In this week’s episode of the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast, Steve looks at the role of coaches in PLCs.
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Steve [Intro]: 00:14 Hello and welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. For over three decades I’ve had the opportunity to learn with educators at all levels, both nationally and internationally. I invite you to listen as I explore my thoughts and learning on a variety of topics connected to teaching, learning and leading with some of the best and brightest educators from around the globe. Thanks for listening in.
Steve: 00:42 Coaches working with PLCs. I’ve been finding an increased number of cases where instructional coaches are scheduled into and in many cases, in charge of PLCs that are occurring within the building. In these cases, I often find that the district office is holding building principals accountable for the effectiveness of PLCs. With all the other time constraints and pressures that building principals find themselves in, many have turned to pass that responsibility and accountability on to their instructional coach. To explore this topic further, I think it’s best that I lay out my definition of what makes a PLC. I’ve been finding three different structures or work processes that people are following under a title of a PLC and I’ve worked to break them out into separate definitions. So there’s one that I call a PWC and that is a professional working community. In a PWC, teachers collaborate to get work done.
Steve: 02:13 In other words, when the group meets, they know the task that needs to be accomplished and they find it easier and often more effective to complete the task through a form of collaboration. So knowing that we need a common assessment for a unit of study, each teacher will prepare a section of it or bring possible questions and then the group meets and puts together the common assessment. Or planning out the movement of resources that are available for an upcoming unit from classroom to classroom to classroom. The outcome of a PWC is work that gets done or accomplished. I described the second occurrence as PD – professional development. And in this case, there’s a common time set aside for teachers to meet and professional development is being provided during that time. This may be the opportunity for the coach to be providing training in guided reading or writing strategies and eventually all the staff will receive the training on the coaches, able to personalize it and deliver it through these small chunks of time.
Steve: 03:39 I label that as PD – professional development. For me, the professional learning community is the time that teachers are engaged in learning something that their students need them to learn. So I frequently use the statement that is: teachers sit and look at student data and they identify an area where student success isn’t what they wanted it to be. The question they’re asking is, “what do the students need us to learn?” It’s that discovery component, that action research piece, for me that really makes it a professional learning community. In other words, the outcome of the professional learning community is teacher learning that’s going to impact student learning. The rest of my comments are geared to looking at professional learning communities and the coach’s role in the scenario that the purpose of the PLC is teacher learning.
Steve: 04:52 For me, until teachers are planning, directing and facilitating their own PLC sessions, they aren’t accurately PLCs. If the building principal or the instructional coach is setting the agenda for the time that the teachers are spending together, the ownership for teacher learning that applies to my students is missing. In cases where the instructional coach has in effect, taken charge of PLCs, I’ve seen two problems seriously created in addition to the teachers lack of ownership of the process. And the one is that if the coach is in charge of the PLC, it tends to drop the responsibility or accountability from the teachers. So if our PLC meeting was ineffective, if we didn’t accomplish something that we as teachers felt was meaningful and purposeful, then we can in effect point the finger back at the instructional coach and hold the instructional coach accountable for our meetings being effective.
Steve: 06:29 There’s specific teacher behaviors that are needed for a PLC to be effective and for those behaviors to occur with sufficient regularity, the teachers need to be accountable for the outcome. Another problem that I see occurring is that in many schools, till coaches are scheduled into all of the PLCs that are happening in the building, it has limited the opportunity for the coach to spend time in teachers’ classrooms providing the observation and specific feedback that should be a key component of the instructional coach role. My description of what’s happened in many places is that instructional coaches went into PLCs to provide modeling and training for teachers in how to function as a PLC, but they never came back out. In a blog titled “The Case For Coaches In Professional Learning Communities”, Michelle Marrillia spells out some of the key roles and the critical outcomes that she believes are found in coaches working within PLCs.
Steve: 08:02 I’ve provided the link to her blog in the lead in to this podcast. She approaches her article through the question, “What does coaching look like in a PLC?” The first item that Marrillia outlines is the training of team leaders. “Team Leader coaching is part of the comprehensive professional development plan for our school. Team leaders meet as a group five or six times each year for training, questions and answers and reflection. As the coach, I schedule one on one check in meetings to address any specific concerns for their team. My role is to help make their job easier, troubleshoot when necessary, and encourage them along the way.” I think her point here is extremely important. Very often at the early stages, a PLC may need an outside facilitator such as the instructional coach to model and illustrate how an established agenda and how facilitation skills and how appropriate goals can guide that work.
Steve: 09:25 But certainly early on, individuals within the team need to develop the skillset to step into that facilitator role and that’s not going to happen without the coach stepping aside and moving the leader into that spot maybe outside the meeting, helping them to prep. I’ve identified that questioning skills are one of the key facilitator skills and knowing how to build three or four of the most critical questions that will guide the topic that’s on the agenda to be explored. In other words, if we’re going in to look at student data, what’s the series of questions that helps the group pull meaning and purpose from the data to set a goal for a change that they want to bring about. And then to explore the possible actions that they can take to bring their student success closer to those goals.
Steve: 10:33 A coach assisting the team facilitator, the team leader in putting that together can be extremely valuable. The second item that Marrillia identifies is supporting the team. She describes that early on in her job, she thought she was responsible to diagnose the team problems and tell them how to fix it. But that after a while she realized her key role was to help the team reflect and think about their process. I’m real big on PLCs keeping minutes of their meetings and having those minutes show that the meeting concluded with setting the agenda for the next meeting. I think those minutes are critical for the PLC itself to uh, stay focused. A great way to reflect is to look back over the minutes from three or four months and identify how the time was spent especially indicating what teachers have been learning from their PLC work and how that learning is impacting their teaching and student learning in their classrooms.
Steve: 12:07 Since building administrators must be accountable for the effective use of time in PLCs, those minutes give the
principal the best way of recognizing that time is being spent in teacher learning that’s leading to student outcomes. If it is not, then that’s the signal for assistance to be provided back to either the leader of the PLC or to the entire PLC. I do think that PLCs should be encouraged to invite instructional coaches and at times invite school administrators as well as other specialists, such as a learning support individual or a counselor to their meetings for the specific purpose of assisting them in the problem solving that they are currently focused on.
Steve: 13:12 So the team has identified that they need to get a greater result in the writing skills of their English language learners. So there may be specialists they invite to their meetings to help them explore possible strategies for implementation in their instruction. The third item that Marrillia identifies is coaching teachers within the team. As the team identifies strategies that they want to implement, an individual teacher may seek the coach’s assistance in bringing that strategy into his or her classroom. A teacher with a classroom management problem may be having difficulty implementing a plan that the PLC had mapped out and therefore steps forward to request the support of the instructional coach during that implementation. In my mind, I really like the idea of PLCs beginning to move towards peer coaching and instructional coaches working to make that happen. So imagine a PLC has chosen a teaching strategy that they’re going to implement with a particular group of students based upon that student need.
Steve: 14:48 I can see the instructional coach creating opportunities to perhaps model that strategy in some of the teacher’s classrooms, but then create an opportunity for the teachers to observe each other using a strategy. So the coach’s time might be spent covering a teacher’s classroom for 15 minutes while the teacher gets to drop in and see another member of the PLC using that strategy. And for that to occur between PLC meetings, a debrief and reflection time can be easily built in to that next meeting. I also see instructional coaches being able to coach team leaders and whole professional learning community groups once the importance of the PLC work is established within a school. So imagine a team leader inviting the coach to observe the PLC meeting, have a pre-conference with the team leader about strategies she’s looking to use within that leadership role. And then being coached following the PLC meeting.
Steve: 16:07 And I have seen the next step of being able to have a pre-conference with the whole PLC and the PLC describes the particular ways that they’re looking to work with each other. And then allowing the coach to observe the PLC meeting and provide that feedback can be quite powerful. I myself, have been doing some of that coaching with schools in different parts of the world through the use of Skype. A PLC can send me the agenda in advance and I can be present over Skype during their a PLC meeting. They can end the PLC meeting 10 minutes early and allow me to provide them feedback and some thoughts and strategies to move closer to having the working relationships that that they want. I see great payoff for coaches and administrators investing their time, talent and energy in building teachers’ leadership skills, teachers’ facilitation skills, teachers’ group dynamic skills to increase the effectiveness of their PLCs. Beyond the fact that effective PLCs will contribute to teacher learning and student learning, the very skills of teachers as empowered collaborative participants are a skillset that we’re looking for students in our classrooms to gain. It’s hard to imagine that students are learning those skills, that students are being given the opportunity to practice those skills in classrooms where teachers have had insufficient opportunities to learn to be effective facilitators and team collaborative partner learners themselves. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Thanks for listening.
Steve [Outro]: 18:19 Thanks again for listening. You can subscribe to Steve Barkley ponders out loud on iTunes and Podbean and please remember to rate and review us on iTunes. I also want to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on twitter @stevebarkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.