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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

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

Eli's picture

Elena, great points, I've been in quite a few teaming situations over the years. Only two i can say were really successful. Those two had 2 of your main thoughts, that allowed us to work together. The first is we had a purpose we knew why we existed and the other was we had a good strong leader. Those seem to go hand in hand. The teams I am currently on only seem to exist because I and my colleagues are required to be on them and it seems more like we are doing time than anything instructive. Hopefully I can get my teams to realize why we exist and then move forward from their. Your article has given me insight into good teaming and hopefully the teams I'm on can move forward instead of being in neutral!

chelsea's picture
chelsea
7th grade life science teacher

I recently started a Master's program, and one of the topics we have discussed and read about is the power and value of teamwork. I found your post extremely relevant to what I am learning about the importance of collaboration. I 100% agree with your reasons why teamwork is so important as well as the criteria that makes a great team. I am currently only in my second year teaching, and there is no way I would have lasted without the support and advice from my colleagues. I believe that the support system built among the teachers I work with has kept me going in my weakest moments. I loved how you pointed out that conflicts will inevitably arise working with a team, but it's the respect we have for one another that allows us to hear other perspectives and open our minds to another point of view and come up with creative solutions. Without conflict there is no need to compromise, without comprises nothing changes, and without changes we end up teaching the same lessons and stuck in a rut.

One of the question you raised about leadership within a group, and how can it be shared. I think it's important that the responsibilities are shared among the teachers. There is no set "leader", but there may be different leaders for different tasks and responsibilities. When students work in groups, they may be assigned a defined role: supply manager, time keeper, illustrator, author, etc. Application of the same idea could be beneficial in a team of teachers as well. Divide up the responsibilities of the group (therefore knowing "why they exists" is crucial), and rotate the roles every quarter or semester, if desired.

Lacy Dugas's picture
Lacy Dugas
Third Grade teacher at an International School in South Korea

Elena,

You make some great points about the importance, and productiveness of working in groups. I strongly agree that in order for a group to be successful all of it's members must be aware of and believe in the purpose of the group. This week in my third grade class we discussed identifying the author's purpose in a story. I talked to my students about how it was important to delve deeper and discover not just if the author is writing to inform, entertain, or persuade, but we must try to figure out what they are, for example, trying to inform us of. Similar to that, in a group it is not enough to know we are trying to improve our teaching, but it is essential that we know why and how we plan on doing that. It is important that the members of a group are motivated to be in that group. Forced groups are rarely productive, especially if the issues being discussed are not relevant to the group members.

You asked what made a good team leader and I came up with a few qualities that I think a leader must possess. A leader must be organized, knowledgeable, and enthusiastic. If a leader has these qualities the time should go smoothly and the meeting should be productive. I think it is also necessary for a leader to be a good listener so it does not end up being a lecture, but instead a professional conversation.

Sara's picture
Sara
6th Grade Math Teacher

Hi Elena,
Working together in teams has impacted my teaching immensely throughout my short career. I transitioned from teaching 1st grade for my first two years to now teaching strictly 6th grade math. This was a huge challenge to overcome and really forced me to seek out other professionals for ideas, advice, and any other valuable information I could get from others who had already experienced what I had yet to. The biggest challenge, that I still face every day, is how to keep the lessons I teach fun and exciting so that the students stay engaged and keep or obtain a positive attitude throughout the year. I felt like I never had this challenge in 1st grade, but now in 6th grade it continues to test me on a daily basis. I feel like challenges are good because they continuously keep me motivated to learn more and try to things that without a challenge, I might not have.

The 6th grade team I currently work with welcomed me with open arms. I have created relationships with my colleagues that allow me to ask questions and gain insight on what they would do or how they would teach certain concepts. We constantly engage in healthy conflict and sometimes agree to disagree. But the discussions that come about because of the conflict always seem to make both parties think and reflect!

Thank you for your post!

Jennifer Bailey's picture
Jennifer Bailey
High School Geometry and Algebra Teacher

Elena,
I can relate to where you are coming from on the issue of trust. This is a key aspect to effective collaboration. Throughout college, and even now as a teacher, I was like you were; reluctant to work in groups because I would wind up doing all of the work. Either the work was "dumped" on me, or I was so nervous to receive a low grade because of someone else's shortcomings.
After reading your blog, however, as well as Sonia Nieto's book What Keeps Teachers Going?, I understand the importance of effective collaboration. When done correctly, it can be the most useful tool, and can benefit both teacher and student alike. I hope to collaborate more with the teachers at my school, however I think trust and a willingness to devote more time or try new things (on their part) may hinder my efforts. Still, I will not give up.
One idea I recommend to you, after reading a few article's this week, would be to implement PLC's at your school. Professional learning communities share the goal of effective collaboration, while stressing the importance of teacher choice. Allowing teachers to choose what they would like to collaborate creates more "buy in." Instead of boring traditional workshops and mandatory professional developments, teacher networks allow educators to learn to belong, become, do and experience (Niesz, 2007, p.1).

Thanks for your thoughts, and your time!
Jennifer

Mary Stokes's picture
Mary Stokes
Fourth Grade MD

I have worked with a different team every year of my teaching experience. I think what you said about having strong teams will help retain and sustain teachers is true. In the 5 years I have worked at my school, we have seen numerous teachers (good and bad) come and go. I have questioned leaving my self due to the constant changes and inability to find a comfortable working team. My second year, the team I worked with really clicked and we were very productive. It was a great year! But one teacher was moved to another grade and another teacher decided to switch schools which led to new team after new team. I soon pushed away the idea of planning collaboratively because it was too much of a hassle "breaking in" new teachers each year that would join my grade, especially when those teachers seemed to not want the collaboration either. I felt that I was still productive but noticed the rest of my team struggled and I would regret not having the strength or support to help them. This year, although it is yet again a brand new team (I am the only one that seems to stay in this grade), I feel we are making a connection and working well to make significant lessons that improve student learning. When the end of the year comes and we look to the coming year I will bring these points that you shared to our meeting. I think they help to clarify the need for established strong teams. I thank you for writing about this; it has supplied me with more evidence to take back to my administration.

Melanie Link Taylor's picture
Melanie Link Taylor
Educator, Blogger, Southern California

Thank you for the clarity in your article. My experience has been that when the leader is consistent, persistence (even relentless) in having the team regularly collaborates and then implements the best practices, the students as a group (for example, our Grade 7 ELA classes) all improve in a consistent way. It is a team of professional colleagues, maybe but not necessarily friends, but teachers willing to analyze the data and coordinate on lesson plans and methods. The way it should be. I am thankful to have been a member of such an effort before I went to 'Special Teams,' that is Resource.

Anne Beninghof's picture

I work with many co-teaching teams, K-12. We find that role clarification is essential to effective working relationships. We encourage teachers to sit down together and discuss "who will do what" using some simple forms to guide their thinking. These forms are available on my website as downloadables for anyone interested at www.ideasforeducators.com.

Christopher Kostoff's picture

First, you have to know who you are working with. What I mean by that is, aside from the stress, the struggles, and the mistakes, what really makes each member tick? What are their most natural, powerful qualities, passions, and purpose? What is their personal agenda for the work they do in your school? Most often, when groups work together, obstacles to their success show up more often than their true, natural, powerful identities. It is absolutely critical that each member sees the others as their true identity, not their issues or struggles.

Secondly, your group must be constructive. It does not matter whether the group works on a common project, or if each member has an individual project. All projects, though, must be aligned with each member's personal agenda and school's agenda. "Projects" can cover any school related goal, including things every teacher is already committed to (like student achievement or classroom management) or specific targeted outcomes. It is imperative to put in the vision and alignment work prior to starting any project.

Thirdly, every process of the group must be based on supporting each other. When group members have individual projects, other members will support them logistically, mentally (through brainstorming), emotionally, and verbally, with a commitment to staying focused on their empowered identity and desired outcomes. When group members share a common project, they again support each other, but in this case, they often emphasize the implementation of common support structures.

Finally, consistent communication is the glue that holds everything together. You can have the greatest of intentions, but if you do not communicate consistently, staying focused on those intentions, thoughts very easily turn back to the issues and struggles teachers are bombarded with on a daily basis. It is through communication that we protect our focus. Some communication comes in the form of formal meetings. Other is daily, randomly, and informal.

If a group has any of the three qualities, it can be successful, as seen in some of the other posts. If all three are present, a group is virtually unstoppable.

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