Faculty Coaching: Questions You Must Ask

Two business men looking at a computer screen

As leaders and managers in higher education, we often find ourselves in situations that require us to think outside the box in our interactions with faculty to continually improve student success in our classrooms. Our instructors are the face of our college in student interactions and should always be “top of mind.” Instructors help us meet and often exceed our goals and our students’ expectations, but what do we do when we have low performers?

Take, for example, an instructor who is absent for long periods of time from their online classroom. In failing to engage regularly with students and support them, the instructor is failing to meet the performance expectations of the dean and the commitments the college made to the student. As the dean you have worked to make sure you have communicated clearly, but the instructor is not meeting your standards. How do you improve his/her performance?

How Do You Improve Faculty Performance?

At such moments it is important to know what tools you have to work with and the most appropriate way to improve the instructor’s performance in the classroom. There are three options in your toolkit – coaching, mentoring and supervising. Which one do you choose?

  • Coaching is a co-created partnership between a dean and instructor centered around an engaging, thought-provoking, questioning process designed to maximize an instructor’s skills, performance and development to achieve goals and produce results.
  • Mentoring is a co-created relationship between a mentor and a mentee focused on the mentor’s agenda of helping and advising the mentee to maximize career and professional development.
  • Supervising is a relationship in which a dean or administrator oversees and directs the efforts of an instructor for the purpose of achieving a college’s objective.

The most appropriate option in this situation is coaching. Why? As the dean, you need the instructor to engage with students to meet his or her goals and your commitment to the students. If you chose to mentor, you would give the instructor advice. If you chose to supervise, you would be telling the instructor what to do. Neither option would provide the result you are looking for because the instructor would not be part of the conversation or solution.

The instructor needs to understand the importance of interacting with students in the classroom and meeting your expectations. As the dean, you should engage the instructor in a coaching conversation — a dialogue. During a coaching conversation, the instructor creates goals, action steps and a timeline for completing the goals based on open-ended questions. Asking questions versus telling the instructor what to do creates a positive experience for the instructor and encourages immediate buy-in because the instructor created the goals.

This is the first step in improving the instructor’s performance.

Now that you know you want to coach the instructor, what type of coaching is needed?

 Choosing a Coaching Type

The type of coaching that is needed is determined by the type of conversation you plan to have with the instructor. The majority of the time, a dean will focus on the instructor’s performance and skills in the classroom, as we have a responsibility to ensure our instructors are meeting the needs and expectations of our students.

There are five generally accepted types of coaching conversations, as Robert Witherspoon, president of Performance & Leadership Development Ltd., and Randall P. White, principal of the Executive Development Group, published in the Journal of Excellence. We will focus the two types of coaching conversations that specifically speak to instructor performance.

  1. Coaching for performance improvement focuses broadly on a person’s current job and ability to perform tasks effectively and efficiently to achieve or exceed personal or professional goals and results.

I once had an instructor who failed to meet minimum expectations within the online classroom. The instructor was not interacting with students in the discussion boards or providing feedback to students when grading assignments, and did not respond to student inquiries in a timely fashion. The instructor was aware of the expectations and yet did not respond to directives or suggestions.

When I realized the supervisory approach was not working, I used a coaching for performance improvement conversation. During the coaching conversation, the instructor mentioned he was having difficulty navigating around the online classroom and understanding the learning management system (LMS). Because of this learning curve with the LMS, it was taking him more time to grade. The more time it was taking to grade, the less feedback he was providing to students because of the grading deadline. Lastly, he was so focused on grading that he neglected to interact with the students in the discussion boards. Once I understood the reasons for his low performance, I coached him on establishing goals that would help him meet expectations.

As we continued the coaching session, the conversation transitioned into a coaching for skills conversation. 

  1. Coaching for skills focuses on developing and improving a person’s ability to do something well, such as apply ideas, strategies, methods, etc. You might coach for skills related to improving an instructor’s ability to conduct a phone conversation, advise a student, give effective feedback or apply rubrics when grading.

As I continued to coach the instructor on his overall performance, it became clear he needed to improve his understanding of how to do certain tasks within the LMS as well as improve his grading strategies, including how to effectively provide feedback using rubrics.

The coaching conversation focused on his skill sets and how to get him up to speed in these areas as quickly as possible. For example, we walked through the main areas of the LMS and so he could see how to complete certain tasks. We discussed strategies for engaging in the discussion board and how to effectively manage the number of students in the class.

One of the goals he set was to respond to half of the students in the upcoming discussion board. Another goal was to begin grading earlier in the week to give him time to apply the rubrics and provide feedback.  He set a timeline for each goal and contacted me with updates to hold him accountable.

The instructor in this situation set and achieved his goals because I determined in our initial coaching conversations his level of will and skills and how to approach the coaching session.

Determining Will and Skills

During the coaching conversation, I realized the instructor had high will and low skills. It was clear from his passion and excitement he had the will to do what was expected, but did not have the skills.

Max Landsberg’s Will and Skills model in “The Tao of Coaching” is an easy and efficient method of determining your instructor’s current level of willingness to do what is expected and level of skills to do what is expected.

  • Low will and low skills is most appropriately addressed by coaching for performance to address the will of the instructor and coaching for skills to address the instructor’s skill deficiencies and training. It often may require more directive supervising approaches.
  • High will and high skills is an effective combination for coaching for career development to prepare an instructor for a future jobs, mentoring and delegation of greater responsibilities.
  • High will and low skills is best suited for coaching for training skills and guidance.
  • Low will and high skills requires coaching for performance to address an instructor’s willingness to do what is being asked by a dean or required by the college. The goal is to excite and motivate an instructor to do what is being asked, since the instructor already possesses the necessary skills. More direct supervisory approaches may be warranted if behavior and willingness do not improve.
A graph relating skill Level to will power

Adapted from Landsberg’s “The Tao of Coaching”

Approaching Coaching

There are numerous approaches to coaching. I used HRDQ’s (Human Resource Development Quarterly) model as a basis for coaching the instructor for skills. As you begin a coaching session:

  • Set the stage by contacting your instructor and setting up a meeting to conduct a coaching-for-skills conversation. Identify the objective of the coaching session to focus the session and help the instructor improve and become more proficient.
  • Define the opportunities by focusing on a skill the instructor needs to improve or develop. This may involve the instructor and the dean demonstrating and performing the skill. Compare the instructor’s current level of skill to what is expected in the classroom and identify the instructor’s strengths and areas for improvement. Encourage the instructor to think aloud through the steps required to perform the skill (i.e., participating in the discussion boards, grading on time, applying rubrics, navigating different parts of the online classroom). Ask appropriate open-ended questions to help the instructor think through how to improve the skill. For example, “What steps are causing you the most difficulty when performing the skill” and “What do you suggest for overcoming the difficulty?” “What steps do you suggest for increasing your proficiency with the skill?” “How can I assist you with developing your skills?”
  • Analyze options by identifying and listing options for improving the skills, discussing the pros and cons of the options identified and determining the best options to pursue.
  • Develop an action plan is all about the dean and the instructor developing a SMART action plan that is:
    • Specific
    • Measurable
    • Attainable
    • Realistic
    • Time-bound

Finally, the SMART action plan will help hold the instructor accountable for improving skills, performance and development.


Remember, as leaders and managers in higher education, we have a responsibility to provide knowledgeable, skilled and trained instructors for our students. The instructors are the face to our college and we should always look for ways to maximize their skills and increase their performance in the classroom. In the end, coaching is a positive and forward-thinking approach to helping our instructors meet and exceed expectations.

Academically Speaking Blog

Explore more content like this article

A man and a woman walk and discuss facing covid pandemic fatigue

Pandemic Fatigue and the Light at the End of the Tunnel

May 26, 2021

The world is over a year into the COVID-19 pandemic and some people are growing tired of public health measures. What are some of the things that can be done to combat pandemic fatigue?

An online instructor teaching with empathy on their laptop.

Supporting Online Students: Why Teaching with Empathy Matters

March 25, 2021

The importance of empathetic teaching in an online environment cannot be understated. Students appreciate when instructors show concern for what is happening in their lives, and having an instructor with a teaching approach that focuses on empathy helps them navigate anxiety or uncertainty.

Someone using a tablet to speak with their mental health counselor over telehealth.

Taking Action: A Fight for Mental Health

February 11, 2021

Consider what your role might be as a mental health advocate; someone who gives a voice to the problems and potential solutions related to mental health and mental health awareness. To advocate means more than just giving voice; it means to fight.