Aaron Hansen

Aaron Hansen is a nationally recognized presenter, author and coach who empowers teachers and leaders to transform their schools.

Empowering the Silent Stakeholders—Students

“To be a teacher is to be a prophet.  We are not preparing children for the world we live in but for a future we can barely imagine.”—Gordon Brown, former dean of MIT Engineering School

21st century business is calling for workers who are prepared to be systems thinkers and to work collaboratively in teams to solve complex problems.  Effective schools expect the same skills from their teachers and have spent vast amounts of time and resources training teacher teams to get tangible results by functioning as PLCs.  So if part of our work as educators is to prepare students for a world where they can solve complex problems collaboratively and many adults in schools are doing just that through PLCs, why aren’t we teaching students to function as PLCs?

White Pine Middle School began its PLC journey 6 years ago after a leadership team returned from an institute.  We saw almost immediate gains as we reshaped our culture around a common vision and collaboratively began to follow the framework.   However, our student culture was not in a good place.  We had lots of fights, bullying suspensions, etc.

We made the connection that if the adults could reshape the culture of the school using the PLC framework, then we could teach kids to reshape student culture by using the PLC framework.

The Defenders

We formed a student leadership group that continues to exist today and has since been named the “Defenders.” Comprised of influential students who want to make a difference in their school, this team is tasked with improving and defending the school “culture.” One of their primary roles is to prevent and address bullying behaviors. This highly successful group has been trained to say, “Hey, that’s not cool” when they see unkind behaviors, and they are trained to approach students who have been named by their peers as someone who is bullying and ask them to stop.

However, their efforts are not limited to bullying but extend to improving many aspects of student culture. In the past they have addressed things like improving general kindness, manners, academics, how substitutes are treated, school spirit, conflict resolution, lessons about middle school “drama”, drug awareness, and much more!

As “thought leaders” among their peers, this group of students has had a tremendous impact on the culture of our school over the past few years by intentionally redefining what is “cool”. Some tangible results that have occurred in large part because of this group, are significantly reduced bullying behaviors, reduced suspensions, reduced tardies, reduced disciplinary referrals, increased average daily attendance, and increased honor role awardees. This empowered group of students has played a major role in the transformation of WPM in becoming a National Model School and being lauded on the likes of ABC, CNN, and FOX national news.

How does this apply to PLCs?

This group of students starts by developing a vision for what they want their school culture to be like.  They then develop collective commitment statements for how they will act.  They develop norms when working in smaller teams within the group.  They set measurable goals that they would like to achieve and they use student data as the source for making many of their decisions.  The group identifies weaknesses in student culture and then in small collaborative teams they come up with strategic plans for improving the weakness.   Sound familiar?

Armed with a vision, common vocabulary, commitment and persistence this group of students has been empowered by following the PLC framework to truly make a difference, with a real world experience that is empowering them to shape the future into what they imagine!

Learn more about the “Defenders” of White Pine Middle School.



I think that empowering the silent stakeholder, the student, is a powerful concept. So often in education, we talk ABOUT the students instead of TO the students. A current problem at my high school and at other high schools where I have been employed is the plethora of student organizations that don't foster or expect student leadership. Way too often, the leadership positions in these student organizations are more figure heads than student leaders. I would like that to change in my school.

One step that we are taking is to work with the students on improving the school climate. We have begun a project where some of my parents are interviewing a randomly selected cross-section of freshmen almost done with their first year at high school. When we are done with this three step project, we would like to share the results with our parent student advisory and take steps to address these students' concerns regarding the school climate at my high school.

In addition, my parent-student advisory committee will be working on developing a schedule for assemblies that will address important issues impacting teenagers on a monthly basis. We want to also have all of the student leadership groups take an interest in these monthly assemblies so that students are promoting the topic with important activities. I hope to see this grow as a way of empowering the silent stakeholder, the student. Thanks for reading and please give me feedback on your thoughts!

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This post indeed made me consider our main shareholders – the students. Many times, in the work place, educators get caught up in the business of the curriculum and demands of the top-heavy environment. It is vital, however, to participate in a professional learning community team to ensure that our main mission is to help the students. While our school endeavors to do this, one particular point of interest was the ‘Defenders.’ To have a group of students to help speak for the wider group is a fabulous way to hear the student body. We have debate teams set up in our secondary school and can use this practice as a way for them to speak their praises and concerns about the school. A similar approach should be taken in the primary and middle school section. Our school established a renewed goal and missions statement last year and are trying to get all shareholders to participate in this vision. As we plan our curriculum and major events, however, I notice a disconnect as we do not often even consider the goal or missions statement. It would be effective to post signs and posters around the school to promote this endeavor. When we promoted the Golden Rules, we found great success – the more the students were exposed to it, the more they adapted to it. This would be the same for a shared vision.

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I guess, as we begin this process at my high school and district, the question is how do we get to where these schools are in a few short months. We are struggling with PLC time. It seems that we are into just another "committee" of teachers trying to solve the age old problem of getting students to perform well on standardized tests. What can we do, that hasn't been done before? I like this model, our culture at our school is so bad, in so many areas. We have some wonderful students, who have involved parents, but for the majority, it seems, we the teachers, are the stakeholders in getting all students to learn. We began ALL (Academic Learning Labs) at our school, first they were two rooms staffed with a core teacher from the four core areas. It was a place for all students to come in during their study halls or lunch periods to get help in any subject. After 2 years, we found that we should provide 4 rooms in each core area of the building for students to go to the subject ALL that they need help in. This has worked for the past 3 years, now as we have budgetary issues, it is one program that will be cut. It is too bad, since it has been a success for most students who have used it. We are looking at scheduling an advisory period every other day for next school year, as we need to continue giving all students a chance to learn their subject when they are confused. Our PLC time has had a very slow start this year, we are focused, but with any collaborative time amongst teachers, we need time to be supported and to see the results we are looking for.

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Michael Fullan, international author and recognized expert on whole system change in education, participated in Camp Snowball last summer www.campsnowball.org which works with school systems to scale up efforts to embed systems thinking and sustainability in education. He said, "We have shown that it is possible to work together to move schools from underperforming to proficient and to strong proficiency. But we have not yet accomplished much in terms of higher order skills." However, he was impressed by students he saw in Tucson who were experiencing the systems worldview as practical in their day to day studies. Systems thinking provides adults and students with higher order skills, language and a lens to address complex problems "below the iceberg".

The action at White Pine Middle School to use a core group of influential students and apply the PLC concepts to address various systemic issues is impressive for getting targeted student results. As culture is systemically addressed based on the value of kindness to prevent and reduce bullying behaviors - student academic results also improve. We start to see the systemic interdependent connections between explicitly taught and modeled values, norms, attitudes, behaviors and academic results. Just as the PLC elements focus adults in producing targeted student outcomes, they also focus students in strategically developing a vision, collective commitments, norms, and identifying challenges - such as in the student culture - and in developing action plans with measurable goals and student data to address systemic issues.

Ultimately adults are responsible for teaching students how to learn, how to solve complex problems and how to create value in their lives and in connection to their role in developing healthy family, community and global systems.

No wonder others want to learn from the success of rural White Pine Middle School, National Model School 3 years in a row, which the media has showcased.

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