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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The Leadership Team at Tubman Middle School (a pseudonym) is transforming their underfunded, urban school into a place where kids thrive and succeed. How are they doing this? They meet weekly, the team's purpose is sharply defined, each member's role and responsibility is explicit and internalized, and they have articulated norms for working together, as well as norms for conflict. They also engage in healthy, productive conflict about ideas.

They also stay focused on their top goals and priorities (of which there are only two), assess the impact of what they do, and make changes when they see that certain actions aren't leading to their desired results. They learn together and make time for their own reflection.

The members of this leadership team also know that their team is a key vehicle to ensuring the efficacy of other teams -- of grade level and department teams, of the student success team, and of the restorative justice team. Collectively, they know that they have the potential to lead their community where it wants to go. And they remind themselves, regularly, of why this team needs to exist, why it needs to be strong and healthy, and of the role that teams can play in transforming a school.

Teams Are Essential to Interrupting Inequities

At Learning Forward's a couple of years ago, Professor Pedro Noguera delivered a keynote address on how to create equitable schools. He offered 10 equity practices that support the academic growth of all children and interrupt systemic inequities. After he concluded his prepared speech, the moderator asked, "What can people here do now? Tomorrow?" Dr. Noguera responded by urging us to find communities and to "build teams of people" who can take up this work. "We can't do it alone," he said.

This reminder is so simple yet so challenging: We can't do it alone. No individual alone can transform our schools into places where all children get what they need every day. Many of us are acutely aware of how much work needs to be done and of how far we are from an ideal of education. We might also be aware of our own individual limitations, including our capacity to do the amount of work that needs to be done and our individual scope of knowledge and skill set.

Teams have great potential for solving hard problems in challenging contexts. They bring together more skill, knowledge, and experience to work than any single individual can. They can integrate individual members' diverse contributions into a creative problem that is what is needed. Of course, as many of us know, teams can also go badly by not getting anything done or falling into groupthink. The challenge is to identify what it takes for teams to maximize their potential.

Some of us might suspect that we're stronger and more effective in teams, but we haven't had such an experience. Until we do, it can be hard to fully invest in building a team. We might be apprehensive about taking risks or trusting a leader. A team's leader needs to surface past experiences and beliefs about building teams to get buy-in to the process.

We Can Also Work Alone

Working in teams doesn't exclude the need to work alone at times, as well. Many people (especially introverts) need quiet, independent work time to effectively contribute to the greater whole. Teams can work interdependently and independently at the same time. For example, if a team of coaches is charged with designing and leading a three-day summer training, some of the planning might be collaboratively decided, and much of the planning might be done in pairs or by individuals.

The entire team may want to review plans after individuals have worked on them alone, but the actual planning of the work is sometimes best done individually. Every part of a team's work doesn't need to be done collaboratively with everyone sitting around the table.

A good indicator of team members trusting each other is that work can be divided up and people can go off and do parts of it alone or in pairs.

Team Development Equals Hard Work

Leading teams is hard. It's really complex and multi-faceted, and the skills required by team leaders or facilitators aren't usually explicitly taught. One pre-work step in leading a team is to be convinced of the role that teams can play in transforming schools. We have to really believe in something in order to throw ourselves into trying it out. But as I've witnessed at Tubman Middle School, it pays off.

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rskeens's picture

Great article. I find myself drawn to this team dynamic in relation to education. Having been part of a team teaching situation, I fully recognize the benefits of this type of system. This article describes how to be a great leader, but what are some qualities that would be helpful in a supporting member in this team dynamic?

Nora Bailey's picture

This is a great article that explains the qualities of a team atmosphere and how it can directly affect the students . I think Ms Aguilar mentions how teams can and should be a fluid entity. Team members trust and support each other but can also trust that their individual efforts will be a contributing factor to the team overall goals. In a way, everyone on the team can be a leader. As projects are divided, supporting members have a chance to spear head the tasks that were collectively agreed upon and can execute how to tackle the project whether by doing it single-handedly or through sub-groupings. How problems are solved are as diverse as the people within the teams. Once the team have a clearly defined purpose and a way to assess results, the process by which the purpose is fulfilled becomes easier.

Melissa Alexander's picture

We cannot do it alone. Teachers frequently feel isolated. We have seen research that teacher voice matters and has direct impact on student success. There are so many teachers that are overlooked to be on these types of leadership teams. It is usually the same "lead" teachers on these teams. It is our duty to speak up when things are not working but we should be prepared to offer an alternative or be willing to accept help from our peers. Students change, so we too need to be open to new techniques and insights. These teams are a great vehicle to make an school-wide impact.

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Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.

The leaders/mentors/teachers I've had (have) in my life have always harnessed my attention in some way. As a follower/supporting member I always do more active listening and thinking, than talking. When a leader asks/not asks for help/suggestions I'm normally always ready to respond in a thoughtful intelligent way (because of my thinking and listening). My mom and dad always taught me to respect the person in charge, but never agree/disagree without contemplating what was said or suggested. Hope this helps a little.

Linda Ann B's picture

In my district, we do a lot of collaborative learning and professional development activities that create teams of teachers that come up with different strategies to enhance student learning. I believe that if we were given more time to do our lesson plans in teams and generate activities and strategies across the grade levels we would be able to transform our schools. We are given a day to collaborate on a PD Day, maybe a few hours after school at a a faculty meeting, which is not a great time to be doing it in general, then we go back to business as usual and we have hardly anytime to implement what we felt would be successful. Taking the time and finding the time to work in teams is what our enemy is in my district.

The district I work in emphasizes collaboration in all aspects of our daily practice, however, we never are given the time built in to common planning. It is so rushed and always interrupted. In my opinion, ideally, I would like to have an uninterrupted hour a week to collaborate with my colleagues and actually be prepared to implement them into my classroom. That would be a tremendous gift.

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Laticia's picture

I totally agree with you Linda B. My district and school does a lot of professional development but there is no follow up to make sure its being done with fidelity. The hour once a week to plan during grade level meeting is not enough to enhance student learning. It's not enough time to effectively collaborate with my team members. The leadership team at my school meets once a month and other times as needed. We discuss school wide practices and policies and we have implemented some new strategies for teachers this year but to effectively plan and collaborate; we have to meet more often.

Phoenix's picture

This is a great article! It is inspiring to me and I totally agree with the views presented. You wrote that "The members of this leadership team also know that their team is a key vehicle to ensuring the efficacy of other teams". I can really relate to this statement because I have experienced being part of a teacher-based team that was unable to thrive because of poor leadership. The school administration gave time to teams dedicated to subject areas to meet. Great! However, the teams were tasked with doing work that was more 'checking-the-boxes' prior to an upcoming accreditation evaluation rather than being able to truly collaborate and discuss issues and put all our heads together to come up with solutions for change. When the team tried to steer into meaningful work that all teachers felt was pressing to them, the leadership did not accommodate it. Stick to their tasks at hand. The leadership clearly had an agenda that was not truly focused on supporting teachers to begin to meaningfully make change to improve student learning and professional practice. And so, after a year of meeting every two weeks, the teachers felt disgruntled at this waste of their time. How sad.

The success story that you shared is inspirational and I hope to experience such genuine leadership for change. This year I am at a new school that has new administration this same year, and it looks as if, slowly, teams for change will start to become a reality.

msvteacher's picture

I find that my school and board also highly value and emphasize collaboration. I feel like some people are very comfortable with this approach and are highly skilled in working as team members. I do wonder though if staff would benefit from PD on HOW to work effectively as a team member. Do you see this as a challenge in your district?

msvteacher's picture

Follow-up and monitoring are huge gaps for our board as well. There are great intentions and there is some great vision; however, administration does not effectively monitor work being done and, in Ontario where we have strong teacher unions, there can be no monitoring and reporting on how other teachers in your department are doing with respect to department or school goals. To me, this is a major problem and really impedes productive and purposeful work that will benefit student achievement.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Thanks for naming that there's a balance between working together and working alone. I think we often undervalue the kind of teamwork that involves folks working towards a common purpose, even when they're not all standing over the same table or looking at the same document. Collaboration doesn't necessarily mean "all hands in the same pot at the same time."

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