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Male adult in the forefront working in a group of three

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 whose members are fulfilling a mission together. The emotions activated in this 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) that 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 some key characteristics that I believe make a good team:

1. A good team knows why it exists.

It's not enough to say, "We're the 6th grade team of teachers" -- that's simply what defines you (you teach the same grade), 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 that we can better meet the needs of our sixth grade students." Call it a purpose or a mission -- it 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 why 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, 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 among 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. 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.

What Next?

This last point is what I've been contemplating for 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 facilitation rubric for coaches -- a tool that identifies and articulates the precise moves we make in order to develop a team that feels purposeful and 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 in the comments section below your stories of working in effective teams and your thoughts about what makes a good team.

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clkrist's picture

I appreciated the points you made on the characteristics of an effective team. I have worked in both an ineffective team and a strong, supportive team. The points you made were right on target.

clkrist's picture

Within our effective team this last year, each of us had very different personalities. Yet we all were passionate about our mission. The result was trust and healthy collaborations in which we all were stretched for the better. One of our members just retired and we hope to continue this same effectiveness with the new teacher.

Shareen O'Neale's picture

The characteristics of an effective team described above are characteristics I want for my first grade team. There are characteristics my team holds lightly and we need to develop further, while there are characteristics we have not met as yet. This year there will be new teachers added to the team and we will work on these characteristics. There won't be a change in one week but we will work on it to become an effective team. I believe it will help with using our time wisely. Thank you for this.

LisaLienemann's picture

This post really resonated with me since I just wrote about my love of collaboration as a key element in effective teaching, but I agree with you that it's not something that can be forced as you say in #1. I think what leaders, be they coaches, admin, etc., need to be able to do is help people find those whom they can collaborate with effectively, and that means not necessarily "assigning" teams. Of course, we've all worked on teams that are born out of teaching common content or grade levels and those are needed too. But, the most effective and relevant teams I've been part of are the ones I've sought out myself through finding like-minded professionals who have helped me become better. In essence, that's why I like teams (or I like to think of it more as collaboration) so much- because of what people can do for each other. I used to be like you- wanting to work by myself, but once I embraced working with others, it has really elevated my teaching to levels I wouldn't have reached on my own. Thanks for posting!

FarahShakil's picture

I am an administrator in a non-profit community school and a Master of Education grad student. Your points really resonated with my experience. I have seen first hand how important trust is for effective collaboration towards reaching a mutual goal. I recently wrote a blog about the importance of collaboration in fundraising for schools and non-profits at http://shakilfarah.wix.com/education and if you have feedback I would love to hear from you. Thank you for reminding us of the important ideas for school leadership.

Kathie's picture

Buy-in. You have to have buy-in from members in order to be productive. This can be a slippery slope but there are usually some members who are positive and want to be productive.

Beyond Book Reports's picture
Beyond Book Reports
School Librarian, Author, and Freelance Writer

Great read! I agree that teams are vital to schools and help create a more supportive work environment. I've worked in urban settings most of my professional career. In most of the schools where I've taught, the turn over rate was high. I would definitely concur that it was due to low staff morale. Teachers often feel overwhelmed - but teamwork inspires a "village" approach to instruction/learning.

Will Minton's picture
Will Minton
Traveling the world to learn about education

I like these ideas a lot. Especially the points about trust and healthy conflict. But everything about creating an effective is easier said than done. I recently spent some time at one of the best schools in Chile and was incredibly impressed by how their team facilitator went about creating the type of environment above. To see what it was like in action, check out this story about implementing Kagan strategies: http://www.lettersfromelsewhere.com/creating-a-collaborative-school-cult...

"Professor" Paul GTO Briones's picture
"Professor" Paul GTO Briones
Host and Co-Creator of Virtual Science University & Pre-AP Science Instructor

Thank you for the points and ideas you mentioned! I agree with the points you made about healthy conflict and trust. Right now I am on a Leadership Team and have been there for the last two years. To be effective you must allow healthy conflict but know when it is time to bring the conflict to an end. If you allow conflict to get out of hand, it will lead to malfunction of the team and the team become useless. Another element is trust! Trust is the most important element there is in a leadership team especially when it comes with communication with administrators. This leads to huge success in implementing learning programs that work for both students and parents! Thank you for your post!

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