“We Are Fam-i-lee” or “Go TEAM”?

John Hattie attributes collective teacher efficacy (CTE) as the school element with the largest effect size on student achievement. CTE can happen organically but it is most likely a function of intentional behavior in a school where collaborative relationships are valued.

When faculty and staff members evolve past coexistent relationships, when they forego competitive ones, they often can embrace a norm of collaboration.

Of course, there are a lot of factors that can prevent us from collaborating:

  • Teachers have historically operated independently and we often follow the examples we’ve seen before.
  • The culture of some schools focus on comparing teachers via test scores; that can lead to competitive relationships .
  • Our teachers have limited time to spend in collaborative planning. To maximize that time, often tasks are divided and handled independently.
  • Teachers may not know how to work as a team. Administration should promote working as a team among their faculty and staff members.

When I visit a school, I ask the people who work there to tell me about it. And at nearly every place I hear multiple replies of this: We are like a family here! I always like to hear the positive sentiment they have about their workplace and the people in it, but I always wonder, wouldn’t you REALLY rather have this group function as a TEAM instead of a family? I love my family and chances are you love yours too, but that doesn’t mean that we come together in a great example of symmetry and efficiency. Sometimes we do, but sometimes each of focus on our own immediate needs; sometimes there is sibling rivalry; often there is competitiveness within.

Teams don’t just appear; they’re built.

Families aren’t always driven by logic and strategy; much of the time families can be driven by emotion. So when I hear that from faculty and staff members, I’m not sure that’s what they ought to be aiming for, but it IS often what takes place. A team operates from strategic planning. There is intentional practice, clear communication, and a focus on shared goals. For a team to be effective, its members rely on trust. Trust that the members of the team are pulling in the same direction. Trust that you are out for the good of the team and for the teammates. Teams are out for measurable success; they’re driven by strategy (distilled from data). The members of the team are committed to the team’s success.

So, how do you build a team at a school? There are a lot of ways, but all of them require intent and time. Teams don’t automatically “happen.” For example, if you put a group of individual teachers together in a grade-level team or a department, they don’t just start working together as one after introductions. In fact, my experience has shown me that without intentional effort to bring them together, they are most likely to stay apart in some fashion.

That same group of educators, if given time and the intentional processes that lead to becoming a team, might be your best example of collaboration ever.

The same is true of partnerships at the school… counselors, assistant principals, paraprofessional and classroom teacher. How about a collaborative classroom? Partnering a special education teacher with a general ed teacher (often without common planning) doesn’t reach the potential of what that team might be. If they spend time before and during their work together to become a team, they are more likely to work together as you had hoped.

What are these team-building activities? There are no specific “magical” activities that bring people together, but there are some frames on which they all seem to work best;

  • Time. For people to work together, they need to spend time together. What does time do? It builds trust. Which allows vulnerability. Which is a necessary ingredient for learning, and coming together as a team is very much a learning exercise.
  • Shared Purpose. People are willing to work with others when the work is work worth doing. It’s why the effective leader keeps her team members in sight of their purpose for being there.
  • The In-Between. A student in one of my leadership classes shared this insight about becoming a team:

The in-between for us in the school world is a hard thing to get. We barely have time for what we’re doing! Because of this, the effective team-builder dedicates time for activities that bring people together.

Principals everywhere have employed PLCs (Professional Learning Communities) as a part of their work. The PLCs that work the best are the ones that start at the right end first. Those who begin with community find the learning much more enjoyable and are more likely to engage in it. Those who go straight to the tasks without building the group together first often find that to be a missed step.

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