Effective Teams: The Key to Transforming Schools? | Edutopia
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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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This fall I've been thinking a lot about what makes a good team in a school context. I'll share some of these thoughts, but I really want to hear your ideas on this subject.

I'm going to admit that it's taken me a while to feel convinced by the power of teams. Until recently, I didn't have great experiences in teams. I felt that alone I could produce whatever needed to be created better, and quicker, than working with others. I often felt frustrated working in teams -- the process felt so slow and cumbersome. I felt like I was usually given (or took) the bulk of the work. I didn't really know what an effective team looked like, how one worked together, or what the benefits could be.

In the last few years, however, my experience in a couple different teams shifted these beliefs. Now, I'm compelled to figure out how to create and develop good teams -- and to identify the specific moves that a coach or facilitator makes in this process. I want to figure out how to grow powerful teams that can transform schools.

Why Does This Matter?

Here's why I think we need to articulate our beliefs and practices about good teams:

  • Strong teams within a school are essential to retaining and sustaining teachers. In schools with low staff turnover (even in challenging urban contexts) teachers report feeling connected to colleagues and supported by them. They also describe feeling that they belong to a team and fulfilling a mission together. The emotions that are activated in this kind of a context are those which keep us engaged in a difficult endeavor for a long time. Public education is a hard place to be these days; we need structures (such as strong teams) which cultivate our emotional resilience
  • If a team is effective, then people learn from each other. They accomplish far more than would be possible alone. They inspire and challenge each other. An individual's strengths can be exploited, and we don't have to do the stuff we're not so good at. Again, this is an efficient approach to undertaking a huge project (transforming a school, for example) and it feels good

What Makes a Good Team?

Here are my thoughts. I want to hear yours!

  1. A good team knows why it exists. It's not enough to say, "We're the sixth grade team of teachers," that's simply what defines you (you teach the same grade) but not why you exist. A purpose for being is a team might be: "We come together as a team to support each other, learn from each other, and identify ways we can better meet the needs of our sixth grade students." Call it a purpose or a mission -- doesn't really matter. What matters is that those who attend never feel like they're just obligated to attend "another meeting." The purpose is relevant, meaningful, and clear.
  2. A good team creates a space for learning. There are many reasons for which those of us working in schools might gather in a team but I believe that all of those reasons should contain opportunities for learning with and from each other. I have met very few educators who don't want to learn. We're a curious bunch and there's so much to learn about education. So in an effective team, learning happens within a safe context. We can make mistakes and take risks and ask every single question we want.
  3. In a good team, there's healthy conflict. This is inevitable -- and essential -- if we're learning together and embarked on some kind of project together. We disagree about ideas, there's constructive dialogue and dissent, and our thinking is pushed.
  4. Members of a good team trust each other. This means that when there's the inevitable conflict, it's managed. People know each other. We listen to each other. There are agreements about how we treat each other and engage with each other and we monitor these agreements. There's also someone such as a facilitator who ensures that this is a safe space. Furthermore, in order for there to be trust within a strong team, we see equitable participation amongst members and shared decision-making. We don't see a replication of the inequitable patterns and structures of our larger society (such as male dominance of discourse and so on).
  5. Finally, a good team has a facilitator, leader, or shared leaders. There's someone -- or a rotation of people -- who steer the ship. This ensures that there's the kind of intentionality, planning, and facilitation in the moment that's essential for a team to be high functioning.

This last point is what I've been contemplating this fall: What does a good team leader do? How, exactly, does she facilitate? How can leadership rotate or be shared?

I currently work with a fantastic team of instructional coaches and we're thinking about this together; I'm so grateful for this team. We're developing a rubric for coaches for who facilitate teacher and principal workshops -- a tool that identifies and articulates the precise moves we make in order to develop a team that feels purposeful, safe for learning, and that leads to improved outcomes and experiences for the students we serve. We're hoping that this tool will be helpful in our own practice and that it could be useful to others.

In my next post, I'll share some of our ideas about the facilitation moves we make. In the meantime, please share your stories of working in effective teams and your thoughts about what makes a good team.

Comments (17)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Jay Clark's picture
Jay Clark
Principal - Van Buren Middle School (Van Buren, OH)

Elena - I agree 100%! #1 in "What makes a good team" is essential. Two other important points:

Don't spend 90+% of your time as a team discussing less than 5% of the kids - this leads to negativity from beating dead horses even 'deader'.

Celebrate your team's accomplishments - take time to reflect, which is really interwoven with professional learning.

Great post!!!

Danielle Jenkins's picture

Elena - I think that you are completely correct that a good team is essential! Being a member of a productive team definitely makes the difference. We constantly collaborate and research new things and philosophies. Working together is the best way to bounce ideas off of each other. You never know what creative thing someone might come up with!

As Jay said, celebration of your teams accomplishments is important. Celebrations allow for professional development and reflection on what went well. You can also critically analyze to see what you can work more on as a team.

I really enjoyed your post!

Shaun Wood's picture

I teach collaboratively in a classroom with two other teachers and totally agree.

I would add: good structures to support the teams, and leadership that models teamwork and collaboration. Last night I did a Petcha Kutcha on Collaborative Teaching; my research, experiences and reflections http://tinyurl.com/d4ywaan

Thanks for great advice.

Deborah Dixon's picture
Deborah Dixon
I work for a national association, representing our school constituency.

I love what you have to say about teaming, but I'd like to suggest classroom teachers think about including other service providers in their teams. I had been a speech-langauge pathologist in the schools for many years, and found it so important to be included in grade level teams so I learned more about their issues and needs, as well as helped to problem solve around a variety of issues.

Anne Jolly's picture
Anne Jolly
STEM curriculum writer, PLC author, consultant and trainer

What good questions you ask, Elena, and what good insights you give. I think you are on target with the idea of a teaming having a clear purpose, a "safe" place that spotlights trust and room for healthy conflict, and rotating leadership. A couple of other thoughts you might consider:

1. to help with building the kind of team atmosphere you want, discuss as a team what behaviors you value in other team members and let those become part of a set of team norms. (Do this at the beginning of the process.) The facilitator for the meeting can gently refer to those norms as needed if the meeting starts getting off track.

2. Find a meeting space that's away from interruptions, if possible, and have these meetings as part of the school day.

3. Keep logs of meetings which contain just three things: (1) People present, (2) Big ideas from the meeting, and (3) Decisions made. Then email this log to the principal (who doesn't need to be a team member) and other teachers in the school. Start to establish a collective learning culture by sharing what you are learning and doing.

I could go on . . . and on . . . but mainly I want you to know that I've seen remarkable transformations occur in teaching and learning as a result of determined teachers who work together to increase their learning and impact.

Keep up your great work!

Amanda Mayeaux's picture
Amanda Mayeaux
Master Teacher East Iberville High School

Teaming had the greatest impact on my teaching. My teaching prior to teaming was isolated and subject-bound. Teaming opened up to me not only great partnerships with amazing teachers who pushed me beyond my own expectations, but also allowed me to open up my subject to my students in non-traditional ways. Our goals focused solely on our students and the synergy created between the teachers, students, and parents changed lives including mine. We recorded our story with the amazing blessing of Stenhouse Publishers. The book is a realistic journey including the celebrations and the struggles, because each taught us invaluable lessons. Teaming can change a school, if all the team members wish to journey as one. Whether you read it or not, I encourage all teachers to share their stories. There are lessons to learn.

Katherine's picture

I enjoyed reading your post and completely agree with you about the importance of teams in education. I think that teachers often feel isolated because we spend so much of our day in the classroom with our students and we often only have a few moments to interact and engage with other adults in our school. By being part of a team and having set time/space for collaboration, it gives us an opportunity to share and grow with our peers. Teams that are mixed grade-level and include specialists and others are even better because those are often the people that you rarely get to collaborate with.

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