Archive for the 'Teamwork' Category

Skillful leadership


Early in my professional development career I spent a great deal of time talking with teachers about teaching. I enjoyed those conversations except when…

Teachers were angry, cynical, or otherwise emotionally unsuited to have such conversations. Without exception, those teachers were…

Poorly led. They were poorly led by principals or system administrators or union leaders. Or all three. Over time that led me to…

Focus my work on leaders, particularly principals and teacher leaders because their skillful leadership was essential to meaningful teacher professional learning, particularly the kind of professional learning that would benefit all students in all classrooms.

School leaders to a very large degree determine:

• The emotional tone of a school.

• Whether the school’s culture focuses on the continuous improvement of teaching and learning for all students or on maintaining the status quo.

• Whether teachers primarily work in isolation or benefit from strong, effective teamwork.

What is your experience? Is it possible to have continuous improvements in teaching and learning for all students without skillful leadership?

Deep work


A man sits alone in a courtyard with a pad of paper in front of him.

He writes and then pauses, looking off into space. He writes again.

As I watched I realized that those are the essential ingredients of “deep work” – solitude, a process that allows us to externalize, clarify, and elaborate our thinking (in this case, writing); thinking about what we think (metacognition); and then beginning the cycle again. Deep work is essential in classrooms and meeting rooms. It is also an essential ingredient of professional development that leads to professional learning.

Because focused conversation enables us to externalize, clarify, and elaborate our thinking, it is important that schools provide generous opportunities for well-designed group work in classrooms and among teachers.

But it is also important that schools value the solitary activities that are often a prerequisite to the deep work that is the foundation of meaningful learning, teaching, and school leadership.

Schools are intensely interpersonal


“[T]he transmission of knowledge is not done in a vacuum. The quality and influence of relationships has a tremendous influence on how and what is shared, and with whom.”

Tarsi Dunlop

Schools are intensely and unrelentingly interpersonal. That’s why the continuous improvement of teaching and learning requires strong relationships founded on trust.

And that’s also why “reforms” predictably fail when they are based primarily on technical remedies such as high-stakes testing and poorly-designed teacher evaluation systems.

A recent study supports those conclusions:

“What we have found over and over again is that, regardless of context, organizational success rarely stems from the latest technology or a few exemplary individuals.

“Rather, it is derived from: systematic practices aimed at enhancing trust among employees; information sharing and openness about both problems and opportunities for improvement; and a collective sense of purpose….”

High-quality teaching and learning for all students requires that administrators and teacher leaders develop school cultures that have at their core high levels of integrity, mutual respect, and trust, attributes that are challenging to cultivate and even more challenging to sustain.

Leaders who ignore this challenge or minimize its demands will fail in their most important responsibility—the creation of school communities in which everyone thrives, no matter their age or role.

Beliefs matter


Beliefs matter because they have a profound and often invisible effect on what teachers and administrators say and do each day.

Beliefs are also habitual, which means they are often applied to new situations without a full understanding of their consequences.

My three previous posts addressed professional learning, school culture, and teamwork, each of which has implicit beliefs that channel them in productive or unproductive ways.

For example:

• If school leaders believe that good teachers are born, not made, high-quality professional learning will have a low priority.

• If school leaders believe that new ideas and research-based practices should be sufficiently compelling in themselves for their full adoption, they will ignore the influence of school culture on innovation.

• If school leaders believe that professional learning and instructional improvement are the sole responsibility of teachers, they will fail to create the necessary structures and incentives that enable strong teamwork.

Left unexamined and unaltered, some beliefs may have a profound negative effect on student learning.

Here are several such beliefs I proposed in a previous post:

• Some students cannot be expected to learn very much because of their families, economic status, or race.

• Teaching is delivering, “telling,” and performing. Leadership is directing and motivating.

• Because teaching is telling/performing, content is “delivered,” leadership is directing, and the primary challenge of leadership is motivating teachers, continuous improvement results from telling/delivering/directing/motivating.

• Most significant questions and problems of teaching and learning have one right answer, and an “expert” knows it.

• The best means of “delivering” professional development “content” is through speakers, workshops, and courses. PowerPoints are essential to such delivery.

• It takes years to make significant and demonstrable improvements in the quality of professional learning, teaching, and student achievement.

Another example is leaders’ beliefs regarding teachers’ capacity for growth, which I wrote about here:

“Just as it’s essential for principals and teacher leaders to believe that student learning can be improved by skillful teaching, it’s essential that principals and teacher leaders believe that through well-designed professional development and teamwork virtually all teachers can become effective, if not masterful.

“Believing in the capacity of students to learn at higher levels without a parallel belief in the capacity of teachers to successfully teach them — given appropriate support — can only lead to frustration and failure.”

Yet another example is leaders’ beliefs regarding the qualities that are important in new teachers, a subject I address here.

(Other posts on the subject of teaching can be found here.)

Administrators and teacher leaders are not powerless to affect colleagues’ beliefs. In a post on “frames” I wrote:

“Put simply, frames are the mental frameworks we use to think about things. Our thinking, and hence our ability to change, is limited by these deeply rooted, beneath-the-surface systems of beliefs and ideas. While difficult to dispel, frames can be changed. The process begins with awareness of the dominant frame and its influence on practice and the ability to conceptualize alternative frames that better serve student learning.”

In that post I suggested two frames that I believe interfere with change and offer alternative ways to conceptualize them.

I closed that post by inviting readers to identify an existing frame that may be unconsciously preserving the status quo in in their setting.

I encourage you to do the same.

Teamwork matters


For the past decade or longer “teamwork,” “collaboration,” and “professional learning communities” have been advocated by almost every knowledgable person who favors continuous improvement in teaching and learning.

It simply makes sense that a school community is stronger when its members work together.

While creating truly interdependent teams is demanding, it is an essential responsibility for school leaders who desire quality teaching for all students every day.

Building strong teams is demanding because many teachers were either attracted to teaching because of its perceived independence or were hired into schools where they seldom worked with other adults.

An important first step for leaders who wish to strengthen teamwork is creating clarity within the school community about the qualities that distinguish a team from other groups, such as departments or committees, which may or may not function as teams.

Here’s a post that addresses this confusion by providing a rubric used by the Rush-Henrietta Schools in New York that lists four key characteristics of teamwork: clarity of purpose, accountability, effective team structures, and trust.

“‘Each key characteristic,’ the rubric explains, ‘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.’”

Teamwork requires that productive relationships not only be developed but that they be sustained over time in the face of the predictable challenges that confront all long-term relationships.

In a post on managing inevitable dips in relationships I observed that:

“Things start out strong, with everyone seemingly committed and energized, only to have that commitment and energy fall off over time.”

In that post I proposed “five fundamental questions” that teams should ask and answer if they are to perform well over time. I encourage you to think deeply about your responses to those questions.

Leaders obviously play a key role in developing supportive and productive relationships. In a post on that subject, I noted:

“Strong teams are the foundation of school cultures infused with interpersonal accountability, experimentation, and the continuous improvement of teaching and learning. Effective teamwork requires that leaders do three things:

1. Believe in the importance of teamwork. Teamwork is based on the assumption that the school community can accomplish more when its members work together than alone. If leaders don’t truly believe that teams are the building blocks of continuous improvement, “teamwork” will be perfunctory, at best.

2. Have a deep understanding of the attributes of effective teamwork. Strong teamwork begins with principals and teacher leaders understanding the qualities that distinguish effective from ineffective teams and from other task-related groups in schools.

3. Have a plan to continuously improve the functioning of teams. Planning begins with a clear sense of the current functioning of each team and of its next level of development.”

You can see more posts about teamwork here.

8 “trim tabs” to significantly improve performance

Dennis Sparks

Some things leaders do matter a lot more than others. However, exactly what those activities are may vary from setting to setting.

Determining the best mix of high-impact activities comes from:

  • reflecting on experiences,
  • conversations with colleagues,
  • and professional reading, among other sources.

Peter Senge’s book, The Fifth Discipline, introduced me to the metaphor of the “trim tab.” Senge wrote:

“[S]mall, well-focused actions can sometimes produce significant, enduring improvements, if they’re in the right place. System thinkers refer to this principle as ‘leverage.’ Tackling a difficult problem is often a matter of seeing where the high leverage lies, a place which – with a minimum of effort – would lead to lasting, significant improvement.”

Here are my suggestions for administrators and teacher leaders regarding areas of particularly high impact. (Please note that none require additional financial resources.)

1. Having integrity, in particular consistently keeping promises and telling one’s truth.

2. Having crucial, often difficult conversations (closely linked to #1). Whenever possible, those conversations will be based on evidence.

3. Participating in high-functioning teams (or PLCs or “communities of practice”) rather than working in isolation. Teamwork is not only important for all teachers but for administrators and teacher leaders as well.

4. Consistently applying “next action thinking.” Always know the specific next action that you will take at the conclusion of a meeting or learning experience.

5. Developing and consistently applying high levels of emotional intelligence, particularly empathy (seeking first to understand, which has committed listening at its core).

6. Having a growth mindset that underscores the importance of effort and persistence as well as “intelligence.”

7. Saying “I don’t know” when you don’t.

8. Practicing new skills in public settings so that others appreciate and understand the challenges and risks that typically accompany important professional learning. There are few things more influential than leaders doing what they ask others to do.

What high-leverage activities would you add to this list?

At school, everyone’s job is to learn

Dennis Sparks

“At school, everyone’s job is to learn” has been a Learning Forward motto for many years.

It reminds us that continuous improvement in student learning requires that teachers, principals, and system leaders learn. Such learning is both team based and individualized.

That’s what it means to be a “learning organization.”

At school it’s everyone’s job to learn everyday by:

• reflecting on the effectiveness of his or her work, using various sources of evidence, and

• by engaging with colleagues to improve it.

In learning-focused schools, teachers and administrators:

• learn from students,

• learn from colleagues, and

• learn from supervisors.

What essential sources of professional learning have I missed?

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