School Leadership

10 Truths About Building School Teams

July 24, 2015
Two teachers working side-by-side at a table covered with papers
Photo Credit: Edutopia

I've spent the last ten years serving on and attempting to build effective teams of educators -- to various degrees of success. This last year, I've been writing a lot about team development. I first articulated the following "ten truths" for myself when I coached a team some years ago.

I used these to remind myself of what it would take to build a resilient, high-performing team that worked in challenging contexts. I was hesitant to call them "truths," but these ideas have been tried and tested, and they feel truer to me than anything else when building a team. Here they are:

1. Teams that work in or with schools exist in order to serve the social, emotional, and academic needs of children.
We might have all kinds of things that we do, we may also care for the adults in the mix, but we exist to serve children.

2. Learning is the primary work of all teams.
Whether you're in a leadership team, a data team, or a curriculum design team, your work is to learn. The only way we'll make a dent in the mountain of challenges that we face in schools is if we, the educators, never stop learning.

3. Who you are as a leader has the greatest influence on a team.
Your emotional intelligence as a leader is the key knowledge and skill set from which all others emerge. Leaders must learn to recognize and manage their emotions -- and recognize and manage the emotions of others. We need to make friends with feelings. They exist. The more we battle or avoid feelings, the bigger the mess. When we meet them head on, we can make progress toward building healthy teams and meeting the needs of kids.

4. All teams exist within systems and power structures.
A team has transformational potential only with an understanding of those systems. Teams can do satisfactory work without attending to power -- but if they aspire to be transformational, team members and their leader need to hone their understanding of power and how it manifests in organizations and structures (including the team structure) in order to interrupt inequities. This is a big idea.

5. Teams thrive with trust.
With trust, a team can become a resilient community. This means that team leaders should pay close and careful attention to levels of trust, and should intentionally work to build trust. Trust is a slippery, tricky thing to build and maintain. It goes far beyond a beginning-of-the-year community-building activity. Perhaps the most strategic plan that a leader can design is one that builds trust among adults.

6. Building teams takes time.
Teams need time to develop their what, why, and how as well as to develop relationships. This is another hard truth that we can't get around: How do we find the time for all that it takes to build a team? We cut and prune other things so that we have time for building teams. There is enough time if we prioritize.

7. The health of a meeting reflects the health of the team.
You can take the pulse of a team's overall health by observing ten minutes of any meeting. If you want to strengthen a team you lead, focus on designing engaging, reflective, and meaningful meetings. Make sure that what happens is relevant. Make sure that you get feedback on your leadership. Make sure that people know what they're doing there and why they're meeting. For every hour of meeting time, you should spend two to three hours planning. (Yes, that much planning time -- that's what it takes.)

8. A team's collective emotional intelligence is the key factor in its level of performance.
I wrote about this in a previous post, The Key to Effective Teams in Schools: Emotional Intelligence.

9. Communication between team members is the thread that connects everything.
It always comes down to what we say and how we say it. But teams in schools never seem to pause and discuss the kind of communication that we aspire to have. We complain to each other off line, we bemoan the grumpy colleague or the one who dominates conversations, but we never deal with it head on. It's time. We need to address communication in teams -- down to the granular level of the words that we use with each other.

10. Conflict is natural, normal and can be healthy, but unproductive conflict needs to be managed.
And the final truth: We need to deal with conflict -- another scary elephant in the room where teams meet.

If you have a "truth" about building school teams to add to this list, I'd love to hear it. Please share in comments section below.