Effective teacher teamwork builds strong schools. Learn how to create highly functioning teams to support the success of all students in K-12 schools.
The quality of our schools is predicated on the greatness of our teachers. How do we better support teachers to significantly enhance the probability of student learning?
Strong teacher teamwork creates strong schools. This concept is the driving reason teacher learning teams that support teacher-to-teacher professional learning and collaboration are increasingly commonplace in high achieving schools. The importance of teacher teaming and learning community development certainly is not new. Countless historical quotes and proverbs fan our passions as educators to work together to grow, to enhance student learning and to support and develop our schools.
- “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” ~African Proverb
- “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” ~ Helen Keller
- “If you want to lift yourself up, lift up someone else.” ~ Booker T. Washington
- “Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is success.” ~Henry Ford
And the list goes on. Quotes and concepts touch our emotions, though they will not drive sustained efforts of teaching and learning. Effective habits, quality systems, leadership support and HARD WORK are at the foundation of effective learning and quality schools.
High Functioning Teacher Teamwork
“Well-functioning leadership and teaching teams are essential to the continuous improvement of teaching and learning. Effective teams strengthen leadership, improve teaching and learning, nurture relationships, increase job satisfaction, and provide a means for mentoring and supporting new teachers and administrators” (Sparks, 2013).
Leaders who rush to jump on best practice bandwagons often lose sight of the forest for the trees. We cannot leverage the greatness of our professional educators and our schools, without an appreciation for the merits of an individual teacher who is a pioneer versus a teacher who is stagnating in isolation. Likewise, the differences between a highly functioning team and the standard working group or committee will not be realized.
Knowing and Doing Gap
Educational leaders know that quality teams of teachers working productively together have the highest probability of supporting significant and sustained student learning, but there is a difference between knowing and doing. Doing requires action to change our behavior, creating habits to produce positive outcomes. The Doing Gap provides the realization that simply because teachers are grouped, that does not ensure a productive outcome of a high performing team (Pfeffer & Sutton, 2000). As we develop a community of learning and high performing teacher learning teams, we must “go slow to go fast.” To develop sustained success, leaders need to take time first to build new habits in developing a culture of professional relationships and true collaboration. As Abe Lincoln or an anonymous woodsman once said, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” This statement provides effective guidance on the importance of understanding that it takes time and planning to develop high functioning teams that produce dynamic student learning outcomes.
Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing
After forming the team, the process often derails for the simple fact that we did not acknowledge critical logistical planning and factors of human relationships (storming). Quality professional engagement and teaming take time and coordination. School leaders need to provide time and support for teams including common planning periods, focused expectations and a plan for conflict resolution (norming). This initial plan will include a team charter to establish authority and focus, team co-created norms, process protocols and goals, and specific leadership engagement to support the team and break down barriers to allow the team to develop and flourish as a high performing team (Tuckerman, 1965). Through the initial investment in time (going slow), high performing teams will provide exponential outcomes in efficiencies and shared responsibilities (to go fast).
Team of Teams – Tight Loose Culture
High performing self-directed teacher teams exhibit mutual respect and trust. They clearly understand and support the organizational mission, vision and values as they have had a strong voice in their creation. Functioning with passion and purpose, these teams determine their destiny, though are accountable to commonly determined outcomes. They are well connected to the leadership or steering team and other horizontal and vertical teams. This permits independence, creativity, and job satisfaction. High performing teams are tightly connected to the mission, vision and values, though have flexibility (loose) in how they achieve their goals.
But What Do Our Teams Do?
An initial team meeting lacking clear guidelines, protocols and goals most often will fill the time with rambling discussion, debate, contemplating and complaining. A clear direction with goals and protocols will move the learning team focus to professional practice (what we are doing in the classroom), to planning, coordination and alignment, development of common assessment and finally to analyzing student learning through a focused understanding of learning data. Ultimately, the teams will answer the following questions (adapted from DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, & Many, 2010):
- What is it we want our students to learn (the what)?
- What evidence-based instructional strategies will we use (the how)?
- How will we know if they are learning (assessment)?
- How will we respond when they aren’t learning (intervention)?
- How will we respond when they are learning (enrichment)?
Developing a culture of quality collaboration focused on high performing teams is evolutionary, and can produce revolutionary outcomes through adhering to the science of continuous improvement and action research. A team of teams has a razor-like collaborative focus on people, processes, systems, culture and learning. This collaborative culture of teams is transformative. It will extend to the organizational leadership process to support momentum for innovation, initiative implementation, systems and structure problem-solving, cultural enhancement, and also organizational FUN! The “team of teams” concept is unbounded in productivity and professional satisfaction and does not inhibit the power of the motivated individual teacher to pioneer, explore and develop specific research and best practice initiatives.
Teacher teamwork creates a feeling of family, inclusion and interdependence, providing a strong teacher voice and significantly extending the base of organizational leadership, accountability and momentum to our most valued educational resource – the TEACHER!
DuFour, R., DuFour, R., Eaker, R., & Many, T. (2010). Learning by doing: A handbook for professional learning communities at work. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
Pfeffer, Jeffrey and Robert Sutton. The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge into Action. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2000.
Sparks, D. (2013). Strong Teams, Strong Schools: Teacher-to-Teacher Collaboration Creates Synergy that Benefits Students. Journal of Staff Development, v34 n2 p28-30 Apr 2013
Tuckman, B. (1965). “Developmental sequence in small groups”. Psychological Bulletin. 63 (6): 384–99.