The title for this blog emerged when I listened to a Future Ready podcast with Superintendent Matt Miller from Lakota Local School District, Liberty Township, Ohio. Matt started and ended his comments pointing to the collaborative spirit that was critical to solving the initial problems of meeting students’ physical and emotional needs (providing meals) and continuously improving the remote learning that has been occurring across the weeks. I have been identifying and encouraging a focus on teamwork as I interact with educators from around the world. Can we recognize how collaboration has empowered us and hold on to it as the school doors open. Will we act crisis-like in non-crisis times?
“There’s always an opportunity with crisis. Just as it forces an individual to look inside himself, it forces a company to reexamine its policies and practices.”
— Judy Smith
I have found the work of Margaret J. Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers in A Simpler Way helpful in analyzing key elements of teaming that emerge under crisis conditions and need to be a conscious focus when the crisis has passed. They identify three focus points for effective teams:
- Flow of information throughout the team.
- Rich and diverse relationships among the team members and with the broader community.
- A common vision that unites the team.
When the three elements of information flow, relationships, and vision are present, the payoff is creativity that produces ideas and possibilities to advance toward the goals of the team.
Experimentation and risk taking with the new ideas produce new information, or new relationships and a tightened or broadened vision, pushing the team to continuous improvement or transformation.
When thrown into the closing of school buildings with very little notice, school employees in every department pulled together to meet the immediate needs of students, which in many systems was providing meals that many students usually received at school (a common vision). Kitchen staffs, bus drivers, central office staff, teachers, custodians, and in some cases community volunteers planned and worked together to meet the needs. Titles, positions, and egos put aside allowed for problem-solving and teamwork execution. In some systems computers were boxed up and delivered by teachers and bus drivers to students’ homes.
As student learning moved into homes where parents were also quarantined and in many cases working from home as they handled childcare and worked to support their children’s learning, the need for increased communication between home and school surfaced. Many principals began weekly newsletters along with surveys to gather parents’ experiences and insights. Principals held “coffee meetings” on Zoom where over a hundred parents joined. This compared to coffee meetings historically held at school with 15 parents participating. Some schools had school support staff placing phone calls to parents just to check in. Listening was key. Note that Wheatley and Kellner-Rogers use the term “information flow.” Information moves among and throughout the entire organization and community.
Many teachers during this time put more requests for feedback out to students. Asking students to play a role in teacher decision-making regarding how to modify the teaching process. Teacher Deborah Cote @DebbieCote1 shared the following on Twitter: “Best day of Distance Learning! Spoke to many students on the phone. Tech support and personal connection. So happy-they said: ‘I feel better just hearing your voice! You made our class so special; I miss school!’ Music to my ears! Yes, it takes all day, I can’t wait to do the rest.”
Relationships develop as individuals are in the flow of information and connected around a common vision. Jenny Killion, an instructional coach at American School of Barcelona shared the following as we discussed the role of PLCs in the current virtual environment:
Our middle school science team met and looked at student survey data. We had sent out a survey to students after the first week of virtual school with questions like: “Is the amount of work that my teachers provide just right, too little, too much? Is it challenging, too challenging just right, not difficult enough?” And things like that. We were able to look, as a team, at that data and figure out: What can we celebrate? What are we going to try to adjust? It was an amazingly rich conversation considering we’ve just been trying this for a little while. That idea of, let’s look at data. What are kids telling us? How are we going adjust our instruction? And then next time we talk, let’s see how it went. (Interview Podcast with Jenny)
When common vision, information flow and rich diverse relationships are in place, teams generate creative solutions and experimentation that move us into not only survival but often improvement and transformation. Matt Miller described Equity as an issue that has been highlighted during the crisis. Can we use the same crisis-like teamwork to tackle issues of equity and other concerns around schools, teaching, and learning that emerge during this time of crisis, as school doors open?