Teamwork Part I—Be clear about what teamwork is and why it’s important

Effective teamwork requires intention and attention by leaders to produce improvements in teaching and learning. Here members of various Edmonton (Alberta) Public Schools teams hone their leadership skills. (Photo: Dennis Sparks)

If you want to go quickly, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.

—African Proverb

You must undertake something so great that you cannot accomplish it unaided.

—Phillips Brooks

Schools rise and fall based on the quality of the teamwork that occurs within their walls. Well-functioning leadership and teaching teams are essential to the continuous improvement of teaching and learning. That is particularly true when schools have clearly-articulated, stretching aspirations for the learning of all their students. 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.

Schools will improve for the benefit of every student only when every leader and every teacher is a member of one or more strong teams that creates synergy in problem solving, provide emotional and practical support, distribute leadership to better tap the talents of members of the school community, and promote the interpersonal accountability that is necessary for continuous improvement. Such teamwork not only benefits students, it creates the “supportive leadership” and the process and time for meaningful collaboration which enable teachers to thrive and are better able to address the complex challenges of their work.

In Leading for Results (the book) I wrote: “A widely-held view of instructional improvement is that good teaching is primarily an individual affair and that principals who view themselves as instructional leaders promote it by interacting one-on-one with each teacher to strengthen his or her efforts in the classroom. The principal is like the hub of a wheel with teachers at the end of each spoke. Communication about instruction moves back and forth along the spoke to the hub but not around the circumference of the wheel.”

Such a form of instructional leadership, however, fails to tap the most important source of instructional improvement in schools—teacher-to-teacher professional learning and collaboration. “[S]ome of the most important forms of professional learning,” I observed in Leading for Results, “occur in daily interactions among teachers in which they assist one another in improving lessons, deepening understanding of the content they teach, analyzing student work, examining various types of data on student performance, and solving the myriad of problems they face each day.

Defining effective teamwork

Simply labeling a group of people a team (or a professional learning community) rather than a committee or task force does not, however, make them a genuine team. To address this issue the Rush-Henrietta Central School District near Rochester, NY developed a rubric based on Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team to enable it to better understand teamwork and to chart their progress in developing effective teams.

The Rush-Henrietta rubric lists four key characteristics: clarity of purpose, accountability, effective team structures, and trust. Each key characteristic is defined by a number of indicators. For instance, “effective team structures” includes as indicators “use protocols to help guide the group work and provide a consistent framework” and “has agreements in place that are clear, purposeful, and understood.” “Accountability” asks team members to be “committed to decisions and plans of actions” and asks them to “hold one another accountable for delivering against the plans agreed to and feels a sense of obligation to the team for its progress.”

Leading for Results “Six-Word Leadership Tool”:

Effective teamwork requires intention and persistence.

Strengthen your leadership practice by . . .

• assessing the quality of teamwork in your setting using the Rush-Henrietta “Key Characteristics of Effective Teams” rubric, the “Team Assessment” provided by Patrick Lencioni in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, or other tools you may have available to you. Better yet, to stimulate professional learning and teamwork, develop a rubric with your team using the Rush-Henrietta document as a starting point. (You may want to make separate assessments for the leadership team of which you are a part and teachers’ instructional teams, which may go by other names like “professional learning community.”)

• determining a next step to strengthen teamwork in your setting.

• developing a “six-word leadership tool” to summarize your learning or to express an action you will take as a result of this essay. Please add your tool to the comment section of this blog and share it with one or more colleagues “back home.”

5 Responses to “Teamwork Part I—Be clear about what teamwork is and why it’s important”

  1. 1 G. Michael Abbott March 15, 2010 at 10:44 am

    If every principal and superintendent in every school district read
    Sparks’ post and acted on it, education would improve dramatically.
    The first sentence, “Schools rise and fall on the quality of the
    teamwork that occurs within those walls,” nails the major problem
    with our schooa: we don’t have teamwork in most of our schools, let
    alone quality teamwork. I spent a career as a teacher in
    dysfunctional meetings in schools. The cause of the dysfunction can
    be traced to some variation of an administrator inflicting on
    teachers the latest gimmick learned at a conference. Teachers resented the implication that they were not doing their jobs well. They sat through hot-shot presentations that were unrelated to their work, wondering when they would get time to work on their lesson plans. They knew it would all go away in a week so they tuned out or actively opposed it. Teamwork should focus on the work of the teacher, and how to improve it.

    It isn’t that leaders are deliberately sabotaging education. The
    problem is that we haven’t considered process. We wanted to apply
    mostly sound ideas about education without regard to the process, which must engage the teachers. I was guilty as well until I
    left classroom teaching and attended conferences and read about how
    things could be improved. We neglected the expertise of teachers.
    Their knowledge and enthusiasm applied to their settings can greatly
    improve the lives of students, teachers, and yes, administrators.

    How do we help key people understand this and how to do this? I’ve tried and it isn’t easy.


  2. 2 Mike Phillips August 20, 2015 at 2:58 pm

    Iterative plans achieve great goals, eh.

  1. 1 Adopt “vital behaviors” « Leading for Results—Dennis Sparks' Blog Trackback on June 7, 2010 at 4:26 am
  2. 2 Teamwork Part II: Establish a clear purpose for teamwork and specify its methods « Leading for Results—Dennis Sparks' Blog Trackback on July 6, 2010 at 9:29 am

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