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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

In my last post I reflected on what makes an effective team of teachers. This is something I've been contemplating a great deal as this year I'm leading a team of instructional coaches. We work with a number of middle schools that are "transforming" and a central element in our theory of action is that leadership and instruction will transform by way of strong, effective, high functioning teams.

At these sites, my coaches support the development of grade level teams, department teams, leadership teams, and cross-site teams of teachers and administrators.

This fall we've pursued an inquiry around our own coaching and facilitation actions. We're attempting to name the precise moves that we need to take in order to develop strong teams. We're working on creating a tool that will help us self-assess and guide our practices, as well as something that we can offer to others to help them think about team facilitation.

So what steps do we take to develop strong teams? How are these steps reflected in a meeting? I'd like to share some of our preliminary thoughts with you and I'd love your feedback! Note that I'm using the term "facilitator" to mean the person who plans and designs agendas as well as who guides a team through processes outlined on an agenda.

Domain One: Planning

We determined that the first coaching action to break down is how we plan for meetings. Strong teams emerge after a series of powerful interactions -- through learning together, working together, and convening in meetings. We have all experienced meetings that result in the opposite I'm sure; so in order to foster effective teams, we know that great attention must be paid to how a meeting is designed. Here are a few of the specifics we came up with for how we plan meetings:

  • The purpose of the meeting and desired outcomes are articulated and connected to the school's vision, mission, and big goals
  • The facilitator strategically selects a variety of structures or protocols to meet the desired outcomes. When making these selections, the facilitator anticipates the emotional, cognitive and energy needs of the participants
  • The facilitator intentionally plans structures that will best navigate the group's dynamics. This planning reflects an awareness of how power dynamics and systemic oppression may manifest in this group and seeks to interrupt these dynamics

This last point is something we think about when considering participation. We want to ensure that all will voices will be heard and will have equal access to decision-making and input. Sometimes, if we don't structure meetings to ensure this kind of equity, we don't get it.

There's a lot more to say about how we plan effective team meetings. For example, we also want to make sure we're planning with an awareness of where the team is at in its stage of development and how we can help this team move to the next stage. (See Tuckman's Stages of Team Development.) Let's take a look at the second domain of facilitation skills that we identified.

Domain Two: The Technical Skills of Facilitation

In this section, we named many of the in-the-moment actions that a coach takes when facilitating a team meeting. Of course, they aren't spontaneous -- they should be planned for and noted in the facilitator's agenda.

In order to hold a meeting that builds effective teams, a facilitator needs to:

At the Opening

  • Frame the purpose and desired outcomes for the meeting and review agenda. (If relevant, identify how this meeting connects to prior meetings and previous work engaged in by team)
  • Articulate the role participants will play in the meeting (engaging as learners, making decisions, problem solving, creating a product, etc.)
  • Name any decision-making points and processes that will be used
  • Identify the structures or activities that will be used in this meeting and how they'll connect to the desired outcomes
  • Supply resources and materials necessary for participants to meet desired outcomes
  • Articulate expectations for behavior or procedures (i.e. no cell phones, start and end on time, etc.)
  • Identify process for determining norms or agreements for meeting (i.e. use existing set of team norms, select individual norm for that meeting, etc.)
  • Determine structures to hold members accountable (self-monitoring and reflection, use of process observer, use of a team process rubric)
  • During the Meeting

    • Use a variety of listening strategies including paraphrasing and active listening
    • Use a variety of questioning strategies to probe thinking and elicit new ideas
    • Invite constructive dialogue and dissent (encourage conflict about ideas verses interpersonal or inter-team conflict)
    • Monitor participants' understanding and engagement. (Use data gathered in the moment to modify and inform facilitation, and adjust meeting to be responsive to team needs)
    • When participants work in small teams: Circulate, monitor and adjust to ensure equitable participation
    • Protect time for reflection and feedback within the established time

    Domain Three: Managing Group Dynamics

    This domain outlines the skills that a facilitator employs during a meeting to guide or direct a team toward effective collaboration. These are the trickier skills to name and master, but they are essential to developing high functioning teams. During a meeting, a facilitator must:

    • Hold team members accountable to agreements, goals, structures, and protocols. (Intervene when an agreement or norm is not upheld to protect a safe space for learning. When necessary, follow up with one on one conversations)
    • Name and mediate interpersonal or inter-team conflict; use various strategies to help a group a recover from a breakdown
    • Read the group's emotional and energetic state and adjust accordingly. (Notice participant's body language as one data point)
    • Hold the expectation that members will learn, think creatively, and push each others' thinking
    • Show up as a grounded, calm presence that believes in the capacity of team members

    What I've shared with you is just part of what's in our facilitation tool. I'm really curious to hear your thoughts -- what resonates in this list? What's missing? What's confusing? What have you seen done, or done yourself, to help build effective teams? What do you think is essential for a coach or facilitator to do in order to build strong teams that can transform schools?

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