Shelter-in-place, self-quarantine, and stay-at-home orders have created a new reality for educators, students, and families.
While the context of our work has changed, our mission to serve our communities remains. But working in this new reality is a significant challenge, particularly given the uncertainty, ambiguity, and isolation experienced by so many members of our communities. So how do we respond to these challenges?
Much of our work as educators happens in teams. Teamwork has traditionally played a critical role in schools, and while many of us find ourselves physically isolated, our collaborative work with one another may be more important now than ever.
To support your team—whether it be a team of teachers, administrators, or community members—during this transition, you may need to revisit some fundamental questions about who you are and what you are trying to do. Take time with your team to discuss fundamental questions related to purpose, people, process, and pride.
4 Fundamental Questions for Collaboration
1. What’s our team’s purpose? Teams may need to recalibrate their purpose to ensure that they’re working on the right things at the right time. How has your purpose changed, and how has it stayed the same? What are your goals, and how will you measure success? How does your team’s purpose relate to the purposes of other teams within your organization?
If team members don’t share a common understanding of their team’s purpose, they’re more likely to make decisions, take actions, or expend their time and energy on things that aren’t critical and may even be in conflict with one another.
Consider a school’s leadership team where different team members hold different understandings of what they’re trying to do. One thinks their primary purpose should be to support the mental health and well-being of their staff, students, and families. Another member believes that maintaining a sense of normalcy is paramount, and thinks the team’s purpose is to support the most efficient transition to online teaching without missing a beat. Yet another member sees this moment as an opportunity to rethink the school’s approach to teaching, and hopes to support teachers in creating more authentic learning experiences for students to engage in at home.
If they don’t have a conversation explicitly about purpose, it’s quite possible that this team will struggle to make meaningful headway in any direction. A team can’t begin to talk about strategy and action until it is clear about purpose.
2. Who’s on our team, and what are our roles and responsibilities? During this transition, it’s quite possible that roles need to flex, responsibilities need to be redistributed, and new perspectives need to be brought to the table. Having a candid conversation about how team members’ efforts should be reallocated and how different duties may need to be assigned will be critical to team success, particularly if there are any changes to the team’s purpose.
For example, a teacher team that used to collaborate around lesson planning may find that instead of coming together to plan for in-class discussions and small group collaboration, they are now focused on supporting their students’ learning, and well-being, while at home. Their roles and responsibilities may change from curriculum creators to curriculum curators as they work to identify high-quality learning materials and ideas online, and modify them as necessary for their students.
3. How does our team work together? Even teams that previously had strong, explicit norms, working agreements, systems, and structures will surely need to rethink how they work together at a distance.
Consider a school-community task force that is charged with providing the school with feedback and strategic input. Members of the team—the principal, school administrators and teachers, and students and family members—may quickly get overwhelmed with the dramatic increase in the flow of information. While the team functioned effectively two months ago, now team members are overrun with emails, text messages, Google docs, and posts to their Facebook group. The team will have to re-establish how they communicate, how they share resources, how they make decisions, and how they report on their progress now that they are working in a virtual world.
4. How does our team take pride in its work? Teams that are clear on goals, roles, and process can still flounder if people are unhappy or unsatisfied and lose their sense of meaning and belonging. Teams should consider the rituals, traditions, or cultural elements they will enact as a team that are likely to build a positive team culture and instill a sense of pride and belonging.
To keep things in perspective, a teacher team may adopt the practice of always asking, “Is this work worthy of our students’ time?” before sharing anything with their students. A leadership team may start and end every meeting by sharing appreciations for the work of other team members. Other teams may create a new team name, anthem, mantra, or ritual that allows team members to process and connect with each other as people, as well as the meaning behind their work.
Regardless of how thoughtful and wise your team may be, you’ll likely get some things right, but also many things wrong. Your first conversation around these four questions should be just that—a first conversation, an opportunity to document the team’s current best guess about what they need to do to be successful. Once you learn what works and what doesn’t, thoughtful change in a productive direction will likely not occur until you have your next conversation. Unless teams commit time to revisit these conversations, they are unlikely to happen.
The challenges facing our students, families, and communities are real. These challenges must be met by teams that are working at their best.