Professional Reading Saturday: Good Leaders Ask Great Questions

It’s been questions week at Principal Matters!;  questions for you as the principal or assistant principal to ask your teachers, your students, their parents, and even yourself.  As you reach the conclusion of the school year, you need to gather the data that will help you design next school year.  To do so, you need to ask questions.

future belongs to the curiousTo support you in your work, this week’s Professional Reading Saturday recommendation is from legendary leadership author John C. Maxwell and his book Good Leaders Ask Great Questions.

Like the library of books to help leaders that Maxwell has authored, this is a reader-friendly piece that drives at the heart of what we’ve been discussing all week, why questions matter and how to ask more meaningful questions. 

Maxwell mixes stories with quotable quotes, taking the reader through questions he asks, questions that he is asked, and then questions that he asks of growing leaders.

You’ll grow as a questioner and pick up a bag full of nuggets of wisdom about great questions in this book.  You can get it wherever you like to buy books!



Twenty End-of-the-Year Questions To Ask Your Teachers

As has been our theme all week long, we look again at questions, and in this column, questions for… the teachers.

Yes, teachers get surveyed a lot.  You may prefer to gather this data in small groups, in meetings, or in a format that leads to more openness and deeper reflection.

In concluding the school year, it’s incumbent on you as a school leader to measure the growth and progress your school has made.  An important part of that measure is in debriefing your teachers.  You can do so as a part of their summative conference if you like.  The important thing is that you don’t let an opportunity to learn more about this school year pass by you.  The more questions you ask, the more you know about your school and your people, and the better you’ll serve them as their leader.

55 minutes of questionsBelow are twenty questions that you can ask your teachers before they break for the summer.  Maybe you’ll ask some of them; maybe all of them, and maybe none of them.  The important part of this examination is that you focus on the right questions for your teachers and for your school within the current context.  To get you thinking about what  to ask your teachers, here is a sample set of  twenty questions.  Enjoy.

Twenty Questions To Ask Your Teachers at the End of the Year

  1. What did you do most effectively this year in your classroom?
  2. How well did your students learn this year?
  3. What was an innovative strategy that you employed successfully this year?
  4. What was your biggest failure this year?  What did you learn from it?
  5. Describe the level of relationships that you had with your students this year.  Were your relationships with your students better this year than in other years?  Why or why not?
  6. Think of a student who you were never really able to reach the way you’d hoped.  What did you learn from your efforts?
  7. What did you learn about teaching this year?
  8. Based on your reflection about your work this year, what do you plan to focus your professional development on this summer?
  9. If you had ten minutes to talk about something you do well as a teacher, what would you talk about? (focusing on one thing)
  10. Were you a good team member this year?  What did you do to help your colleagues be more effective as teachers?
  11. If someone was charting your career as a teacher day-by-day from your first day/first year to now,  what would the curve look like?
  12. Teaching is challenging and often stressful.  How well did you handle the stress this year?  What do you find effective in coping with your work stress?
  13. What was your best year ever as a teacher?  Where did this year rank among your years of teaching?
  14. Who helped you in your work this year?  Who did you help in their work?
  15. What do you need from others who work at the school in order to be a more effective teacher?
  16. What do you think about the children who go to our school?  Are they all able to learn?
  17. What was your best experience partnering with a parent this year?
  18. What skill do you need to learn to do more effectively?
  19. Why do you teach?
  20. What is your number one highlight of this school year?

As always, there are many more questions that you could ask and many that can be appropriate within the context of your school.  Work hard to ask the right questions that help you gather the data you need to make good decisions about individuals, groups, and the school as a whole.  The leader who fails to listen better be a really good guesser!  It’s much easier and more effective to become a good listener instead.  It takes good questions, a commitment to take time to ask them, and an ear that listens to understand rather then to reply.

Before your teachers break for summer (and before anyone mentally checks out) invest your time into conversations with your teachers.  You can learn so much from listening!



Ten End-Of-The-Year Questions For Parents

One of the greatest areas of growth in our schools is in our work with parents.  As we reach the end of the school year, now is a good time to get data from our parents.

We can do so in surveys, in formal meetings, small-group settings, and informally.   Perhaps as important as when we talk to parents is what questions can we ask them to support the work and collect data that can be helpful.

While all schools are engaged in surveying parents, conversations may bring a deeper level of information.  Even if surveys were more focused on questions that support the individual work of your school, the data you collect might be richer.

parents involvementAs always, what you need to know is based on the context of your school as much as anything.  To prime the pump of your thinking, please find a set of ten possible questions for parents at the end of the year. They are written to be used across grade bands, so you might want to adapt the wording to make it most appropriate for your school level.

You may find some, all, or none of them to be questions that you’d like to ask, but no matter which you choose, consider the value of asking engaging questions to the parents of your students as you approach the conclusion of  the school year. On to the examples:

Ten Questions for Parents at the End of the School Year

  1. What did your daughter/son enjoy learning the most this year?
  2. What do you believe that your son/daughter learned well this year?
  3. In what ways did you support your child’s learning?
  4. In what ways did we at the school help you support your child’s learning?
  5. How could we have partnered with you more effectively this year?
  6. What skill or skills do you want your son/daughter to know how to do more effectively?
  7. What can we provide for you, if anything, to help you continue your child’s learning this summer?
  8. What can we do in partnership with you to start next school year off on the right foot?
  9. Is your daughter/son learning what you expect them to be learning at this point in their schooling?
  10. How can we be the best partner possible with you to help your son/daughter grow in what they know, what they can do, and who they are?




End-of-the-Year Questions For Your Students

The most underutilized group of people in most schools?  Students.

We often make decisions about them without spending time in conversation with them.  Many is the time we design an initiative that we think will be attractive to our students without actually having spoken with them about what they like and what motivates them.

As you gather meaningful data to better understand the impact of your actions this year, don’t forget the students!  Take time to learn from your students while you still have them around.

What can you learn from them?  School-wide trends.  Perceptions of individual teachers. What teaching strategies are most motivating.  You can learn what works.

How do you do it?  Small-group discussions.  Surveys (yes, I know you already give a lot of surveys, but are you really getting all the data you need?).  Informal conversations. (You can learn a lot while at bus duty or lunch supervision)

What do you ask students?  The questions you ask your students should be related to the context of your school.  For example, if you’ve been working on Positive Behavioral Interventions (PBIS), you will want to ask questions to gain student perspective on what works most effectively.  You may want to spend time digging deeper into perception survey data you’ve already collected.

individual learningThe bottom line is this:  you can learn a lot from your students if you’ll design a listening strategy.  Use what you already know (performance and perception data; your own observations) to create a list of questions for your students.  Schedule time to talk with them or to administer surveys; analyze the data and use it to inform your continued work and growth.

While it’s advisable for you to create your own custom questions based on the context of your school, here are some possible questions to spur your thinking. Of course, the language of these questions can be adapted depending upon the grade level.  The core content of each question is adaptable for any grade level.

Twenty End -of -the Year Questions for Students

  1. What did you create or produce this year that represents your best work?
  2. What are examples of work that you did in any of your classes that you were excited about?
  3. What kind of assignments bring out your best work?  How often do you get to do that kind of work?
  4. What percentage of your class time is spent doing?  What percentage is spent listening?
  5. What teacher or teachers do you feel really connected with you this year?  What was it they did that made you feel that way?
  6. What did you learn about the most this year?
  7. What do you wish that you had a chance to learn this year?
  8. How hard do you try in school? (your best? as much as you need to?  not much?)
  9. Who expects you to do your best in school?
  10. What do we do at school that makes you try harder?
  11. How much do you care about the grades that you get?
  12. Was this your best year of school so far?  If not, which year was?  Why do you think that?
  13. Right now, do you enjoy learning more than you did at the same time last year?  Why or why not?
  14. What is your passion?  When does your passion intersect with your work at school?
  15. Now that you’re finishing this grade, what advice do you have for the students who will be in this grade next year?
  16. What grade would you give your teacher(s) for the year?  Why?  What grade would you give our school for the year?  Why?
  17. What do you see other students doing that you would like to learn to do?
  18. What will you learn this summer?
  19. What are you most proud of that you did during this school year?
  20. Are you excited about next school year?

Again, this is not intended to be a complete list of any sort, but just a few ideas of what you might ask students at the end of the year to learn more about their learning experience at your school.  If you have more questions to add, please do so in the comments section below!

Regardless of whether or not you use any of these questions at all, the biggest question is this:  will you take advantage of the tremendous resource of your students’ perceptions on learning as you evaluate your work this year?



How Did We Do This Year? Ask The Right Questions

As we approach the conclusion of this school year, if you’re a principal, you should be asking, “how did we do this year?”  On one hand, you’re probably thinking that soon enough you’ll have the year-end data that will answer that question.  If you’re counting on your summative data to tell you all that you need to know, you’re going to be missing important data that will be difficult to obtain later.

Our efforts to be more deliberate and intentional in the work in classrooms and schools is well-placed.  Being better informed has led to better strategies, better decisions, and more-relevant instruction.  Data is… good.

how-did-we-doface scale

Often, we don’t have all of the data and we often short in our gathering before we get everything we need.  We need to collect, analyze, and interpret data that will complement what we expect to get from state-mandated testing, school and district reports, and summative information.

We need to go deeper than what; we need to gather the data that will help us understand why.

One of our greatest challenges is to advance from a first-order analysis of data into a more sophisticated search that can genuinely lead us to more effective strategies. For example, it is interesting to compare the number of students in our school who have been absent beyond a certain number of days to the attendance of students from neighboring schools, sometimes in our system.  It is instead impactful when we gather data from students in our school that helps us better understand the decisions made by students with poor attendance, as well as those with good attendance.

Knowing why students attend school or are absent is much more useful than a mere list of students, their absences, and their absence codes.  While everyone has common absence codes that are used in recording student attendance, does that tell you what you really need to know?

Here’s another example.  Student performance.  Quite often we look at student performance as it compares to other students in our school and on occasion how it stacks up against students at other schools in our system, region and even state.  We have grown more accustomed (and are still in the transition) to considering how a student compares against her previous performance:  growth.

But that’s only the beginning.  Can we collect, keep, and interpret not just those comparisons but also the reasons behind the variances?  While we can make some inferences at face value, we most likely need additional information in order to really understand performance at a level that can be used to drive change.

We need more data.  Much of it may need to be gathered from conversations with small groups.  Some of it can be gathered from students; other will need to come from teachers, and even parents.  If you know more about a student’s performance, isn’t it more likely that you and your team can design instruction to better fit that student’s needs?

whyThat data isn’t just going to leap onto your desk.  It’ll require you to ask questions of your students, their parents, your teachers and staff.  What questions should you ask?  That will be the focus of Principal Matters! this week:  questions.

This year isn’t over yet, but it will be soon.  You should figure out what you would like to know from your people while they’re still around.  Then, if you can prioritize this effort amongst all of the other things you are tending to, you will have meaningful data to complement the data you already have, and together you’ll have the picture you need to improve instruction.

Begin thinking:  what’s missing?  What do I need to know to be able to accurately answer the question how did we do this year?  Who do you need to ask?  When will you ask them?

More to come this week!




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