School Leadership

Cultivating Healthy Teams in Schools

Effective schools and organizations have a mission and vision that motivates, unifies, and guides all stakeholders in their day-to-day operations.
July 16, 2015
Five teachers in the lounge in discussion while one takes notes
Photo credit: Kevin Jarrett via flickr (CC BY 2.0)

One of the first teams I led was in a school that lacked a mission or vision. It had six new initiatives in one year and nine "primary goals." Each teacher belonged to three or four different teams. There were grade-level teams, department teams, another for arts integration, another for "culture and climate," another for leadership, and many more.

At staff meetings, teams competed for time on an agenda, and teachers got frustrated because the initiative they were most passionate about had to compete with others.  

Healthy, high-performing teams of educators require a number of conditions to thrive. A team's potential for greatness depends on many factors, including the emotional intelligence of team members and the organizational conditions in the school or district that houses the team.

Let's take a look at some of these organizational conditions so that you can identify the boundaries of your sphere of influence and take strategic action when building teams.

The Primacy of Purpose

The most effective schools and organizations have a mission and vision that motivates, unifies, and guides all stakeholders in their day-to-day operations. Short- and long-term goals for the school align to the mission and vision and are regularly reflected on. The mission and vision are written in purpose statements and are visible everywhere -- on documents, walls, agendas and so on -- and, more importantly, are alive in the hearts and hands of those doing the work.

When a school has a living mission and vision, staff members feel that they are on the same page. When hard decisions need to be made, purpose (and not the wants or needs of individuals) offers direction.

When a school has a living mission and vision, each team works to fulfill some part of their prime purpose. Team members can identify the component of their mission that they're working toward and maintain a laser-like focus on it. 

Vertical and Horizontal Alignment

Teams can harness individual energies into a collective effort to meet big goals. A team that operates within a school should be aligned to that school's vision, mission, goals, and strategic plans. This could be considered vertical alignment of efforts. Teams also need to align horizontally -- what one team does needs to complement another team's work.

Reflect on these questions individually, and with your team, as you work toward naming a clear purpose for existing:

  • What piece of our school's vision are we working toward?
  • Which components of our mission are we upholding?
  • Which of our long-term or annual goals are we contributing to?
  • What specifically will this team need to do in order to move our school forward on its vision and goals?

Team members need these connections laid out. When the intersections of purpose and work become clear, team members are more likely to feel energized, motivated, and valued. They can see how their individual and collective efforts will lead to the success of a larger endeavor.  

Time Matters

The most important resource for a team is time -- time for the facilitator to prepare as well as time for teams to collaborate. Teams must meet consistently and focus their time on what matters: implementing a work plan, learning together, and building strong relationships with each other. Preserving time for teams to meet and stay focused is a battle worth fighting.

Facilitators also need time to plan and prepare. I use the ratio of one to two hours of planning and preparation time for every hour of professional development that I lead or team that I facilitate. Sometimes this ratio is much higher. 

When I work with school leaders on team development, I'm often asked, "How can we find the time to do all of this?" The challenge isn't in "finding" the time but in prioritizing how we use it.  

Reflection and Next Steps

We've just reviewed three organizational conditions of many that are necessary for teams to thrive. If you've felt frustrated with your ability to develop a team, it's worth considering the context in which you're building one. It could be that the organizational conditions are not strong enough (yet) to cultivate healthy teams.

This doesn't mean that you need to give up. It just means you might need to take some actions on an organizational level to create the conditions in which your team might thrive. If you're building a team, then you're a leader -- and effective leaders consider the entire landscape when building.