Experienced teacher, PLC teacher leader, and Instructional Coach, Darby Tobolka, joins Steve for a conversation about PLC design, purpose, and expectations. They highlight the role of instructional coaches in focusing PLC’s on student learning.
E-mail Darby: firstname.lastname@example.org
Find Darby on Twitter: @DarbyT_IC
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PODCAST TRANSCRIPTSteve [Intro]: 00:00 Hello, and welcome to the Steve Barkley, ponders out loud podcast, instructional coaches and leaders create the environment that supports teachers to continually a batch and grow and to cheat. They model an excitement for learning that teachers in turn model for students, this podcast is dedicated to promoting the important aspects of instructional leadership. Thanks for listening.
Steve: 00:28 Supporting teachers’ PLC practices. Today’s podcast is generated because of something I read on Twitter. A message came up on Twitter that said “10 years ago, yesterday, I was introduced to PLCs at region 13 in Texas by Steve Barkley, and had a huge impact on me and forever changed my life as an educator. I’m thankful for leaders who believed in me and nudged me to grow time flies when you’re making a difference.” And as soon as I finished reading that, there was a return tweet that I sent out to Darby Tobolka, who is a instructional coach in Texas and I had to hear more of her story. Darby, want to give people just a little quick introduction to your background and your current role at the school?
Darby: 01:28 Yeah, sure. So I am an instructional coach in Leander, Texas and I have been an elementary educator for the past 18 years. I started in second grade, taught a little bit of third grade and then have been coaching for the last eight years. So I was at one campus for about 13 years
of my roles and then I’ve opened up a new campus as an instructional coach leader.
Steve: 01:59 Darby, as you’ve observed and worked with PLC’s over the years, what do you see as the indicators of effectiveness in PLCs?
Darby: 02:12 So some of the things I think really, really show effective PLC time is setting clear expectations on what that time together looks like beyond just the agenda. So thinking about what teams are tight about, what things are loose about and then how they can make their time together the most efficient. I think focusing on the learning piece of student work, really getting in and digging into student work, studying what students are doing after what your team has planned, I think is very important to be an effective PLC.
Steve: 02:49 I’m pretty big on that if I’m observing PLCs and student work isn’t on the table most the time, that’s probably an indicator that the focus is going more on teaching than on learning. Does that match up with what you were saying there?
Darby: 03:12 It does. And I will be honest and say, this is a growth area. I think that early on, I felt like PLCs were great for students, but for teachers, it was really good because they got all on the same page about what they were doing, but it was more teacher-focused. But the more I’ve learned and grown and experienced lots of different PLCs, I’ve noticed that the power is actually in the student work and we’ve got to figure out how to get teams ready and comfortable with that piece rather than focusing on the curriculum and the planning.
Steve: 03:48 It’s interesting that you say that because what’s emerged for me, is that my my favorite PLC question is what do the kids need us to learn? So if we’re looking at student work, what should emerge from that is what we would have to learn to move student work from where it is to where we want it to be?
Darby: 04:13 Absolutely. I would say, to me, that’s a higher functioning PLC so once you can finally get to that place that you are doing all you can. I’ve been exploring an idea lately. I’ve brought it up to a couple of our teams that I work with and it’s kind of about the flow of the PLC time too. Like, the magic of the interdependence of the teams together. Some teams I’ve worked with, have been a – like the facilitator says, okay, this is what we’re talking about. They’ll ask a question, somebody will respond and then we’ll move on. But the most highly effective ones have, like, all members are throwing their ideas into the conversation. They’re bouncing back and forth off of each other. They’re really all engaged and there seems to be some kind of flow about it. And those are the ones that I’ve realized have been the most effective. Teams leave knowing that. They leave feeling accomplished.
Steve: 05:19 I’m going to try another word listening to what you just said and that’s passion.
Darby: 05:24 Yeah. Absolutely.
Speaker 1: 05:24 If the issue they’re tackling has passion. I was visiting a a school in January and I spent a day sitting in on PLC meetings and at the end of the day, I met with the principal and I said, how would you feel about your PLCs changing their goals? And he looked at me totally shocked, you know, it’s January, how can we redo goals in January? So he came back and said, why? And and my response, because they’re not interested in the ones that got. You’re setting this time aside for people to explore something that they’re not passionate about.
Darby: 06:06 Yeah, I would definitely agree with that. And I think at any point in a PLC, a team should feel okay with changing their direction or their goal or their path. If they’re not in it, there’s no point and it seems like a time sucker.
Steve: 06:23 Time’s too precious for that. We don’t need one more meeting for the sake of having meetings.
Darby: 06:28 We need less meetings.
Steve: 06:29 I started using the phrase with PLCs, goals before norms. Everybody looks at getting the norms for how we’re going to work together and that’s important. But my suggestion to him is, if he decided on the goal first, now people have a reason to come up with a set of norms that they’re willing to live by because the goal is important. And boy, I’ve just seen the difference of when a group is passionate, they really want to make something happen. It fits exactly what you described, everybody’s in it.
Darby: 07:05 Yeah. I’m writing that down goals before norms. I think that definitely would help starting there.
Steve: 07:12 How do you describe the role that you think is best for instructional coaches to play in interacting with PLCs?
Darby: 07:21 So one of the most important roles is, in my opinion, is supporting the PLC, but in a non-evaluative or non-judgemental way that teams need to know that that’s a safe space and what’s shared here is going to stay here, but we’re going to dig in together just to make sure teams feel comfortable.
Steve: 07:44 Can you describe a little bit about what support might look like or sound like?
Darby: 07:50 Yeah, I think it can range depending upon team needs. So sometimes teams are coming up in a math unit and they want to explore
either the resource that we’re using or they want to understand their standard a little bit better. So digging in and really figuring out what does this look like? What does it mean? Sometimes, teams need me to bring research on instructional strategies that they could try, like cooperative learning seems to be a big one that people want to read and explore to increase engagement in the classroom. So, just kind of sharing what I’ve seen from other classrooms, other campuses throughout my years, and then bringing in some research. It really helps teams feel like they’re being supported and encouraged to learn and grow.
Steve: 08:44 Sometime back, Jim Knight and I had a a conversation about the role of instructional coaches and and PLCs. And Jim kind of pointed out that in the early days of PLCs, we sent the instructional coaches into the PLCs to teach people how to PLC and that in many cases they never came back out. The responsibility for the PLC ended up on the instructional coach. In my observations, I’ve seen that happen because districts put pressure on administrators for the effectiveness of PLCs and then the administrator put that on to the to the instructional instructional coach. I
am wondering what your thoughts are on that.
Darby: 09:43 Yeah. I have mixed thoughts on that. I think coaches should not really be the ones facilitating the PLCs, but the challenge in that is, on a campus, you have 10 months of school getting teams. So you only have a little bit of amount of time to help teams understand that PLC process, because my experience, I’ve always been on a campus where we just have tons of people, so we’re constantly bringing in new teachers. And so it kind of, you feel like just when you get in the rhythm of learning and growing together as a PLC, someone new comes to the team and you got to kind of start back or maybe multiple people come in, but I don’t think coaches should be the facilitators. One of the things that I have really valued with the past two campuses that I’ve worked on is the time that my principal, it’s her expectation that the team leaders meet with the coach before their PLCs to kind of plan what the agenda looks like.
Darby: 10:47 And I think in that time, open and willing teams during our planning time, I can really coach them on what their team – if these are the things you want to discuss, then let’s talk about what that looks like. So when you run the meeting, you feel comfortable doing that. And then some team leads will say, thank you for talking to me about that now. I’m not sure I can make that happen with my team. Can you help me? And I will happily help facilitate things, but I think empowering the team leads as much as I can to do that is going to keep me out of being the facilitator. Because as coaches, you ask for feedback on how things are going, and sometimes the feedback has come back that the meeting is my meeting. And so once we had that feedback, we had to go back and say, okay, nope. How can we coach the team leads to be leaders.
Steve: 11:39 What hits me as the biggest problem when it’s the instructional coaches meeting, is that if we had a boring meeting, it’s instructional coaches fault. So now I didn’t do my homework, I didn’t bring the student materials that we said we were going to explore this week, or I didn’t do the assessment that we were going to take a look at. And and now the PLC is “non-effective,” and so everybody’s turning to the instructional coach instead of the teachers have to teachers have to own it.
Darby: 12:15 Then I’m the one that feels awkward, but it wasn’t me that didn’t have my information, but now everybody is looking to me for what to do next.
Steve: 12:27 Responsible to dig us out.
Darby: 12:27 Exactly. That’s an awkward place to be.
Steve: 12:30 Yeah. I do want to reinforce that that working collaboratively in a group is not easy. So I think schools investing in teachers learning those skills is critical. Just a little aside is that I think it should be par of undergraduate teacher education. And if I had my druthers, everybody would go student teach as a team. I’d put three or four student teachers together and send to the same place and have them function as a team while they’re student teaching, because that’s a critical skillset for somebody to be ready to enter the profession.
Darby: 13:18 Absolutely. I think teams have changed – I entered the field in 2004. So what my team looked like in 2004 to what teams are doing today, looks very different. And I feel like what you’re saying, some kind of college course where you get together and you learn about the team dynamics, the five dysfunctions of a team, how to bring people together, how to build trust. I mean, teaching is more than just teaching. You got to get along with the people that you work with in order to be successful. So it’s a challenge.
Steve: 13:50 What would you say are some of the key administrator’s practices in in supporting PLCs?
Darby: 14:01 I think one of the things we kind of talked about is investing in team leaders. I feel like that’s super duper important, getting them the trainings that they need, but also giving them a safe outlet to bounce ideas back and forth off of you, or here’s, what’s going on with my team, do you have any ideas to support. I think principals and even coaches really popping in into other team times that may not be like super important PLC time that’s secluded, but maybe just regular team time just to pop in and check on everybody to make sure that they’re doing okay so that they can be seen and heard. A big thing too, is celebrating. So I was in a PLC and we were working really hard and our principal popped in and just heard, I mean, maybe two minutes of a conversation we were having and then somebody was going to start talking and she broke in and said, “I’m sorry, can I just tell you guys how proud I am that you guys are digging into this resource and that you’re making a plan for how to make it work?” And that team and myself, we were all like, “wow, this is so great. We’re doing great stuff here.” But it’s just nice to hear that those affirmations.
Steve: 15:14 One that I would add is encouraging some risk-taking. I’ve shared that as an administrator, you know you have a highly effective team if they quite frequently are causing you problems. And what I mean by that is they’re always wanting something else. They want more time for this, they want a different resource, it’s because they’re digging in and, and working hard to make something happen rather than finding the the easiest way to get through the status quo. You know that they got a picture, a goal in their head, and that’s what’s pushing them.
Darby: 16:02 Yeah. I think that that’s a great one to add to that.
Steve: 16:06 How important do you think PLCs are to impacting student learning in school?
Darby: 16:14 I think they are very important. I think the most important work that I’ve ever done as an educator and a coach has been in a PLC
time. I think some of the most important things that I’ve learned and been able to go back and apply in my classroom or with other teachers and supporting them to apply has made a difference on student learning. And I think one of the great things about being an instructional coach is being able to pull data that shows here’s some things here’s how, what our student data says that we were doing maybe five years ago, but look at all these things as a PLC we’ve worked to put in place, and now look at how student data has changed over time. When you’re able to pull that over time, the historical data, it just really helps people see the importance.
Darby: 17:04 And I will say one more thing. COVID has really had us reflect on our PLC process. And what I mean by that is, let’s say 2018-2019 school year, we were really heavy in teams after they’ve given common assessments. Digging into the data and making instructional decisions on how to make sure that kids know the skills that they’ve deemed were important. So trading kids in a grade level, you know, a grade level, 150 students and teachers moving all kids around to make sure every kid gets what they need, but then come the 2020 school year, after the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021, when we were all meeting on Zoom, wearing masks, not mixing kids at all that year, I heard more about why can’t we mix kids. I don’t feel like I’m meeting all the needs of my students from what we’ve talked about in PLC. I can’t do that as one person in my classroom. I’m doing the best I can, but just hearing people begging to switch kids and do some of those things that we’ve really wanted to do in PLC, then that, to me, really made it.
Steve: 18:18 You really reinforced that I’m always looking at a PLC becoming a team. And when we’re a team, then we’re taking responsibility for all the learners that are being impacted by the team. So if it’s five teachers on a second grade level team and they each have 20 kids, then it’s actually a hundred kids that I’m responsible for. And that PLC time is us working together to figure out how those hundred kids get what it is that they that they need. If I’m on a high school department team, or a middle school grade level team, it’s that same sense of some middle grades that might be cross-curricular as is what our team’s doing, or within a science department, it’s looking across all the science content areas, but all of us taking a shared accountability for the for the student achievement outcomes. And it sounds like your teachers got a discovery there in a difficult way of that importance.
Darby: 19:30 And then the best thing about that was we heard that from many teams, but one of the loudest squeakers were our kindergarten team and our kindergarten team, we had trouble getting started. Like, hey guys, it’s okay, you can move five-year-olds around, we’ll come help make sure they get to the right place. And they were like, are you sure? They were the holdouts. They finally got in it and they were the ones telling us the most that they really needed that. I love that term interdependence because they really depend on each other to ensure that all 150 kindergartners get exactly what they need during the school day. So I just love that story.
Steve: 20:10 Well, thanks for sharing what you’ve learned and I wish you great success as you continue your learning in leadership. It’s it’s an important time for it in our schools today. Darby, you want to let folks know how they can maybe find you on Twitter or drop your e-mail?
Darby: 20:31 Yeah, I do. So my email is just my first name, email@example.com. And then my Twitter handle is @darbyt_ic. So it just stands for Darby Tobolka, underscore instructional coach. And I actually love Twitter. I love when people reach out to me via Twitter, Steve, I wouldn’t be here with you today. If it weren’t for Twitter. It’s one of my favorite things about being an educator and sharing all the wonderful things that we’re doing every day.
Steve: 21:15 Thank you. And we’ll be sure to put that contact information into the lead-in to this podcast so folks can find you have a great day.
Steve [Outro]: 21:27 Thanks for listening in folks. I’d love 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.