As a school leader, how do you have your staff inquiry support structures set up? Is it working? Who is it impacting the most - is it impacting in a way it is intended to impact? - What does a positive inquiry impact look like anyhow?  - at the core of it is the question - why do we inquire?

In the past, as a department leader, I have found conversations with staff about their classroom practice challenging. Admittedly I cringe when I think about some of the conversations I had with my staff - in the early days of my leadership experience. With a reflective lens, I now see that all I was doing was modelling what I had done to me.

As a classroom teacher over the last 20 years, I have to say, I have experienced only ONE - for want of a better term - appraisal meeting - ever. Now that is pretty grim and leads me to wonder why.

In my experience - as a beginning teacher - I felt the whole process was to make a measure of my abilities as a teacher. We now know, in such environments, there is very rarely any professional growth occurring. In more recent years, the teacher responsible for leading the meeting was either less competent than I in the classroom or was unable to support my professional growth. The dialogue went something like “you are doing a great job - keep it up” - which is great to hear, but not useful for one's professional growth and development as an educator.  

In all cases described above a traditional model of leadership was in place.  The traditional model of inquiry leadership is for staff in leadership roles to be the ones who lead inquiry in their areas. These staffs are the ones responsible and accountable - to their leaders - for the completion of the process. However, I would argue, that staff in these positions often struggle with the duality of their role and are not always the right people to be leading inquiry in the school. The challenge of trying to build an inquiry culture and developing relational trust often run up against conflicts of interest when there is an accountability aspect associated with the conversation.  

Leaders I have worked with have expressed a frustration that some of their curriculum leaders are not supporting their staff's inquiry as well as they had hoped. They are finding that the dialogue around inquiries is still gravitating towards the judgemental quadrant, and there is a fear - by the staff - of being judged that is stifling their courage to be innovative and creative and try something new. Leaders are finding - due to the nature of the dialogue around inquiry - that their staff feel that their inquiry findings will be used to judge their ability as a teacher.

Le Fevre in - Barriers to implementing pedagogical change: The role of teachers' perceptions of risk - makes reference to the nature of relational trust and its importance for supporting change. She postulates that there is a need for further interpersonal skills and values than those that may have resulted from long-standing friendship alone. 

Talking about and engaging in educational change requires having sufficient relational trust to be able to engage in difficult conversations about tough issues. It is important for leaders and teachers to take stock of the evidence about the quality of their conversations because there is a difference between congenial and critical conversations. Where relational trust is low, the nature of conversations might appear congenial on the surface, but significant problems and challenges tend to be avoided. On the other hand, where relational trust is high, it is safe to talk about the tough issues and to debate issues of importance.
— Le Fevre, 2010

Schools - and the leaders of inquiry - must move away from the judgement quadrant when looking at supporting inquiry and shift it into the growth quadrant. To do this they need to work on building relational trust between leaders and teachers, or between Inquiry coaches and their staff.

Inquiry Coaches

Inquiry coaches are responsible for the building of the capacity of staff to plan and carry out deep and relevant teacher inquiries. They do this through coaching dialogue and facilitation of the connections between the teacher inquiry and the data - pre and post the inquiry. Coaching dialogue is purposeful ongoing one to one dialogue for the purpose of developing skills and performance and enhancing potential. It is distinctly different from performance assessment because it focuses on encouraging, motivating and guiding to achieve higher goals. The inquiry is evidence-driven, but will only generate great evidence when it is well planned and supported. An inquiry coach is like the gardener who tends his crops - nurtures the garden and prepares the soil in order to reap a great crop.

Who is best to be an inquiry leader/coach?

Support of your school's inquiry practice is orientated through decisions around:

Who would be the best teachers to be inquiry leader/coach?; How the culture of inquiry is going to be embedded into teacher practice?; What are the key character strengths of the inquiry leader/coach that would encourage teachers to inquire and participate in collaborative dialogue to bring about professional growth and improved student outcomes?

Capacities and Capabilities

Support of your school's inquiry practice requires a decided structure around inquiry leaders/coaches

Inquiry practice - supported through an Action Research Learning Project framework - requires a decided structure around inquiry leaders/coaches that encourages and facilitates deep and meaningful inquiry cycles. When thinking through all of this, it becomes pretty evident that not everyone can be an effective inquiry leader/coach. As a leader, you may need to reconsider your structures around inquiry and appraisal in order to build the desired cultures of inquiry.

inquiry leaders/coaches need to have the following characteristics and skills:

  • Actively Inquiring themselves

  • Skills in collegial dialogue that is actively inquiring

  • Have a good understanding of the chosen inquiry framework

  • Empathy

  • Good listener

Good inquiry leaders/coaches are empathetic. This is because inquiry leaders need to be able to engage in others learning in order to shift the dialogue from just reporting back to actively inquiring. Inquiry leaders need to be able to build rapport and trust. This is done through empathy.

Good inquiry leaders/coaches are respectful listeners. This is because it is important for an inquiry leader to be able to build relational trust between themselves and the teacher they are coaching. Teachers potentially have an emotional attachment to their inquiry work. It is a lens in which they and others look into what is happening in the classroom and this can lead to a fear of judgement if the inquiry leader is not a respectful listener.

Good inquiry leaders/coaches are growth orientated. Growth-oriented inquiry leaders will engage teachers in dialogue that has a growth mindset creating an environment that allows teachers to grow professionally. Support of your school's inquiry practice occurs through well thought out systems for timing.

Support Structures

Support of your school's inquiry practice occurs through well thought out systems. Included in these systems and processes is timing for inquiry dialogue to occur between inquiry leader/coach and teachers or CoLs. Ideally, teachers would be supported by being given time to engage in collaborative dialogue with their inquiry leader/coach on a termly basis throughout the year. This time allocation is scheduled. provisioned and guided order to see growth through dialogue. In the time short environments of schools, it is important for leaders to ensure that any time allocated to leaders and teachers to dialogue about their inquiries is engaging and relevant. The use of this time needs to be maximised. Time is of the essence. When supporting rigorous inquiry practices, time is a vital component of successful implementation and culture building. By allocating time to an inquiry, teachers will experience a shift in the level of value they place on the process.

Being an inquiry coach is like going on a journey with the other person, a journey where neither of you knows where you are heading and where you will be or when you will arrive. Not everyone has the capability or the capacity to go on such a journey.

Do you know who on your staff would make great inquiry coaches?

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Le Fevre, D. M. (2010). Changing Tack: Talking about change knowledge for professional learning. In H. T. (eds.), Weaving evidence, inquiry and standards to build better schools (pp. 71-91). Wellington: New Zealand Council for Educational Research.

Le Fevre, D. M. (2014). Barriers to implementing pedagogical change: The role of teachers' perceptions of risk. Teaching and Teacher Education, 38, 56-64.

Tabitha Leonard