003). King Arthur's round table: How collaborative conversations create smart organizations. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
    Rock, D. (2006). Quiet leadership. New York: HarperCollins.
    Scott, S. (2004). Fierce conversations. New York: Berkley.
    Sousa, D. (2009). Brain-friendly learning for teachers. Educational Leadership, 66 (9), Retrieved August 24, 2009, from
    Sparks, D. (2007). Leading for results (
    2nd ed.
    ). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

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    The Corwin logo—a raven striding across an open book—represents the union of courage and learning. Corwin is committed to improving education for all learners by publishing books and other professional development resources for those serving the field of PreK–12 education. By providing practical, hands-on materials, Corwin continues to carry out the promise of its motto: “Helping Educators Do Their Work Better.”

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