One of the biggest challenges that district leaders and principals face in today’s schools is helping mold staff and faculty into highly functional, synergistic, and happy teams working in the best interest of students. This becomes even harder when morale is low and people are divided.
In any case, creating synergy is complex and requires communal relationships anchored by norms and expectations that are valued and upheld by everyone.
Through my work as a coach and a thought partner in schools, many school leaders come to me actively looking for ways to
However, teams spending time developing a set of shared norms and agreements are often overlooked. Consider how many more “happy” school employees could be retained by listening, engaging, and including their input where it matters to them most—starting with all hearts, minds, and hands outlining how they will work together.
School teams should therefore take some time to collaboratively create a set of shared agreements before solely focusing on other priorities. To be engaged, people need to know what others require from them and vice versa for synergistic relationships to root and blossom.
Setting Guidelines for Working Together
Shared agreements, also called working agreements, community agreements, or shared expectations, are guidelines and norms that define how a group ideally wants to work together and what they wish to experience in their working environment. Creating the agreements can also provide willing faculty the open door to communicate and empathize with their everyday colleagues appropriately and effectively.
In my work, I have found that educator teams that take the time to create their shared agreements collectively see greater success in the following:
- Establishing and maintaining better norms for professional learning community work
- Effectively using the time and talents of their team members
- Respecting each other’s thoughts and ideas
- Articulating clear organization and department goals and responsibilities
- Providing healthy parameters for difficult discussions and problem-solving
Before commencing with this strategy, everyone should know that having a set of norms and shared agreements doesn’t mean the staff can solve every school issue—especially when tackling overly complicated ones where the team can’t control all the factors.
It’s also important to consider that just because the team is fortunate to solve a major problem doesn’t mean that other challenges won’t soon arise. The good news is that the team will have experienced success activating their shared norms and guidelines for complex problem-solving.
Doing this type of work requires a lot of trust, and establishing trust isn’t easy for everyone—especially for those who’ve felt let down in the past. You may find that some fence-mending will need to happen first. In that case, encourage parties to settle differences and offer mediation if required.
Sometimes working together to establish these guidelines can lead to heightened emotions. In heated moments, someone may break one or more of the agreements. It’s OK. People are human—we’re not a set of norms. When this happens, it’s fine to table discussion and come back when agreements can be upheld.
In schools facing organizational challenges, staff needs to look out for one another, and solutions cannot come entirely from outside your school or district. The latest education trends, speakers, or books will not help unless they know your workspace the way you and your staff do.
Instead, use resources as helpful guides while establishing your shared agreements and rely on one another to lead with genuine empathy. Implement your agreements, collect relevant data, and refine your practices over time as you learn what works best for your team.
5 Ways to Begin Creating Shared Agreements
1. Cover the basics. The facilitator can begin by uplifting some basic agreements that correspond to all, if not most, of the staff. This provides tangible examples for folks who may be unsure of how to proceed. Examples may include some of the following:
- Everyone participates.
- Cultivate a safe space to speak from the heart, but be open to feedback when your words harm others.
- Listen from the heart.
- Make sure that your intent matches your impact.
- Lead with empathy and self-awareness.
- Listen to understand, not to respond.
2. Address must-haves and deal-breakers. Individually each team member can begin reflecting on their must-haves and deal-breakers in an ideal work environment. When coaching, I like to have everyone capture their thoughts on a piece of paper folded down the middle for about 5 to 7 minutes. Upon completion of a first draft, I advise them to revise their list realistically, only leaving nonnegotiable items. This is powerful for visualizing thinking and opening honest discussions.
3. Discuss the culture you’re building. Allow team members to speak from the heart to explain the observable behaviors and culture they would like to see happen due to creating the shared agreements. If possible, don’t rush this—allow folks the needed air space to talk.
4. Get everyone involved. On large chart paper using markers, welcome everyone to add one or two agreements. To do this virtually instead, you can use a tool like Nearpod or Jamboard. After all the agreements are captured, consolidate for redundancy and make a manageable list.
5. Share your agreements. Once the list is refined, it can be posted virtually or in spaces where the group meets. I like to have teams silently scan and reflect on the list at the start of our meetings. This brief practice allows anyone to discuss how the agreements are being upheld as needed.
Creating shared agreements will take some time on the front end, and the process may be clunky—especially in spaces where open discussion isn’t the norm. I’ve personally witnessed improved collegial rapport in spaces where agreements are honored. Once a group establishes trust, building these shared norms together is a great next step in launching a truly productive and supportive workplace.