Sarah Schuhl

Sarah Schuhl, a consultant specializing in mathematics, has been a secondary mathematics teacher, high school instructional coach, and K–12 mathematics specialist for nearly 20 years.

Pouring Rather Than Splashing

As a new mathematics teacher at Centennial High School, I quickly learned it was important to ask students who their teacher had been the previous year. Teachers in algebra “made it through” any chapter between 6 and 12. I had to somehow corral my geometry students, determine what had been actually learned, and guide them through the outcomes of the course. Not surprisingly, only 39 percent of the students were passing the state assessment in mathematics. Every department had similar results. We were in need of the PLC process.

In 2007, our principal convened a leadership team, and we attended the PLC at Work™ Institute in Seattle. We left invigorated and inspired to make a difference in the lives of all students. That same school year, I made the transition from classroom teacher to instructional coach as we began our PLC journey.

With a focus on student learning, collaboration, and results, I worked to support teams and facilitate building shared knowledge. After creating a mission, vision, collective agreements, and SMART goals, we worked together to determine how to answer the four critical PLC questions. We rushed to make PLC teams for every course, meaning teachers were sometimes on three PLC teams, and in each team they created learning targets and common assessments for units. After being pushed to calibrate scoring, analyze data, and respond to the data, some teachers finally pushed back. The Mathematics Department chair said, “Enough! We are trying, but we cannot do it all—we are overwhelmed.”

The goal was to improve student achievement—not overwhelm teachers. What had gone wrong?

By then, it was December, and the next weekend my family cut down a Christmas tree at a local tree farm. Monday arrived, and I was late for work with my two young sons in tow. I needed to water the tree, and the only vessel available was a Pyrex pitcher with a small spout. I hurriedly filled the container, dove under the tree, and poured too quickly. Water splashed in every direction. Irritated, I filled the container again, dove under the tree, and forced myself to slowly pour the water into the tree stand. Clarity struck.

This is what I had been doing with teachers! Splashing information and trying to do everything at once instead of stepping back and determining how to guide the work in a systematic way that would empower teachers through action and success and create sustainability.

Everything was not perfect from that point forward, but we did work to first answer questions one and two and then stretched ourselves to answer questions three and four, tweaking unit plans and common assessments the following year. We also restructured teaching assignments and decided as a department that every teacher would teach one lower-level course and one upper-level course. We devoted our late-start Wednesdays to making lower-level courses more clear and efficient, then moved to upper-level courses. This was all supported by the administration, but determined through the teachers themselves.

What are your next steps? How do you keep the water in the pitcher continually moving into the tree stand without splashing initiatives and activities everywhere? Establishing a PLC culture is not easy work—but it is worth the effort when we can celebrate student and teacher learning. Centennial had 78 percent of students proficient on the mathematics state assessment last year and is still working to improve. You?


Sarah Schuhl

Thank you for all of the comments to this post.

Lisa, I wanted to reply to your post specifically. It is true that as one unit ends, another begins and there is carry over in learning along the way. It is important to think about how previous standards and concepts learned can be woven into future units as a way for students to later demonstrate proficiency and not only rely on separate interventions. Also, we need to think about how to meet the needs of the majority of students during core instruction. In that process, it is important to ask "What will I do when students get stuck in this lesson?" "How will I extend or enrich the tasks today if students demonstrate proficiency?"

Though it seems like ability grouping students might better meet their needs, there are mathematics studies that show otherwise. In fact, in Appendix A of the Common Core State Standards in Mathematics it is recommended students not be accelerated until at least seventh grade. Instead, students need to learn mathematics deeply. Jo Boaler has done research in this area as well and you can see two abstracts of her work at and

As for the paperwork it may be time to evaluate what needs to be documented and how. Perhaps a leadership team can meet to determine the documentation most necessary to improve student learning to streamline the process and also make the work meaningful and focused.

It is important to use short pretests to assess the prerequisite skills students may or may not have to best address student needs and accelerate student learning to grade level. Especially when transiting to the CCSS. These can inform some initial differentiation or even intervention. It is also important that all intervention groups be flexible and teams use common formative assessment data and student work to make informed decisions.

Addressing the four critical questions is tight in schools with a PLC culture. Begin in your teams with clarity around when it is expected students be proficient with each standard. Determine how the standards should be grouped into units. Create the common assessments needed for each unit and after giving each, analyze the data to make informed decisions. Along the way, use student work to re-engage students in learning and discuss best practices.

I wish you the best as you continue navigating your way through them with the support of your colleagues.

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Martha Rendon

The watering tree analogy could not have been more perfect for this situation. I feel like this is all too common when it comes to the implementation of any new curriculum. We start to become overwhelmed as teachers and we are pushed to provide results right away. It is not just in the teacher-administrator relationship that we see this - we also see it in the teacher and student relationships. We want our students to show growth right away after being delivered lessons that are jam-packed with content and we need to be able to funnel (or "slowly pour") these concepts to our students in a way that will build on their previous knowledge before moving on to the next step. Thank you for this post. It was a great read!

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Lisa Holman

I am impressed by your ability to restructure the PLCs. Many of us mindlessly complete a task or routine for completion. I am guilty of completing reports which failed to be implemented effectively because it is part of my professional responsibly to complete the overwhelming paper work. I feel the sense of powerlessness as the administration requires mandated assessments and reports to be gathered in a data binder designed to measure students’ growth and teacher effectiveness. The previous school year, we just started teaching common core curriculum with fidelity. Like many schools, teachers are required to create intervention guides from the previous post-test, while also teaching the current unit and its prerequisite skills. The prerequisite skills are based on the previous grade’s curriculum which students did not learn for the standard. These are also based on a curriculum that is no longer being taught and may be out of sync with what is currently needed. Many times these require intervention reports which then become difficult to implement. This makes the paperwork futile and creates a feeling of hopelessness. How did you have teachers complete the mandated paperwork in a meaningful way? I work in an elementary school setting, where teachers and administrators are hesitant about forming classes based on academic ability. I see the value of having students grouped based on academic ability, how would I initial this departmentalization process? What made your PLC effective and what mishaps did you learn from? Your plan has proven to be effective based on the mathematics state assessment results and I hope to learn from your success.

Thanks for your insightful post,

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Jessica Starling

Greetings Sarah,
This blog was such a confirmation to everything we as teachers at our school have been saying. Since the implementation of the Common Core in our school system 2 years ago, we have been been placed in one PLC after another. Most have been extremely ineffective and being lead by other educators who are as lost as we are. I am personally on 3 different PLC committee and we are so bogged down with new information constantly thrown at us, it has just become more of a burden than a resource. If we had time to absorb and implement more meaningful strategies, we wouldn't feel so burdened. I am definitely sharing this with my fellow educators.

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Jeff Rademacher

First of all thank you for posting, I appreciated your thoughts. I teach Title I Math and too often I want to “splash” to make sure that I cover the curriculum. That is something you cannot do with Title I students. I also teach a Geometry class and it seems like at the end of the year I would quickly cover material so that I could teach what I wanted to go over during the school year. I found that the unit test scores were lower than unit test scores in the past. It became more of regurgitation of the material and not retention of what they learned.

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Emem Opashi

Dear Sarah, reading this post has been very interesting and helpful already. PLCs are quite a new concept to our educational settings inNigeria,(we do have loads of staff meetings and trainings though!) and being in the process of implementing them in my school, I am sure I would have jumped into it with some really great splashes!!! From here, I will plan to take things systematically and one step at a time, introduce the concept to our school and gradually develop a structure we can measure results from. Thank you.

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Barb Miller

Sarah -

This is my first comment to a blog - part of an assignment towards my masters degree. I love the "splash" analogy. I work at an adolescent drug/alcohol rehab facility so I feel that I am constantly in splash mode - our students leave after 30-45 days of treatment. I wonder if I can "pour slower" considering the short length of time with my students.
I enjoyed the post!!

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Alyssa Nissen

Hello Sarah,
I enjoyed reading your post. Thank you for sharing your thoughts about slowing things down to do them right. This is a great reminder for me as I prepare for the next school year. Your analogy of pouring slowly instead of splashing is useful when thinking about my PLC group as well as the material I cover with my students. As a specialist who teaches a variety of grades but only sees the students an hour a week, I sometimes feel like I am rushing through the content just to get it done. I have to remember to slow down and put the focus on student learning instead of just teaching the material.

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Danielle Shelley

As a new PLC facilitator this year, I have been worried about various things. I just wanted to say that your analogy of pouring water is PERFECT for me to take back to my 7-12 Math PLC! It was hard starting PLCs last year for the first time, but after a major restructuring by our district, I'm looking forward to learning more and leading the best that I can!!!


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Shylon Smith

Thank you for your analogy of watering a tree. This really helped me to think about how to give people new information in smaller doses. Also, I can relate to your comment about different classes cover different amounts of material in math even in the same school. Having a PLC is a great way to ensure that students get more material per year and absorb/understand it better.

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Deb Holmgren

Hi Sarah!
It was wonderful to see your name out here; you are great at providing clarity when it involves doing what is best for students. I enjoyed reading your post!

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Curt Spencer

Hello Sarah
I can definitely relate to the "splash." I usually splash when I get anxious and just want to get it done, like yourself, I usually figure out that I've wasted more time than I would have originally, if only I had slowed down, and focused on accomplishing one thing at a time.
Thanks for your post.

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