What’s the rationale for teachers working together?

Teachers pursuing ambitious goals can achieve more working together due to synergy and mutual assistance than the sum total of those same individuals working alone. That’s the rationale for professional learning communities and other forms of teamwork.

There are a couple of requirements for successful teamwork, though. First, the goal must be sufficiently ambitious and stretching that it requires meaningful collaboration and interdependence to achieve it. And second, it is essential that participants work effectively together, which may require learning, lots of practice, and more than a few candid conversations. Neither requirement can be met, however, without skillful leadership by principals and teacher leaders.

Unfortunately, far too many meetings—team meetings and otherwise—remain activities in search of a purpose because those requirements are not met.

What’s on your mind?

• What’s your experience with teamwork in which participants truly rely on one another to accomplish more than they could alone?


8 Responses to “What’s the rationale for teachers working together?”

  1. 1 Deb C November 28, 2012 at 7:35 am

    When I worked in Washtenaw County, I saw teacher collaboration (PLCs) work very well in one district. The leadership, at the time, was skillful in bringing people together with very clear goals and time was given to study student achievement results across all schools. There was some positive movement in student achievement, but the leader left the district and I’m not sure if the PLC structure remained in place.

    In my work, I see federal and state mandates (embedded in, for example, Focus and Priority schools work) narrow the focus of (ambitious?) goals. As a state, Michigan was making strides to move continuous improvement from compliance to collaborative practice. But with the “waiver” and teacher evaluation changes, we have abruptly turned back to compliance with the ambitious goal of staying off a Focus or Priority school designation list.

    • 2 Dennis Sparks November 28, 2012 at 8:19 am

      Thanks for your comment, Deb. I, too, have watched schools and school systems loose focus with a change in leadership. I’ve also observed a loss of skillfulness and resourcefulness. On the other hand, I’ve observed new leaders create focus, develop teamwork, and tap into a school community’s strengths to achieve important goals.

  2. 3 Kim November 28, 2012 at 9:30 pm

    There are so many ways that a team can fail: scheduling conflicts, poor listening skills, lack of a focus or goal, no structure, distraction with labour issues, etc. Leaders who are looking to get something accomplished count on the staff who volunteer (or whom the leader invites) to step up and try.
    Dennis, you mention candid conversations and I’m not 100% sure what you mean by that, but today a team member shared his experiences with our group, and rather than get side tracked and going on a rant about how the system is broken, the team used this personal example as a catalyst for reaching further.
    We were able to identify a shared vision of our “utopia” in the area we were contemplating, and then to follow through on the next steps of our plan to eventually effect the change we imagine.
    We heard, we listened, we linked the experience to our area of study, and we were inspired to act!

    • 4 Dennis Sparks November 28, 2012 at 9:41 pm

      By candid conversation I meant teachers and others sharing forthrightly their points of view with one another about important subjects that affect students when it may have been easier to remain silent. Such candor, while sometimes feels risky, can energize a group in the way you described in your comment. Without it, teams often flounder and students suffer.

  3. 5 Tom November 29, 2012 at 11:16 am

    It seems to me that the most successful collaborations that I have seen, and on occasion had a part in, had one thing in common – continual attention to the process. Attention to the outcomes of collaboration is of course important, but without continuous monitoring and reaffirmation of the process the group can lose focus easily. In that regard group leadership can be like the guy on the Ed Sullivan show (I’m giving away my age) who balanced plates on sticks. He managed to get a dozen plates spinning all at once, but only by going back and forth stirring each stick. He knew immediately that if he didn’t do that the plate would crash, often taking another with it. Just because we have teachers who are successful, be can’t ignore them or their needs is we want the collaboration to continue “spinning along.” PS Some plates did crash, but being goal oriented he grabbed another and started again. Just because our groups, or individuals within them, may struggle, we shouldn’t give up on them.

    • 6 Dennis Sparks November 29, 2012 at 11:46 am

      Thanks for your insightful comment, Tom. Teams that are struggling may indicate that it’s important for leaders to rededicate themselves to the process and increase their investment in it. In addition, the struggle may lead to important professional learning.

  4. 7 Kent Peterson November 30, 2012 at 12:44 pm

    Teamwork is such an important piece of strong school cultures. When teamwork is successful, it builds a culture of collaboration and cohesion. When teamwork becomes simply “groupwork” it can damage the positive sides of a culture.

  5. 8 Dennis Sparks November 30, 2012 at 2:18 pm

    Or even worse, when “teamwork” becomes busywork to be checked off as completed even though it is a meaningless, unproductive activity.

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