Why Educators Should Work in Teams | Steve Barkley

Why Teams?

The following is excerpted from an article I wrote for the InterED publication of AAIE, The Association for the Advancement of International Education: Leading with Teams: Today’s Leadership Requirement. (You can find the entire article here. )

My career as an educator was birthed, incubated, nurtured, developed and seasoned on teams. My student teaching was a year-long experience in a grade-4 classroom with a master teacher, two student teachers, a graduate assistant and visiting professors. My first year as a teacher I was on a four-teacher team with 120 grades 5-6 students in one large room. While students left early once a week to create team time, nearly all days ended with the team around a table figuring out “what happened today” and “what are we going to do tomorrow?”

After five years in that setting, I became a grade one teacher teaming with an experienced primary teacher in a double classroom. I survived the transition thanks to a team approach. We were members of a seven teacher K-1-2 team. After a few years, I became the team leader for the K-1-2 staff and joined my principal’s school leadership team. Now in weekly meetings, I learned to plan for student learning K-8 and coordinate student, teacher, parent, system needs across the school.

My last thirty plus years as a teacher and administrator trainer and consultant have been built and supported by a team of talented individuals bringing scheduling, design, art, technology, publishing, communication, travel planning, etc. — skills to create the services I provide. I have always felt that working with a team was a benefit. I believe today it is a requirement. The complexity of desired outcomes we are looking to produce can no longer be accomplished with the skills and resources of an individual. This is especially true in schools and the necessity is often multiplied in international school settings. School heads and administrators need to function as leaders of highly effective teams and support their leaders in building quality teams across the campus and community.

John Maxwell’s (2001), The 17 Indisputable Laws of Teamwork, states that teams:

  • involve more people, thus more resources, ideas, and energy than would an individual.
  • maximize a leader’s potential and minimize weaknesses.
  • decrease a leader’s exposure.
  • provide multiple perspectives on how to meet a goal and thus create several alternatives.
  • share credit for victories and the blame for losses, creating humility and authentic community.
  • keep leaders accountable for the goal. Individuals can change goals without accountability.
  • can simply do more than an individual.

This strikes me as a valuable set of benefits for making the investment in building effective teams. Most importantly for educational leaders working to transform schools: your students deserve the best you can provide and that most likely means creating high functioning teams.

Defining team

I was conducting a workshop for international school heads around leading teams when about 90 minutes into the session a head yelled out, “Oh no! My leadership team isn’t a team!” As the laughter around the room subsided, there was a realization that the head had not intended to be humorous but had shared a sudden insight out loud. My finding is that many educators have not had the team indoctrination that I experienced as I entered the field. Most educators have not really had team experiences in their work in schools. Sometimes teachers will tell me that they have strong teams in their school. When I ask them to share an example of why they say their teams are strong they tell me, “We share everything.” While sharing is nice, it is a far step from teaming. (You can find a blog on teaming vs sharing here.) I have found that what most school personnel label as teams are really franchises.

Teachers who are franchised may work together well to discuss possible solutions for a struggling student. However, when the meeting is over, it is up to the teacher of the struggling student to decide what to do. The teacher is not responsible to inform other members of her decision or the outcome. Teachers on a team will decide together the strategy to implement. The teacher serving that student is accountable to implement the plan, seek additional support from the team if needed, and report back evidence of progress or lack of progress.

Are administrators on your leadership team working in franchised silos where they support each other but do not share responsibility for each other’s success? Or, do they function as team members, who are vulnerable, informing colleagues of where they are short of meeting desired outcomes and asking for commitment from colleagues to solve the problem as the team’s problem? I have frequently consulted in schools where administrators individually shared with me struggles they had in meeting desired outcomes, but when I tried to facilitate a team problem solving session, none of the earlier problems I heard are presented. The heads of those schools are not leading teams.

Consider the various groups that meet together at your school. Which meetings are individuals spending time together without a clear understanding why they are together? Which meetings are friendly and often productive franchises that support the individual doing her job after the meeting? Which meetings are teams with shared goals, commitment and accountability to each other for the goals to be met? Transformation will require teams.

[Maxwell, J. (2001). The 17 indisputable laws of teamwork: Embrace them and empower your team. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc.]

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One Response to “ Why Teams? ”

  1. Michael Chirichello Says:

    Hey Steve, enjoyed reading about your early experiences at the school where I served as principal/super for 13 years. My tenure missed yours but we are still acquainted- on the www.

    I too gave a session in a very large district with 100 principals present. After the day was over, the assistant super who invited me said the same – I guess we thought we had teams in our schools but, by and large, we have groups.

    Highly effective teams support collective efficacy (EL, March 2018) and have the best effect size for influencing student achievement (1.57). Guess what comes in last for influencing student acheivement? It’s homework!

    Enjoy reading your blogs. Perhaps we will meet in person one of these days.

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