Virginia Mahlke

Virginia Mahlke is a consultant who works with educators and administrators nationwide. Her experience as both a teacher and administrator allows her to connect with all levels of school staff.

Don’t Forget the Most Important People in a PLC

The teacher sitting in front of me at a recent workshop looked crestfallen! I empathized with her right away because I had felt her pain when I was teaching elementary students. I knew exactly what she would say when I asked her what was wrong. “I feel so guilty,” she said. “I have not been including my students in the assessment process and have lost a great opportunity to motivate them to work hard and succeed.” Who says that reflective practice doesn’t sting sometimes?

As I’ve been working with schools across the country to refine their professional practice, there is a piece of the puzzle that is consistently missing. We learn how to focus on learning instead of teaching; we learn how to work collaboratively instead of in isolation; and we learn how to measure our success based on tangible evidence. What we aren’t incorporating into our work as much as we need to is how to bring students into the assessment process. When you stop to think about it, who is the main client in assessment? It’s the student. Our success as a school depends upon the success of each and every student under our care. Our mission statements always reflect a desire to help students achieve and become productive citizens. However, most of the time, we neglect three important pieces of data that each student needs to know:

  • What is it that I am expected to learn or master?
  • Where am I now on the road to mastery?
  • What do I need to do to close that gap?

I maintain that these questions are critical to success in any endeavor. If I could wave a magic education wand, I would ensure that every school involved students directly in the assessment of their progress. I visited a third-grade classroom in one school and a little boy who had never seen me before came running up to me with a manila folder in his hand. He opened it and there on the left was a bar graph he was using to keep track of his progress in mastering addition and subtraction. He said, “Look at this. See where I was last week and look at where I am this week?” His enthusiasm was contagious!

We set SMART goals as a school and as a team. Why not have our students set SMART goals for their own individual growth? The alignment of SMART goals from the individual student, the team, the school, and the district sends a clear message that this is an organization focused on results and everyone has a responsibility to do his or her part to achieve those goals. Talk about a result-oriented approach!

Here are some specific ways to involve students in assessing, monitoring, and recording their progress:

  • Starting with the preassessment, be open with students about the prerequisite skills they need to succeed.
  • With each formative assessment, ask students to record the targets they have mastered.
  • With each formative assessment, ask students to monitor their progress toward mastering the targets/standards they haven’t met yet.
  • Make sure your intervention isn’t done to the student; make sure intervention strategies are for the student—specific to the student and to the skill or concept that needs work.
  • Be clear with students about small increments of progress.
  • Help students see their progress toward meeting benchmarks.
  • Give clear, focused strategies to help students close the gap between the expected mastery level and their current level.
  • Provide encouraging feedback to students so they see that effort yields improvements, no matter how small.
  • Celebrate the increments of growth to keep students motivated to continue their efforts.

Dr. Robert J. Marzano’s research, as well as that of others, indicates that assessment can be a positive motivator for students or a defeating exercise that saps them of energy and any desire to put forth effort. Don’t forget the most important people in a PLC and involve your students in your assessment process.


Tiffany Latham

The strategies presented in this blog are great! Thank you for sharing. I often forget the significance of involving my students in such a process. This was a great reminder that if they feel a part of something, their attitudes may be more positive. Recently, my students took the PLAN test and the looks on their faces were heartbreaking. They grumbled all the way to the testing center about having to take another test. Of course, I was trying to be the positive motivator and get them to see the point in taking such an assessment. I encouraged them to do their best and so on. It seems these speeches are too well rehearsed by teachers and school staff, as the counselor was providing the same pep-talk to another group of students ahead of me. I dislike that students have such negative stigmas with testing, but if they become part of the solution by setting personal growth goals for themselves, celebrate the small victories, and track their progress their outlook on assessments might become more positive. I look forward to implementing the strategies mentioned in this blog! Thanks again for sharing!

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Megan S.

I would love some suggestions to help with collaboration. Our school has a scheduled 2 hour delay each month for professional development, which is meant for Building Level and District Level team building/collaboration. However, often these meetings are overshadowed by other "hot" items and the true goal is not met. In our building we do not have a common planning time for the grade level to meet. Does anyone have suggestions for more collaboration? I am thinking a weekly meeting on our own time to ensure that we are assessing and talking about results in a consistent way. However, as we are not just educators but have families and other responsibilities, we all know how difficult that can be to meet consistently.

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When I read this title I thought right away to 'Yes, teachers are forgotten in the PLC process." My PLC time is dictated by my administration. At times it can feel taxing and we forget why we are meeting in the first place! Our students are the most important people in our PLC and the reason we get together! I have been thinking about the data notebooks I keep on each of my students. In the past they have been tools to help me keep track on their progress but students rarely see their notebooks. I like the ideas on ways to include students. I also like the idea of using student centered graphs where they keep track of their progress with math facts or maybe even high frequency words. I predict students will be more excited and have even greater buy in into their education!

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This is a great post, and a great reminder to include the most important part of collaborating as a PLC, the student! This reminder did elicit some feelings of guilt. More than anything was refreshing to hear and my students will have a major role is assessing, and understanding, their progress throughout the year. Thanks!

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Thank you for posting about student involvement in the assessment process. My school will begin implementing PLCs so this is all very new to me. I plan to bring this post to my superintendent as idea for him to consider. The wheels inside my head are now spinning with ideas. I loved the idea of the each student having a graph to monitor their mastery. The graph will allow the parents to see where their child is in mastery, where he or she should be, and what skills will be introduced in the near future. This is something I want to take back to my grade level teachers for us to use this school year.

Taylorv, you bring up a valid point about instead of feeling guilty, you will do something about it. “Although giving up external reasons why things are not going according to plan is uncomfortable, as a reflective person, this also gives you a sense of personal power, of being in control of your own destiny” (Kottler, Zehm, & Kottler, 2005, p. 140). The change you talk about will lead to improved student learning. You are in charge of you and your students’ destiny.
Thanks again for the post reminding me to remember the “most important people”.

Kottler, J. A., Zehm, S. J., & Kottler, E. (2005). On being a teacher: The human dimension (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

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Trust is the glue that holds a PLC together. The principal is the essential element in building trust in a school. “In a study of 304 K–12 schools in Ohio and Virginia, teachers with high levels of trust for the principal were increasingly likely to trust fellow staff members, parents, and students” (Vodicka, 2006, p. 28). During my 17 years of teaching, I have witnessed that when a principal is deemed untrustworthy, untrusting relationships permeate throughout entire school. Vodicka (2006) states that there are four key elements in building trust in a school: compassion, consistency, communication, and competence. Vodicka explains that people must adhere to their obligations, solicit meaningful feedback (shared leadership) from stakeholders, ensure people do not feel they will be exploited as a result of the relationship, and producing results. You may consider using the article as an activity in your PLC. I would use a jig saw method and have groups of teachers read one of the four elements of trust. First, I would give the context of the article with key points from the beginning sections. Then, I would place teachers into groups to read one of the four elements. I would ask teachers to report on what they learned; how the school could improve upon that elemenmt, and discuss what aspects of the element of trust they need to keep in place. If you really have time on your hands, you could follow up the meeting using a trust survey. Megan Tschannen-Moran has numerous scales relating to trust that you can use from her website (See References). The survey results will give a good indication about the level of trust in the building. People can’t change what they do not acknowledge. The survey results will give a reality check for the entire school. Recruit a couple of teacher leaders to assist. After teachers return the survey, place a treat in their mailbox with a quote relating to trust. Create a poster using the four elements and quotes on trust and post in visible areas (teacher restroom, lounge, work room).

The topic of trust can be a delicate topic. What principal wants to learn that most of the staff does not trust them? So approach the topic with the emphasis on student achievement and building effective PLCs.

I can tell from your posting that you feel compelled to make things better at your school. Remember to meet people where they are, but sometimes you have to leave them there. What I mean is that sometimes you can gradually effect change, but when an organization is in total breakdown, it may be better for you to find another organization that align with your mission and vision.

Moran, M.T. (n.d.) survey instruments to help you in your investigations of
schools. Retrieved from

Vodicka, D. (2006). The four elements of trust. Retrieved from

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Thank you so much for posting about student's being involved in PLC process. I still consider myself new to the profession as I am going into my third year of teaching this fall. Since starting my position as a second grade teacher in the fall of 2011 our school has been involved in grade level PLC's. Our district is very data driven, as most school districts are, however, sometimes I feel it's all about the numbers and looking at student growth. If we don't see growth then it's all about finding interventions or changing instruction that will create that growth. Never once have we talked about involving students in the assessment process.
I felt a sense of motivation after reading your blog post and am going to bring this, "result-oriented approach", to my PLC this fall! I love the idea of using graphs as a visual for students to keep track of their own progress. There were a number of times last year that I got behind on grading and students were asking me, "Mrs. Taylor how did I do on my ______ test". As a teaching professional it is hard to admit that I wasn't doing the best I could, however, instead of feeling guilty about my teaching I commit to DO something to CHANGE it! AS you said, "Our mission statements always reflect a desire to help students achieve and become productive citizens". My mission statement also reflects this belief and I hope to work collaboratively from here on out with, "the most important people in mind"!
Thanks again! I truly enjoyed reading your post!

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Thank you for the comments. The leaders of my school either do not know what is needed, or do not have the skill to establish trust and reduce fear. Consequently, in the four years we have supposedly been doing PLC work, there has been little talk of learning by adults or students.
Do you think there is anything I can do besides focus on learning in my classroom to increase trust and reduce fear among my leaders and peers?

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Mrorrk, you bring up an important point! One barrier in PLCs is the fear that teachers may feel if they are “discovered” to teach inadequately , they will be “talk about” amongst their peers. I think that there are two prerequisites to counter this fear. First, the school leader should help to establish a climate of trust and risk taking. Second, PLC needs to be defined and understood by all as a process of experimentation. The purpose of PLCs is to collaborate and share—not dictate. After all, the MOST IMPORTANT PEOPLE in a PLC are the students. Students are different and each class presents its own opportunities. Thus, what works for my class or particular student may be different from yours. I think it is important create a shared understanding that the focus is on each students’ needs rather than each teachers’ ego.

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I am interested in the feelings of guilt and the pain of reflec tion that you start with. It seems like these two things need to be addressed, made conscious, talked about or something. The process of being open to new ways of teaching is blocked for so many teachers because of the feelings about what they have been doing or the way they have been thinking, or on what they have been focusing. We need to be given ways to treat that. Ways to frame what we have done so we are not seeing it as rejection or wrong.

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