Toxic teams of educators develop for a variety of reasons that usually stem from the current cloud of paranoia, fear, and frustration enveloping public education -- but we need to fight the negativity! We're only hurting ourselves and our students.
Not Feeling the Love?
I've taught and coached at schools where the animosity between teachers is palpable. Individuals who are otherwise truly great teachers spitefully refuse to help each other or collaborate because of a variety of perceived slights, rumors, and personal judgments. They jealously guard their best lessons and strategies, convinced that their colleagues don't deserve to benefit from them.
There are no winners when teachers compete. We suffer from lack of support for each other. We lose the respect of our administrators who grapple with much larger issues. We disappoint the parents and community members who expect professionalism from their kids' teachers. Worst of all, our students are deprived of a cohesive learning environment where high expectations are the norm.
So how can teachers work together when the love is lost? How can we truly collaborate with people that, on a personal level, we would never speak with or be friends with? Do you have to "feel the love" for a team to work, as Shira Loewenstein describes (The Accidental Community: Feeling the Love), or can you collaborate effectively without it?
Preventing toxic teams from developing takes careful planning at the beginning of the school year, along with consistency and maintenance throughout the year. However, if you find yourself on a toxic team mid-year, there are steps that you can take to change the course of the team and maintain professionalism.
Prevention: How to Ward Off Toxicity in Your Team
1. Set Guidelines
Establish a list of norms and expectations for team behavior at the beginning of the year, and take turns revisiting them with conviction at the beginning of every single meeting.
2. Revisit and Revise
Open the norms and expectations for revision every quarter -- it's an opportunity for discussion and for each team member to exercise his or her voice.
3. Take Ownership
Establish a role for each team member at the beginning of the year, and switch it up quarterly. Some of these might include meeting facilitator, minutes taker, action-item tracker (keeps a spreadsheet of action items and due dates, and follows up with action-item owners), liaison (communicates with administrators on behalf of the team), researcher, snack-bringer, etc.
4. Share Your Ideas
Each team member (or pair of team members if you have a large team) should commit to setting his or her own agenda item before the beginning of the meeting and take responsibility for presenting it.
5. Make a Personal Connection
Check in at the beginning of each meeting about something positive -- put it on the agenda if you have to. Share the best part of your week, a funny moment with a student, a lesson you're proud of, etc. Make sure to celebrate your individual and group successes at every meeting. Teaching is challenging, and it's easy to focus on the negative -- make a concerted effort to share the positives, too.
Intervention: How to Change the Course of a Toxic Team
1. Don't Point Fingers
In Forbes, Kevin Kuse writes, "If you change yourself, you will change your team." If you realize that you are spinning your wheels on a toxic team, even if you aren't a team leader, you can take ownership for making it better, according to Kruse.
2. Avoid Gossip
It makes you look unprofessional, exacerbates the cycle of negativity and toxicity, and rarely solves problems.
3. Seek Help
Consult your department chair, team leader, or instructional coach for constructive advice and counsel -- they might be able to mediate, make suggestions, transform your collaborative model, and help your team get back on track.
4. Consider Alternatives
If the team truly can't collaborate face to face due to personality conflicts, consider asking your administration's permission to hold virtual meetings through email, Google docs, or an app like Padlet or Flow, where teachers write their responses to agenda items and share documents of best lessons, etc. It's not ideal, but it does provide for some communication and collaboration.
5. Be a Role Model
Contribute professionally in a way that makes you proud. Maintain your dignity. Even if you feel that others aren't stepping up, divorce yourself from an emotional response and be a good example for your students, other teachers, and administrators. It's easier said than done, but it may save your team and your professional reputation.
Improving the School Climate
As you consider all this, remember the bottom line -- there is a plethora of research out there indicating that when teachers focus on best practices, instructional strategies, data analysis, and reflection, student scores go up, the atmosphere of the school improves, and job satisfaction abounds. When teachers collaborate professionally, everyone wins.
How have cooperation and collaboration enhanced the climate at your school? Please share in the comments below.