Jamie Virga

Jamie Virga has been a teacher, principal, district staff developer, principal coach, and associate superintendent in Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland for more than 20 years.

The Seven I’s

As principal of Viers Mill Elementary School in Montgomery County, Maryland, from 1997 to 2005, I learned a great deal about the benefits of operating as a professional learning community (PLC). As a community, we tried to keep our focus on the four critical questions. We had a specific emphasis on question number 3: What will we do when students haven’t learned it? In school, as in life, some of the best lessons come from the mistakes we make. At Viers Mill, we tried for several years to respond to student needs by providing after-school club experiences for those who were not meeting the standards. Implementing the clubs involved numerous committed teachers and staff members who worked very hard to provide support for our struggling students. Despite these efforts, we were not seeing the results that we wanted and needed for our children. The breakthrough came when we started to ask ourselves additional questions about the supports we provided—questions about the long-term goals for each student, the specific learning problem that was holding the student back, the root cause of their difficulty, and the specific strategies that could be used to address that root cause. Over time, we began to see that we needed to include additional steps in our process if we were to really meet the needs of individual kids. The sequence that we came up with was The Seven I’s.

First I: Imagine

Anything meaningful to be done with students begins with having a clear vision of what you want them to be able to know and do. This is a great opportunity to imagine and visualize the future success that you want for these students. The Imagine step is also closely tied to the review of curriculum and agreement on essential outcomes. The future that we imagine for students includes meeting and exceeding all grade-level expectations so that one day they are truly prepared for success in college and the world of work.

Second I: Instruct

All plans for student success have to begin with a focused emphasis on great first instruction. Principals, teachers, and staff have to do the work to ensure that essential outcomes are being taught and that instruction is carefully planned and implemented in a way that engages students and meets individual needs. The importance of great first instruction cannot be over-emphasized.

Third I: Identify

Once the essential outcomes have been identified and taught, student mastery needs to be assessed, both formally and informally, and through a variety of methods. This assessment process can then be used to identify the students who have not mastered the content as a result of the first instruction. Individual teachers and teams work collaboratively to review student data to identify those who need additional support.

Fourth I: Individualize

Next you need to drill down to the root cause for the student’s difficulty so that an intervention can be planned to address that root cause. At Viers Mill, we saw tremendous strides in our students’ reading performance as we got more and more specific about their individual reading difficulty and then planned an intervention support to address that particular problem.

Fifth I: Implement

Clarify all of the logistics (i.e., staff, time, and materials) that are needed to successfully implement the support and ensure that they are in place. Do everything possible to maintain the fidelity of the support, living by the credo that the fundamental purpose of every school is student learning.

Sixth I: Investigate

Soon after you begin the implementation of the support, you need to investigate whether or not it is being implemented effectively and whether or not it is positively affecting student performance.  In other words, “Is it working?” Review this data carefully to determine if any adjustments are needed.

Seventh I: Improve

Based on review of student progress and other data, collaboratively discuss upgrades and improvements. What could we do to make this more effective for this student? How could we tweak this strategy to make it more effective for future students? This is also a great time to involve the student. Ask students who have received interventions and support for feedback. Did they like the support? Did it help them? Would they recommend the experience to a friend, etc.? Then you are ready to start the process again.

In working with many schools over the past 10 years, I have found many that overemphasize the third and fifth I’s, sometimes completely forsaking the other steps in the process. They identify kids for support and then implement an intervention. They then find, as I did at Viers Mill, that this will not meet the needs of all students. Once we made the shift, as part of our PLC journey, to devote ourselves to all seven steps, we saw marked improvement for all our students. This achievement growth culminated with selection of Viers Mill as a National Blue Ribbon School in 2005. Since 2005, under a great principal named Matt Devan, the Viers Mill staff has continued to go the extra mile for students. As a result, all student subgroups score in the mid- to high-90s on all state assessments. I encourage you, as you consider interventions for students and implement RTI strategies, to consider what we learned on our PLC journey.


Jamie Virga

Thanks for posting your comment. Let me start by responding to the second part of your post. We did not have a form outlining the Seven I's; however, we used them in the course of meetings and discussions as guiding questions: What do students need to know and be able to do? How will we pursue this through great first teaching? Who are the students who are not reaching the target? How can we individualize time and support to help each student reach the targets? How will we work together as a PLC to implement systemic support for this student? How will we check to see if it is working? What can we do to improve the intervention and increase student learning? As your PLC gets in the habit of continually asking all of these questions, it will help you to provide effective and strategic interventions that result in student learning
As for keeping things on track in PLC meetings, there are a few questions you should ask yourself in trying to assess the situation.
Are we meeting about the right things? In other words, are the meetings focused on the four critical questions (What do students need to know and be able to do? How will we know when they have learned it? How will we respond when they haven’t learned it? How will we respond when they already know it?)? Focusing the meetings on substantive questions about students and their learning will help to keep people engaged.
Have we established norms to guide our work? In other words, have we come to agreement about how we are going to work with each other as adults and do we hold each other accountable for those agreements? Without specific norms and agreements, it is easy for groups to self-distract and get off track. Several Solution Tree books, including Learning by Doing: A Handbook for Professional Learning Communities at Work (DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, Many, 2006) include detailed references for establishing and sustaining group norms.
A third question to consider is “How do we deal with conflict within the meeting?” Many times teams are thrown off track because an issue arises and the team is unwilling to deal with it. Sometimes this is an indicator that the team doesn’t have the necessary skills to deal effectively with conflict.
In Learning by Doing: A Handbook for Professional Learning Communities at Work, Rick DuFour, Becky DuFour, Bob Eaker, and Tom Many spell out Tips for Moving Forward: Building Consensus and Responding to Resistance. These include:
• Teach and practice skills for having crucial conversations and dealing with conflict.
• Create cues you can use to refocus when participants seem to be resorting to fight or flight. Signal timeout or simply ask “Are we moving away from dialogue?”
• Build shared knowledge when faced with contrasting positions. Seek agreement on what research or evidence could lead you to a more informed conclusion.

Focusing on the right things, committing to group norms, and dealing effectively with conflict will help your teams to stay on track as they grow as PLCs.

Thanks again for your questions. I hope this response was helpful. Please comment again if you have other questions. Best of luck on your PLC journey.

Jamie Virga

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I really find this article beneficial for me, especially being a new teacher. I think that the Seven I's will work perfectly in the schools if used correctly. I learned a lot and its true when you say that the steps cant be skipped or half done. They have to be done correctly to work.

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I really enjoyed reading your post. I like how you laid out each of the seven I's and described each one so clearly. I will definitely be printing this blog and sharing this information not only with my team teachers but with my faculty members at our next PLC meeting. I think this information will truly help our school. Currently our school is implementing five of the seven I's. I think that by sharing this information with my co-workers, we will be able to identify which areas we need to improve in and what changes we need to make to ensure that we are implementing each of the 7 I's. Thank you for sharing this information.

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The school district I used to work at would put a fancy production about how to use PLC meetings. I found that the PLCs were not that positive. The teachers would use PLC as a gripe session and would not come up with anything that would help the students improve academically. I want to know how you get all the teacher to buy in to the proper way to use PLC meetings.

I really like the Seven I's principal. I can see how using them would engage all the students to be involved. I like how teacher can use PLCs to personalize the lesson for the students and see how you can improve their comprehension. After reading this blog I can see that a whole community is better for students. Students need a whole community of teachers on the same page. This blog has shown me that PLCs do work as long as they are used right.

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I like your concept of the Seven I's. These are strategies and tips educators should be using consistently. I admire that your school has a well established PLC. Unfortunately, I do not have this opportunity in my school district. I will use your advice and experience with your PLC's Seven I's in my reflections of practice towards improving school and student achievement, as well as share your ideas and strategies with my colleagues.

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I like how your PLC chose a specific thing to focus on; question number 3: What will we do when students haven't learned it? One of the best ways to avoid having to answer question three is to prevent it from happening. I know that there will always be students who struggle, but isn't it our goal as teachers to ensure that students learn the subject matter and learn it the first time around? I think that the second I, instruct, is where PLCs should be investing a lot of their time. In a perfect world, if the second I could be perfected, there would be no need for the others. The seven I's seems like a very effective strategy for PLCs to use. It is great that your PLC took the time to come up with this! Thanks for sharing!

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I feel that these seven I's are a great way to impact students on a professional level. This PLC model is a great way to bring together the school district and community in as a whole to focus on the students. This is a wonderful way to collaborate as a team to achieve a common goal which is to see our students succeed.

John Hostetler

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I love the idea of using the "I's." It would really be a great way to start our next PLC day. I wonder how our high school students could benefit from this method. I think that New York State is exam driven and at times teachers feel the pressure for their students to do well. I think that using this method could really help our entire community. I look forward to bringing this to their attention.

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Staff at AllThingsPLC.info

A great resource that explains how to use SMART goals is chapter 5 of Learning By Doing Second Edition, “Creating a Results Orientation in a Professional Learning Community.” There are also some examples of SMART goals and examples of how to set SMART goals in the Resource Section of this website at: http://www.allthingsplc.info/tools/print.php#18

I would highly recommend checking out both of those sources. That said, the creation of SMART goals gives teams a method for short-term improvement that will scaffold towards the long term vision. In most cases, reaching the “stretch goal” of all of our students being proficient in any given Essential Outcome is usually a long-term prospect. SMART goals help us take tangible and immediate steps. If we did not have short term attainable goals, the process of reaching our vision of all of our students learning at high levels, would be overwhelming and probably seem like a hopeless endeavor. The acronym SMART stands for:
• Strategic
• Measurable
• Attainable
• Results oriented
• Time bound
After framing their current reality, teams are able to set a SMART goal to address a specific student deficiency. Using the SMART Goal Worksheet found at http://www.allthingsplc.info/pdf/tools/smartgoalworksheet.pdf and in Learning by Doing Second Edition, teams are able to develop an action plan, timelines, designate roles and decide upon means for assessing whether or not they have accomplished their goal.

Such goals can be created before units are taught, based on last year’s results from that same assessment and on pre-assessment data, or carry on for the duration of a semester or an entire year, depending on the purpose. (Again, you can see examples in the Resource Section on this site.) Experience and research has shown that when teams are able to celebrate success as they accomplish their attainable goals, they become motivated to continue to improve. Any organization that has created long term or “stretch goals” should consider short term SMART goals as an essential to ensure that progression is made towards actual results.

I hope this helps!

Aaron Hansen, PLC at Work Associate

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Thank you for sharing this information. I recently left teaching from a Montogomery County elementary school not too far from Viers Mill. While we tried PLC, it is good to hear how colleagues in our district are using the model succefully. I think you are right that we rely too heavenly on certain 'I's.' I will be sharing your strategy with some former colleagues of mine.

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I enjoyed reading this article, as the school I work at also implements PLC's; however, often times our PLC meetings lack organization and focus. I liked the idea of using the "Seven I's" to guide meetings and to help keep PLC members focused and on track. Although we do implement several of the "I's" at our school, I know we often skip a few of the crucial steps mentioned, such as, individualizing the instructional plan for each student and investigating progress to improve the plan. Do you have any advice for staying on track at PLC meetings? It seems like sometimes we don't know where to begin or that we get side-tracked easily. Do you fill out a form outlining the "Seven I's?" Thanks for the ideas!

Bekah Smith

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Having studied PLCs this week in my graduate class and learning about the benefits for both teachers and students, I found this information very helpful. It is a somewhat simple framework that emphasises meeting the needs of struggling students. Thanks for the great idea!

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Your post contains a great deal of useful information for me to reflect on. My elementary school district currently does a decent job with the first five I's but we seem to be falling short when it comes to "Investigating" and "Improving." A few assessments and RTI strategies that have been put into place are almost at a stand still, in some aspects. The follow-through has not come into use in these regards. Your statements have given me information to reflect on what I can do to continue the process of investigating and improving student achievement with the areas and tasks that I am in control of. Furthermore, I once again feel empowered to discuss this topic with colleagues during collaboration because I realize that we must not causally sit by and wait to be told what to do next. We must discuss, evaluate, and develop a plan of action.

Thank you for renewing the importance of this process in my mindset!

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I couldn't have read this at a better time as our elementary school district is overly focused on 3 and 5 too. I didn't see any mention of SMART goals in your description. Have you used them and if so at what level(s)-grade, school and/or district? I would also be interested if you have identified SMART goals as to how often you identify new goals?
Keep up the great work.

Dave Raiche

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