Monday, February 1, 2016

The Power of Teamwork

“A school community is like a ship. Everyone must be prepared to take the helm.” (Roland Barth)

Too few people realize that a group can accomplish what an individual alone cannot. Sadly, teamwork and collaboration are not prevalent in many schools. Despite all the challenges educators face, often we isolate ourselves. As a young teacher, I truly believed that I would make a positive difference in every student’s life--that I would be THE difference-maker, but I erroneously, and perhaps arrogantly, thought I could do it alone.

Despite my best efforts--I was always one of the first to arrive and the last to leave--by working in isolation, I limited my ability to advance as a teacher and thus hurt my students. I was too proud to ask for help (side note: I remember struggling with my junior/senior psychology class, which was made up of 24 female students and 1 male all of whom were just a couple of years younger than me, and seeking the advice of my administrators only to be rebuffed with flippant comments...that didn’t help change my perspective).

We cannot close our classroom doors and just go about our business, either fighting the battle by ourselves or scared to admit that we need help.

In my 7th year, my school began a freshman transition program. At the heart of the program was the collaborative planning time, an unfortunate rarity in American education. Teaching the most challenging students in the school, I soon realized that I could accomplish more and be far more effective if I was willing to share ideas, ask for help and offer support. Teamwork.

Almost by luck, we each brought our own diverse styles to the team.
  • The pleaser: This teacher was all about his students’ emotional well-being. He didn’t see himself as a subject-matter teacher and would sacrifice instructional time to talk to students. He focused most of his energy on getting to know his students and their lives outside of the classroom. Of course, knowing this, his students often purposefully side-tracked him so teaching and learning became secondary, but his students also confided in him.
  • The professional: This teacher enjoyed teaching and saw each lesson plan as a personal challenge. He was a practitioner who applied data and research-proven strategies to teaching. While recognizing the need to build relationships with students, instruction sat in the front seat.
  • The pragmatist: This teacher was new to the profession and entered the teaching profession to make a difference but also to have time with her young children. She was the person who would just sit in our meetings, not say much, and just soak up the information.She was even-keeled, consistent and rational.
  • The regular: This teacher was straight-down the middle. He was old-school, loved his subject and had seen it all. While he loved his job, he rarely showed emotion (positive or negative) as he’d seen it all.

While we each had our own strengths and weaknesses, together we made an exceptional team (by the way I was the “professional”). While we each had our own strengths and weaknesses, like most teachers, we shared an overarching desire to ensure the success of our students. The experience of collaborating with these teachers, strengthened me as a teacher. I focused more energy on building relationships with every student. I became a better listener and asked questions that I didn’t have the answer to. I learned that when we isolate ourselves, we limit our success.

Over the next ten years, many teachers cycled through the freshman transition program. The success of our teaching--and ultimately, our students--hinged on our ability to lean on each other and share ideas.  Through teamwork and collaboration, we build meaningful connections, reducing our stress and improving student outcomes. Only once we establish an expectation of teamwork and connectedness, will each staff member view themselves as something larger and greater.

“Coming together is a beginning. 
Keeping together is progress. 
Working together is success.” 
~Henry Ford

I’d be remiss, if I didn’t give a shout-out to some of the high functioning, highly successful teams I’ve been part of including administration teams to our RTI team to the School Improvement team, and many of the teams I coached.