Archive for the 'Teamwork' Category

Ch. 9: We built it, but will they come?

hope noun
/hōp/
a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen

In the summer of 1972 our team of four relatively young and inexperienced (although we didn’t see ourselves that way at the time) high school teachers was given the opportunity to design an alternative high school, which would later be known by the acronym ALPHA (Alternative Learning Program for the High School Age). (See previous post for more details.)

In the design we would present to the school board, students would be offered a variety of learning options, including independent study with the guidance of an adult, usually a teacher or other expert in the subject matter. They could also attend one or more carefully-selected traditional high school classes with the permission of their schools.

In addition, students would be required each semester as a group to select, plan, and implement a community service project.

One of the few “givens” as we began our planning was that half of our students would be those removed from two traditional high schools because of chronic attendance problems, which meant they would likely bring with them a host of negative attitudes about learning, school, and themselves.

We wanted to balance their views by recruiting other students who were academically capable and efficacious and who would be attracted by ALPHA’s unique learning opportunities. 

To that end we incorporated into our design a daily 2-hour required “workshop” in which groups of 20 would meet for academic and personal goal setting and planning, the identification of strengths, the clarification of values, and the teaching of various interpersonal skills essential to success in school and beyond.

We believed that these skills would also enable students to trust and support one another and, when appropriate, to confront their peers’ self-defeating behavior.

We would start small, which meant 40 students, half of whom would have attendance problems and the other half selected by a lottery because we believed that this school would attract a wide-variety of students who would far exceed in number the slots we had allocated for them.

While at the time we didn’t realize it, we had created a school that in many respects would have pleased John Dewey based on this description by Larry Cuban:

“The Dewey Lab School was committed to active, social, and individualized learning–all without laptops and tablets. Organizing the school day into group and individual projects located inside and outside the rooms of the school under the guidance of teachers, John and Alice Dewey believed that education needed to balance children’s interests with disciplinary knowledge. Such an education was instrumental to building a strong democracy and would lead to positive societal change.”

In August the Board of Education approved our plan, and immediately we had to make our first important decision—who among the four of us would be the two teachers to initially staff the school.

We were all surprised to learn that all of us for various reasons wanted to stay in our current teaching positions. For me, teaching psychology to seniors, which was how I spent most of my day, was a dream job.

Finally, two of us (me and a teacher from the other high school) succumbed to the reality that if we didn’t volunteer for this new and uncertain assignment the school would not open and our summer’s work would be for naught.

There would, however, prove to be unknown and unintended consequences in accepting the position that would affect both my personal and professional lives for decades to come. I’ll have much more to say about that in the near future.

But in the fall of 1972 I could only see the challenges that lie immediately ahead, challenges that would stretch me in both expected and unexpected ways.

The first of those was implementing what we had created, which meant coming to terms with what the plan would require of us in the weeks and months ahead.

Have you ever accepted, perhaps with ambivalence, a new position that stretched you in both expected and unexpected ways, and, if so, with what consequence?

[This post is one in a series from a memoir titled, “It Might Have Been Otherwise.”]

Ch. 6: Crossing the line into controversy

con·tro·ver·sy noun
/ˈkäntrəˌvərsē/
disagreement, typically when prolonged, public, and heated

Civil Rights issues and the Vietnam War dominated the 1960s and early 1970s.

Sit-ins and other protests and white backlash to them led the evening news.

The 1967 Detroit “riot,” or “insurrection,” occurred just a year before I began teaching in a primarily white suburban Detroit high school.

And in the early 1970s a federal court was deciding whether the school districts of Detroit and its suburbs would be racially integrated by involuntary busing. Some white parents and others protested, and school buses were burned in one community.

With that backdrop, the high school in which I taught decided to offer a pilot course called “Minority Group Relations,” and teachers were recruited to teach it.

I don’t recall if I volunteered or was “recruited,” but I soon found myself with another inexperienced teacher team teaching a course which had no predetermined curriculum and for which we had no professional preparation.

Because the course was widely perceived to be as much a “rap group” as an academically rigorous course of study, teachers, counselors, and students saw it as appropriate for a wide range of students.

That meant the course enrolled students of varied academic ability and views on emotionally-charged issues. 

It was clear from the beginning that free wheeling discussions uninformed by reading and study of the issues we were discussing would lead, at best, to the sharing of ignorance and, at worse, to unproductive name calling.

Once the course began we tried to identify student interests to which we could attach the academic content while simultaneously developing awareness of the broadness of the term “minority,” which in the minds of many students referred exclusively to race.

To that end we frequently invited guest speakers to talk about their experiences, a net we cast quite widely to include a rabbi, representatives of the Detroit Hare Krishna Temple, and a Black power speaker, among others.

These guest speakers, however, sometimes took us into the new and unfamiliar realm of public controversy that extended beyond our classrooms.

And because we were new to teaching, our schools, and our community, we didn’t always know when we were crossing the line, although whenever possible we sought to use the intended or unintended controversy as a just-in-time teaching tool.

Once, I recall, a student told her parents about an upcoming speaker, which caused the alarmed parents to call the superintendent. That a parent could and would talk with the superintendent of a large school system was a surprise to me, as was his response that the student didn’t have to attend the class, and, if she did, she could bring a tape recorder to share the content with her parents.

We told the speaker he was being recorded, and while the presentation and discussion were lively, it drew no further scrutiny from the parent or superintendent. 

There were few schools then, and are probably fewer now, where teachers would have that degree of freedom in raising potentially controversial issues with students. 

And then and now many new teachers, like myself, are likely unaware and often naive about how what they do each day fits into the larger social and political context of their community and the larger world.

It was my first, but not last, encounter with controversy and the politics of teaching and of public education.

Looking back now I can see that “inventing” was emerging as an important theme during my first years of teaching—inventing the content of an already established psychology course with no prescribed curriculum and then the creation of a new and controversial course, Minority Group Relations.

These experiences, however, proved to be just a practice run for inventing a new school that would stretch me and several colleagues well beyond what we could have imagined when we accepted the invitation to participate.

But first there was yet another important lesson for me to learn that would inform the inventing of a new school and much of the remainder of my career. More about that next time….

What themes ran through your early years of teaching, and what impact did they have on your career?

[This post is one in a series from a memoir titled, “It Might Have Been Otherwise.”]

Ch. 5: Learning to collaborate

col·lab·o·rate verb
/kəˈlabəˌrāt/
work jointly on an activity, especially to produce or create something

I don’t remember the details of the conversation.

I only remember that the three of us were sitting in a small conference room adjacent to a teacher workroom. We were planning lessons for the upcoming week for the 10 or more sections of the psychology course we collectively taught.

I had been intuitively drawn to this high school because of the opportunity it provided for the flexibility of modular scheduling and the collaboration of team teaching, although I knew little about either.

Modular scheduling involved teaching different groupings of students on different days for different purposes. That meant we worked with various sized groups across a weekly schedule.

Team teaching simply meant that two or more teachers who taught the same subject would together plan lessons, design tests, review the progress we were making, and share teaching responsibility when our sections of 30 or so students were combined for weekly large-group lectures.

Teachers’ offices were in the Social Studies Resource Center where students could come for source materials and individualized assistance.

Unfortunately, I had not experienced team teaching nor modular scheduling as a student, and I had not learned about navigating their unique challenges in my undergraduate teacher preparation courses. 

My high school required that new teachers teach in a traditional way their first semester to get their teaching feet beneath them before adding the complexity of team teaching and working with various-sized groups.

From that semester onward for the next 10 years I never worked alone, which meant I never experienced the professional isolation that is a part of many teachers’ work lives.

And because from the beginning of my career I worked closely with others in the give-and-take relationships that team teaching required, I never feared the loss of autonomy that many teachers associate with such cooperative arrangements.

Teacher evaluation at that time involved an annual visit by the principal or assistant principal who had had no prior experience with the unique challenges of team teaching and modular scheduling, which meant we were assessed by a traditional checklist during the lessons we taught individually to our own sections of the course. In addition, because our evaluators had little understanding of the subject matter we were teaching, the observation and resulting conversation were superficial and generally unhelpful.

To a large extent my first years of teaching required learning to work in productive ways with colleagues and students and becoming more fluent with the content that I taught.

And, too soon, I had to learn to work with controversy within the broader political context of the late 1960s, a responsibility for which I felt particularly ill prepared.

As a beginning teacher, did you work alone or closely with others? What were the benefits and drawbacks of how you learned to teach and work with others?

[This post is one in a series from a memoir titled, “It Might Have Been Otherwise.”]

Addressing the “final 2%”

Learning produces physical change in the brain. —James Zull

I once read a critique of strategic planning that said it too often failed in its “final 2%,” that is, the part of the plan during which new ideas and practices are implemented by the people who do the frontline work of the organization.

That critique seemed equally valid for large-scale efforts to improve professional learning in schools.

Here’s a metaphor that may be helpful:

Imagine the United States investing trillions of dollars on a new and massive interstate highway system. 

Imagine all the time and energy and resources required to create legislation to authorize and fund the project and to pay engineers to design it and surveyors to lay out its course. Land would have to be purchased, contractors selected, and the roadway constructed.

Now imagine after years of planning and construction, the highway is complete, east to west and north to south in every state in the land.

But only one thing is missing—the off-ramps into the tens of thousands of towns it bypasses. It is essentially a highway to nowhere.

Those off-ramps are the final 2% of the highway project, the part that if not successfully executed negates the value of all that preceded it.

Like the first 98% of the illustrative highway system, schools and schools systems do a great many things in the name of professional development that may be important and even essential but in and of themselves do not affect learning and relationships in schools. 

Among these activities are establishing policies, forming planning committees, creating new positions, hiring individuals to fill those positions, and adapting union contracts to promote professional learning.

Unfortunately, leaders are often so exhausted by these activities that little energy remains for the most demanding work of all—implementing the new ideas and practices that are the final 2%.

In addition, leaders may underestimate the demands of designing and conducting the cluster of sufficiently robust learning activities that, as Zull points out, literally change the brains of teachers and administrators for the purpose of continuously improving teaching and learning.

These activities engage teachers and school leaders in solving challenging problems within the unique context of their schools and deepening their understanding of new practices.

The final 2% also includes the day-to-day demanding work of principals and teacher leaders in shaping school culture, meeting by meeting and conversation by conversation. These activities address the interpersonal challenges of leadership—the unpredictable and often emotionally-laden experiences that have a significant effect on human performance and relationships.

Four particularly powerful learning processes—speaking and listening with the intention to learn, reading, writing, and having critical conversations—are fundamental in both promoting professional learning and in creating cultures of continuous improvement.

While speaking isn’t often thought of as a source of learning for the speaker, teachers and school leaders can learn from their own speaking when they pay close attention to both their own words (a kind of metacognition in which the speaker monitors his or her own thinking for confusion, unexamined assumptions, and logical inconsistencies) and the effects those words have on others. 

Committed, attentive listening by educators deepens their understanding of the subject at hand and the perspectives of others. It is also an essential first step in influencing the views of others, an orientation that Stephen Covey described as “seek first to understand.”

Careful reading promotes educators’ learning as they make comparisons with what they already understand and believe, raise new questions for exploration, and thoughtfully consider implementation challenges. Such reading enables leaders to be engaged with the minds of individuals they may never meet. 

Because writing is thought made visible, it promotes learning by enabling teachers and school leaders to refine and examine the logical consistency of their ideas and to determine the most concise and precise means for their expression. Journal writing and blogging are two common and especially powerful means for such reflection. And blogging also enables leaders to open their minds to the perspectives of readers who offer their views in response.

Critical conversations are the means by which respect and civility are practiced, trust is established, diverse perspectives are shared, and cultures shifted. Without them, it is impossible to initiate and sustain continuous improvement efforts.

The goal of these learning activities is to produce complex, intelligent behavior in all teachers and leaders, to enhance professional judgment, and to create school cultures that enable quality teaching for the benefit of all students.

In your experience, what activities produce lasting and meaningful change in the brains of educators and in their professional relationships?

The attributes of resilient people

Resilience is something we learn through adversity. We apply those beliefs and skills, in turn, when we face new adversity.

Here is my list of attributes, from March 2017, that support resilient people during difficult times.

“6 Cs of Resilience”

I offer the “6 Cs of resilience” to stimulate your thinking and perhaps guide your actions: 

Clarity about values, ideas, goals, and strategies to accomplish those goals. Such clarity will come in and out of focus and require fresh thinking when circumstances change within and around us.

Commitment to persist through difficult times. Resilience sometimes requires doing the thing we don’t want to do but that we know is important.

Communication that seeks first to understand and that is both respectful and assertive. Such communication is particularly challenging when people vigorously disagree with us by asserting values and positions that we believe are irrational and even immoral. 

Community to gain clarity, support, guidance, inspiration, and the power of collective action when we are addressing powerful social and economic forces. Dialogue created in community can also help us find and maintain clarity.

Courage to do what is uncomfortable and even frightening. Courage is not the absence of fear, but instead acting in its presence. As someone once said, “Feel the fear and do it anyway.” 

Care, beginning with self-care. Self-care means making our physical, emotional, and spiritual health a priority because if we don’t care for ourselves the other Cs will be difficult if not impossible to achieve. Care also includes, of course, respect for others, particularly those with whom we most strongly disagree.

No matter our starting place, the “6Cs” enable us to take well-considered stands about things that are significant to us and to join with others to achieve what we cannot accomplish alone.

Which of the Cs is most important for you at this particular moment in time? What would you add to this list?

What leaders can do to ensure strong teamwork

One of a leaders’ most important responsibilities is to ensure strong teamwork within the school community.

This post from February 2013 lists three “essentials” for the development and maintenance of effective teams.

Effective teamwork requires that leaders do 3 things

Strong teams are the 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.

The Rush-Henrietta School District near Rochester, New York developed a helpful rubric that explains the attributes of effective teams and what they look like in practice. A more complete explanation of the three requirements discussed above and the Rush-Henrietta rubric can be found here. 

Question: What has your experience taught you about effective teamwork and how to develop and support it?

What to do when relationships “run off the rails”

Relationships ebb and flow over time. 

The quality of the work that is accomplished within a team or an organization if often determined by how relationships are managed, an issue I addressed in February 2014.

How to manage the inevitable dips in relationships

There’s never been a relationship that didn’t start off strongly and that didn’t then run off the rails at some stage. This is actually not the problem. This is just life. Success for you lies in managing these dips when they occur…. It’s about laying foundations for resilient relationships from the very start. – Michael Bungay Stanier

In “Building Resilient Relationships,” a chapter in Maximize Your Potential: Grow Your Expertise, Take Bold Risks & Build an Incredible Career, Michael Bungay Stanier recommends “social contracting” as a means for managing these inevitable relationship dips.

Stanier is describing a problem that is common and vexing for school-based teams or Professional Learning Communities. Things start out strong, with everyone seemingly committed and energized, only to have that commitment and energy fall off over time.

“At the heart of social contracting,” Stanier says, “is spending time upfront talking about the How – the relationship and how we’ll work together – rather than being seduced by the What, the excitement and urgency of the content…. Just understanding that you should talk about the How will immediately make a difference in your working relationships.”

Stanier proposes five fundamental questions that such teams should ask and answer:

1. What do you want? (Here’s what I want.) “This is a question that almost always stops people in their tracks,” Stanier writes. “It’s deceptively difficult to answer and incredibly powerful when you can clearly define what exactly it is you want from this relationship.”

2. Where might you need help? (Here’s where I’ll need help.) “This turns the ‘What do you want?’ question over and comes at it from a different angle,” Stanier says.

3. When you had a really good working relationship in the past, what happened? (Here’s what happened for me.) “Tell a story,” Stanier recommends, “of a time when you were in a working relationship similar to this one, and it was good, really good. What did they do? What did you do? What else happened?”

4. When things go wrong, what does that look like on your end? How do you behave? (Here’s how I behave.) Stanier again recommends telling a story, “this time of when a working relationship like this one failed to soar.” 

He also recommends articulating missed opportunities, unilateral actions you are likely to take when things start going wrong, and your own “hot buttons” that get you going.

5. When things go wrong – as they inevitably will – how shall we manage that? “Things will go wrong,” Stanier says. “Honeymoons end. Promises get broken, expectations don’t get met. By putting that on the table, you’re able now to discuss what the plan will be when it goes wrong.”

Stanier  concludes: ”[B]y asking these questions you now have permission to acknowledge the situation between you both when things get off track (as they inevitably will…). If you’re just beginning a new working relationship, then you’re in the perfect place to build in resilience through social contracting right now.”

About relationships that have already begun, Stanier says, “… you’re also in the perfect place to build in resilience. Step back for a moment from the What you’re absorbed with, and invite them to have a conversation with you about the How.”

What has been your experience in addressing early in the life of a team the common relationship issues that are likely to arise? And what challenges have you faced in making explicit those understandings by establishing “meeting agreements” or other processes that establish group norms?


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