The State of Professional Development with Phil Echols (Ep 39)

March 08, 2022/ By

Phil Echols is the Senior Administrator of Professional Learning for the Wake County Public School System, supporting Professional Learning Teams and Coaching. In addition to his work in public education, he has almost two decades of experience in education, consulting, public speaking, and facilitation. Born into a family of servant-leaders, he believes relationships are paramount, and leading by example is imperative. Follow Phil on Twitter at @PhilEchols and visit his website at

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Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Welcome to the Deeper Learning with WeVideo podcast. I am Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad. How has professional development changed in the face of a pandemic? Our guest today, Phil Echols answers that question. Phil is the senior administrator of professional learning for the Wake County public school system, supporting professional learning teams and coaching. In addition to his work in public education, he has almost two decades of experience in education, consulting, public speaking and facilitation. Born into a family of servant leaders. He believes in relationships are paramount and leading by example is imperative. I hope you enjoy the show.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Hey, Phil! Thank you so much for being on the podcast.

Phil Echols: Hey Nathan! Thanks for having me. I'm really excited to connect with you.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah, I was super excited to see you be a part and that you said yes, and I follow your tweets on Twitter and it's always inspiring. You have these motivational messages I notice and things that really kind of helped me reflect and helped me push myself further. And I don't know, have you ever considered yourself to become this motivational coach? Because I see you kind of that way and on Twitter and social media, being this motivational kind of coach speaker, do you see yourself in that way?

Phil Echols: It's interesting you ask. I feel like a lot of the things that I say on Twitter and social media, it's a lot of self-talk. Much of it is things that I kind of need to hear in the moment, and I often reference Twitter as micro blogging. It's kind of my thoughts and what I need and what I feel like are things that I could share for others to hear. So I don't know, I do recognize that some of the things I say and who I am can be inspirational. So I don't take that for granted, and appreciate the compliment.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Absolutely. You know, I think sometimes as educators, we think about what we want to share with the world. And sometimes we might think, Oh, I don't know if people necessarily need to hear this or that, or would they care or would they find it beneficial? And it's not until we share something that we realize the difference that it made with someone and maybe it was a reply that they posted or a retreat or someone just reached out to you directly with direct message. So I say, keep it coming because you're definitely making an impact on me and I know others as well.

Phil Echols: Thank you. I appreciate it.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah. Well, I know before we got rolling here with recording, we were chatting about what was going on in your world. And I know our listeners would love to hear more about how you're navigating these very challenging times we're in. You in your school district, are responsible for the professional development and the professional learning that occurs. You, and you work with a team of educators. And so I'm curious, what are some of those challenges that you are navigating right now?

Phil Echols: Sure. My area of support for my school district is on professional learning communities or professional learning teams and coaching. And so, we're in a pretty large district. And so we have a small team of four people. We're in the department of the office of professional learning. And so, our area specifically has been supporting things that we've kind of always supported as far as effective collaboration, best practices and structures for effective meetings, patterns of coaching behavior like pausing, paraphrasing and posing questions. And so I think some of the challenges have been just navigating the uncertainty. You know, I think information has been coming so rapidly and changes are being made on the fly. We've really had to adapt. And so the things that we have always been used to, or the way that we've always done things, just like everyone else right now in the country and around the world, just aren't cutting it.

Phil Echols: And so we've really had to be responsive and not as proactive as we normally can be. And so that's just been a really big challenge for us. Another thing that I'll say too, that has been a challenge is, just doing what's best, like gathering that feedback, gathering what the needs are of the audiences and the people that the stakeholders that we're working with. And just being able to provide resources, coaching and all the different supports that they need. It's just that cycle of gathering feedback, making data driven decisions, and being responsive to those in a timely fashion.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: It's interesting, Phil, you talk about providing resources and coaching. I'm curious, given with the challenges of teaching through a pandemic and the various learning environments that we have found ourselves in, do you find educators needing some support with structures and processes? Is that something, or do you find it's more like emotional support or is it all of the above? Is there anything in particular you're Seeing as far as... Because I know that it's nice to have a particular tool or advice, but I also wonder if there's a need for some kind of a process or a structure?

Phil Echols: Yes. I think all of the above, for sure. I think, right now, still, even since February and March, I think, we've been using the term grace a lot in education. We've been using wellness more often now than we have before, social emotional learning, adult SEL. And I think that is definitely a priority and definitely a need to be able to check in with teams and just making sure that we're human before anything else. And that's just been a huge focus of our team and our work. Another thing is also with teams, just being... Having those structures that make them more like a well-oiled machine or just more efficient and effective. I think we have these routines and we have these habits in place and then COVID comes along, and now, we were going down the path of doing more remote learning, but now we've been thrust into hyper drive with it.

Phil Echols: It's just a matter of being responsive with the best practices and being able to improve our habits at a better rate and just slowing down enough to be cognizant of what's working best and how do we replicate that in our work? Going back to what you said about structures and processes, yes, and I think that starts with modeling. I think it starts with my team and my department's learning around, well, what is high-quality professional learning or distance learning? How do we model that? And now we're doing more trainings of just being safe in schools and meeting virtually and looking at student data in safe ways, and what is student data now? Because we're trying to figure out what that looks like in this virtual setting, the parts that are different than what we were in, in a face-to-face setting. And so just putting those things in place and modeling those best practices and making time to be reflective and answer questions and coach people through how they might use some of those things that we're modeling and sharing.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: I think it's fantastic that you are already monitoring and evaluating these best practices that you mentioned. Because many times we kind of latch on to what we're hearing is working well. And we get excited and we implement and we encourage like, Oh, we should do this, keep doing it, keep doing it. But you mentioned really honing in on what's working, and so I'm curious, is there any specific, either a process or tool, that you have found is working well? And I'm curious for one, what data did you look at to know that it's working well? And then, what is that thing that you find is working well? And it might be kind of qualitative and anecdotal at this point, which is totally fine, but just curious if there is anything that you think was noteworthy from collecting data on what's working, what's not?

Phil Echols: I'll share a couple of data sources. I do want to share first a couple of things that we recognize that work well. One I would say, our team, not going into the virtual, like when doing presentations with large groups and a virtual space, it's almost imperative the level that we are delivering on or just delivering high quality professional learning. It definitely takes a team of people, or at least an additional set of eyes and hands working behind the scenes. And so, we've been having conversations about how co-teaching could be working right now, but just sticking to our best practices, just having a team of people, having different roles, working alongside you in virtual spaces. And an example might be, I could be facilitating some professional learning with 80 staff members virtually, but then I also have one of my team members monitoring the chat for any questions or tech issues that come up. But then also having, another person helping with groups and with the agendas or other things that are happening.

Phil Echols: And so, just teamwork and collaboration happening for presentations and just trying to figure out how those same things can be happening in classrooms with teachers too and with PLTs. Some of the data that we looked at was, we used just our best practices from before, and then we just started trying things and we just gave ourselves grace and we just honored the feedback at the end of sessions. So one thing we always do is capture immediate feedback with [inaudible 00:11:22] , so, or [inaudible 00:11:24] even better. So what went well, what would have made today's session even better? And we honor that feedback. And so that's one thing that we always do to improve our craft when delivering professional learning.

Phil Echols: Another, is even just looking at numbers and attendance. We know this is a stressful time. Many of the sessions that we're offering aren't mandatory. And so the fact that we still have wait lists and people joining in virtual spaces, even with all the different stresses happening and schools reopening we feel like that speaks to the value and quality of the professional learning we're offering. And then even, we get feedback at the end when people register in our system for the professional learning, they end up getting a survey at the end. So just looking at all of those things have been helpful for us and us just being reflective practitioners also.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: You know, and I'm thinking through this new age of teaching through a pandemic and kind of reflecting on my own experiences and, and you're right, it's very helpful to have, for example, when you are doing a zoom or Google meet training to have somebody monitoring the chat and have someone handling logistics. These are all things that we discovered through going through the process. It's interesting because these best practices that we had done prior to teaching virtually or remote, like the Socratic seminar or a fish bowl, or a gallery walk, all these things were pretty much embedded in our face-to-face training. Then it was trying to figure out, well, how do I do this in a virtual setting? And same thing with teachers, they were doing these classroom learning protocols in-person and then when the virtual remote learning hit, it was... When we're in kind of a crisis mode, we grabbed for what's easier. And so it was easier to put a text to PDF or send a doc to students to email asking them to respond. But I've also seen teachers kind of work through that and think, Hey, let's get back to these more engaging strategies that we know are our research proven and practices, and are going to help students engage more. So I'm wondering, through even your own professional development with teachers, have you seen some engagement strategies that work well in virtual environments?

Phil Echols: Yes, I think... And I've been reading a couple of books recently or listening to a couple of books recently around habits and the power of moments. One is Atomic Habits. And the other book is by Dan Heath and his brother, The Power of Moments. And it just... The things that come to mind are one, just kind of disrupting the routine. You know, I think when things become mundane or when they become predictable, I think people begin to kind of know what's coming and not be as engaged or on their toes, as they could be. And so, even small changes and the power of kinesthetic learning and some movement, like creating movement, like wellness checks in the middle, if you have an hour and a half presentation or an hour presentation, like a midway point, just giving a wellness check where people can lower their shoulders, take a deep breath, refill their coffee. If they're working from home, rub their palms, depending on time of day. That's one thing that can help energize and keep the level of engagement high.

Phil Echols: Another thing too, just even movement as far as, call and response or people giving a virtual high five to the camera or a virtual elbow to the camera. All of those things are movement, and if you can build in movement, we find building in some type of movement can help also. Even other things like when we think about creating, I guess, games out of things, it could be just a normal activity where people are responding in the chat. It's how sometimes they just come filing in as people process through, but even just giving a collective pause and having people wait through, wait and not respond, but then kind of flooding the chat. If you're familiar with that, that protocol, it's like everybody just type their response or hit send. They have it typed and ready to go. I think all of those little things, those nuances that just keep people on their toes, that you might be able to do in an in-person setting just keeps a spark and a level of engagement throughout your time together.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah. Just the simple instruction on how to put an emoji in the chat. I was co-facilitating a PD last evening. And my co-moderator was teaching all of the participants how to insert emojis into a chat and giving us shortcuts. I mean, that's something that is simple, fun and engaging. And, but again, everything that we've ever learned about engagement, for every seven to eight minutes, we need to have a pause, a shift, a break before we re-engage. And so I think now more than ever, we have to remember that. And I think sometimes because it's virtual, we think that, okay, everyone's like locked in their computer and we're all automatically engaged and I think it's even harder because there's so many things trying to vie for our attention; our cat might be meowing out the door. Which is my [inaudible 00:17:35] typically. I like the Strategies that you're using, especially around movement and around breaks, I think it's super important.

Phil Echols: Yes. And I'll say this too, when you shared that about just the eight minutes and some processing time, that is another just, I guess, foundational element of high quality professional learning is the rule of 10 and two. And when we think about how adults learn specifically. Just, we need that processing time for every 10 minutes of talk or new content we, adults need to process. We need at least two minutes of processing time. And, we don't learn from our experiences we learned from processing those experiences. And so just making sure that you have some processing time and some think time for silent journaling or people do insert their voice in the room that definitely enhances the learning.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah, I agreed. And speaking of enhancing learning for all learners, including teachers, I'm thinking about earlier, whenever you were referring to providing coaching is one of those supports for teachers. I'm curious how that has shifted for you and your team. Is there a virtual structure that coaching is happening on? Are there kind of like virtual coffee breaks that coaches are holding? Is there any kind of particular area that teachers are requesting coaching around? I've been kind of curious about this coaching aspect in a virtual remote world.

Phil Echols: I'll share a couple of things, one thing that we've been doing it just with professional learning in general is just knowing that follow up and ongoing support is a part of high-quality professional learning. And so we have been offering support hours. So along with the trainings that we offer, and I'll give an example, we've just started a new activator network group with our professional learning communities. The trainings come from the PLC+, it's a Corwin resource, and we've started a network of people who are activating their PLTs, who are serving as activators. We do one meeting a month, the synchronous learning for an hour. But in between we offer support hours, so people can sign up to meet with us either one-on-one or bring a team of people together and have coaching.

Phil Echols: That has been a structure that's been helpful. I think we, in the past, we had looked at doing some of those, not virtually, but we had been traveling. We've been going to schools or people coming in to sit with us in offices, physically in offices, but that's been great. We've been able to meet with more people more frequently. That's one structure that we've been offering. People have also reached out from a coaching aspect. It just continuing like those support hours, even beyond people who are currently in professional learning with us. We might have a leadership team at a school reach out and want one of us to think through how they can restructure PLTs in the virtual setting or some of those same things that would be happening in person, or as far as team conflict, or like a rogue teacher kind of doing their own thing.

Phil Echols: They still connect with us to think through some of those problems that they're having. Some of the challenges with that have been the normal nuances that you might be able to read when you're in rapport with a person in person, have been a little more challenging, like the wait time, it might be a small pause in the technology, being able to kind of read if a person shifts in their chair during a conversation, or just being able to read body language in general. That has been definitely one of the challenges, but with anything, the more you do it, the more comfortable you get. The better you're at reading and connecting with people, the more you meet virtually, the more rapport you have with someone. So I think we've just been thrust into this virtual world a little more quickly than we wanted to be, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. I think we're going to continue to see improvement across the board.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: It's so interesting, Phil, that whenever you're meeting with and you're supporting educators, your really in tune with what I say is like emotional intelligence and EQ like these are in communication. I mean, these are big areas that, it's interesting, you know, as educators, we've learned a lot about learning theory, but I don't think there's anything in our training that necessarily prepared us for this kind of teaching and learning and support as leaders too. I mean, we have to lead people and when ever they're not in the same physical proximity that we're in it's such a different way of needing.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: I was listening to a podcast the other day and the discussion was around, it's kind of awkward when you're doing a zoom or a Google meet with someone, because typically it might be like a split screen. And you're looking at like, if you and I were being able to see each other in the screen, I would be looking at you, but because the camera is at the top of my screen, it looks like I'm not looking at you, but I am. And then you shift your eyes to check my hair to make sure it's not crazy. And then... This is an awkward interaction and it's something we're all getting used to of course. But I think, I'm curious, is there anything that you feel... Before we started, we pressed the record button, we were talking about you going through your doctorate and I'm just wondering, do you feel like there's anything that prepared you prior to the pandemic for leading now or any necessary skills you feel are really important, especially as we kind of lead through the pandemic?

Phil Echols: I would say one, the thing that comes to mind for me is, it comes from the work of thinking collaborative and adaptive schools and is the norms of collaborative work. And so collaboration being, I mean, the center of much of my work, just those norms of pausing before responding to show mindfulness, paraphrasing for clarity to let the person know you're actively listening, posing questions, the way that we're posing questions, presuming positive intentions on placing ideas on the table. Those seven norms of collaborative work, I think, have just become a part of who I am. And I really attribute a lot of either the successes or growth that I've made in this virtual world now to those norms. I mean, just those things, being a part of who I am like, wait time, isn't as awkward for me because I've always been mindful of pausing and allowing... I've always been comfortable with some wait time or some silence.

Phil Echols: And my background is school counseling. I was a middle school counselor for 11 years. And in the counseling world, we call it using the silence, like the pause. I guess those types of things, those types of interpersonal skills, centered around just collaborating and allowing people space and providing safety for people to kind of open up and not responding with emotion, but just being settled and listening and letting the person know. Even thinking about the like seven habits and the habit of first seeking to understand before being understood. I think just those types of foundational things are easily transferable into the virtual world and even in distance learning. And I think those things just build a level of safety and rapport with people, whether you're in-person or meeting virtually.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: I think It's really important that we, and you have obviously done this, you're brilliant at it, thinking about how to effectively work with people. And the thinking about like human psychology and how collaboration works to me. I think everything that could be studied about collaboration and personality styles and all those things are even more magnified and amplified in this kind of virtual environment. And I think it's even more important.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: I mean, whenever I was leading in a building, we were doing these shrinks finders or Myers Briggs, and sometimes we would kind of joke like this is silly, you know, like team-building, but now it's, it's really important because I've noticed that, when we're in meetings a lot, you'll find, you might find a personality that's quieter and one could perceive it is meaning like it's, someone's aloof and not caring, but it just means that no, they're just introspective and like you mentioned earlier, they need think time. That's something that we have to recognize and they can't make assumptions like, Oh, someone is quieter than I am. It means they're not interested. No, it just, it could mean, and it probably means they are thinking about it in a different way, we should celebrate that and then use that as a strength for future collaboration. And we know like, Oh, this person is very introspective. They think at this level, they need some reflection time. This will be really advantageous.

Phil Echols: Yes. Yes. And, as you were talking about that, I couldn't help but think about even the classroom as well. I know my work is primarily with adults, but those same things are happening in classrooms too. Just, I mean, we have cultural differences. There are different ethnic backgrounds, just culturally responsive best practices are at play for sure as well. And so you don't know if there are language barriers or a variety of other things, and it just amplifies in... And I'm sure you have heard this and talked about it before. Even though, there were already a lot of inequities happening in education prior to the pandemic, and I think being in a virtual space has just shined an even brighter light on these issues and concerns. And so, I don't know. It just made me think, as you were talking about that, it made me think about those things too. And it's just, the virtual world has definitely just kind of brought all of these things closer to the surface and magnified it. And it's just equally as important for us to be mindful of these things now.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah, you're exactly right. You really are. And, we have kind of, as you said, illuminated these big things that we have to work on. So now it's our responsibility to tackle these things. And like you said, the inequities and the social injustices that we're kind of thrust into this summer and trying to figure this out with the pandemic. There's so many areas that we have to dissolve, and I'm just happy that I get to have you as a thought partner to figure this out and [inaudible 00:29:52] the coalition to try to tackle all of these issues.

Phil Echols: Yes. Yeah. For sure. Yeah. Grateful to be connected.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Well, Hey! We are approaching the end of our time together. And was there anything that you were hoping that I would ask that I didn't ask or anything that you wanted to share before we go?

Phil Echols: No. No, I think, I mean, I appreciate the conversation. A lot of things surfaced that I had not even considered prior to us talking and connecting. I guess a final thought that I often end either professional learning or kind of podcast with is, one of my favorite authors is Paulo Coelho, the author of the Alchemist. And, my work is centered around just continuous improvement. And so this quote comes to mind from the book, the Alchemist. "When we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better too". And that's just something I always like to share around continuous improvement. And, if we want to make that ripple effect around the world, it starts with looking inward and just being the best that we can be.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah. Ah, so good. I've wrote that quote down. That's fantastic. It's been a while since I have heard that, but then hearing how you framed it in the context that we're talking about today was super powerful. So thank you for sharing that. And thanks again, Phil, for being on the show and I'm super excited to have this go out. And for those who would like to connect with you, how can they find you on Twitter?

Phil Echols: Oh yeah. I jokingly say Phil Echols everything. Any social media platform, just search Phil Echols or @Phil Echols. I'm there. Facebook, Tic-Tok, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, Phil Echols everything.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Awesome! And that's spelled E-C-H-O-L-S for anyone who's not in a place where they can type that in now. So fantastic. Phil, thank you so much for being on the show. I'm looking forward to staying connected to you and learning alongside of you, my friend.

Phil Echols: Thank you for having me. I appreciate our time.

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