George Lucas Educational Foundation

Solving Problems Through Teamwork and a Culture of Helpfulness

Solving Problems Through Teamwork and a Culture of Helpfulness

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Teachers working together in a library

I teach at an elementary school in a small town in the Midwest, a place where teachers and aides love to work, the administration is invested in student success and teacher satisfaction, and students enjoy coming to school. 

We have approximately 40% low-income students, a 10% mobility rate, and 4% of students speak a language other than English as their first language. Of least importance to me, we score well when compared with our state averages, the districts around us, and the other elementary schools in our district who have less diverse populations. Although no school is without problems, I realize how fortunate I am.

The Problem with Merit Pay

The people at our school work together to help our students succeed. It’s one of the reasons why I have long been opposed to merit pay for teachers. Teaching is essentially a collaborative exercise and nothing defeats collaboration as quickly and thoroughly as promoting a handful of people above the others, especially when there is no truly objective way to determine who the best teachers are. 

Is the best teacher the one with the highest test scores? Or the one who routinely volunteers to take the struggling students or those with IEPs? Is it the teacher who demonstrates the best use of technology? Or is it the one who took the time to show her colleagues a new program?

I recently watched a TED talk by Margaret Heffernan called “Forget the Pecking Order at Work.” (You can view it here.) Her talk is geared toward companies and she uses examples from software developers and theatre, but I believe the research she cites can apply to schools as well.

According to Heffernan, research shows that the most successful groups have high social sensitivity to each other, give equal time to each other (or equal standing), and include more women. Since obviously we have the third qualification all tied up in education, let’s look at the first two.

The Importance of Teamwork, Equality, and Social Sensitivity

In successful groups, members have social connections and show empathy with each other. They are receptive to the ideas of others and no one monopolizes the conversation. 

My relationship with my teaching partner is like this. She is younger and has better tech skills. I have more experience. And yet, we share lesson ideas and resources regularly. We offer each other valuable teaching techniques—mine picked up over the years, hers from her master’s classes. When we talk out issues together, we find solutions we couldn’t come to on our own.

Heffernan also says successful groups have a culture of helpfulness. Success in solving difficult problems results from many gifted minds pooling their knowledge to solve a problem. She says, “What matters is the mortar, not just the bricks,” and “conflict is frequent because candor is safe.” 

Where people feel safe in sharing ideas, there may be disagreement, but with that social connectivity, conflict is civil and respectful. The result is that individuals feel comfortable speaking up.

What this tells me is that in order to improve schools we need to create a cohesive internal community in each school, where teamwork is encouraged, relationships are forged, and ideas are shared freely. We cannot expect or allow politicians or businesses to dictate policy or put a dollar value on success. While, as a group, we want to be paid as professionals, Heffernan says, “Research shows that money erodes social capital.”

What this tells me is that merit pay defeats the purpose it was meant to support.

I realize this sounds simplistic to those dealing with far more poverty, far more violence, far more social issues than my school sees. Still, all we can control is how we react to these issues. There is power in teamwork, and social relationships can encourage teachers to stay long enough to attempt to solve problems. 

I wish you all success, teamwork, and a sense of belonging in the school you call home.


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