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Volume III Issue IX

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The Power of the Team

Bruce Oliver

Bruce facilitating a Leading the Learning® workshop


In recent issues of Just for the ASKing!  my columns have focused on Creating a Culture for Learning.  This month I continue that theme elaborating on the need for school leaders to create an environment for learning and promote the attitude and belief that all students can achieve at high levels. As a strong culture is created, it is important to establish structures that support that culture so that beliefs and attitudes can be translated into actions and results.

One structure that has a positive impact on student learning as well as the relationship of adults in the workplace is teaming.  Middle schools “got it right” when they adopted the philosophical belief that the interests of students could best be served when teachers meet regularly to discuss student learning and the unique needs of early adolescents.  Time and again in team meetings I saw the positive impact of collective inquiry and problem solving on student achievement.  Noted educational scholar Roland Barth expressed it this way:  “The relationship among the adults in the building has more impact on the quality and character of the school and the accomplishments of its youngsters than any other factor.” 

More recently, we established professional learning communities in our school. While middle school interdisciplinary teams focus on the students that the teachers had in common, the addition of professional learning communities allow teachers to meet in curriculum teams and confer about the common content they taught. It is the ideal educational environment. Adults have the time during their work day to address the needs of children as well as opportunities to talk with peers about the best instructional practices to use to achieve greater student learning.  Many schools, including my former school, Thoreau Middle School in Fairfax County Public Schools, Virginia, have master schedules that enable teachers who teach the same grade level (elementary schools) or the same subjects (middle or high schools) to meet regularly within the school day.  When teams in these schools meet and follow established protocols for effective collaboration, the teachers are pleased with the results of their collegial discussions, become better analyzers of student achievement data, and generally feel more empowered as professionals.

Putting in place a team structure and the development of a master schedule that will allow professional collaboration to occur is not enough.  In order for teams to function at their optimum, team members need to establish norms of behavior for their work together.  Variables such as confidentiality, participation by all members of the team, respect for differing opinions, and decision making by consensus must be discussed and agreed upon when the team begins to meet.  It is also critical that the workload of the team be distributed equitably.  This can be accomplished by setting up specific roles for team members such as team leader or facilitator, recorder, time keeper, liaison to the administration, and technology expert. 

The team structure, a master schedule that builds in time for collaboration, and clearly articulated norms for teams is still not sufficient.  In some instances teaming is mandated by a school leader without the necessary guidance or support.  In these instances, although teams are established on paper, there is no definitive change in student achievement because teams are left on their own to determine how they should function.   Team members must understand the purpose of their collaboration and be given specific guidelines that will translate their conversations into tangible results that will directly impact their classroom practice. When teams meet, the focus of their work must consistently center on student learning.  When the team leader or facilitator publishes a meeting agenda prior to the team meeting all team members know how their time will be spent.  Unless it is clearly established that the purpose of teaming is professional collaboration, team meetings can quickly degenerate into complaint sessions, times for socialization, or discussions about administrivia.  Meredith Casper, Principal of Pine Crest Elementary School, Montgomery County Public Schools, Maryland, uses the 80/20 rule for the teams at Pine Crest.  When teams meet, 80% of their time is to be devoted to collaborative work around teaching and learning; a maximum of 20% can be used for other issues or congenial interactions.

When curriculum or grade level teams meet, conversations should be data-driven.  Data can come from many sources including standardized tests results, common assessments, student work, or research on best practice in instruction and assessment.   Marcia Baldanza, Principal of Special Assignment, Broward County Public Schools, Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, has established a systematic approach for examining student performance data by teams.  When teams meet, they answer a series of specific questions related to the data they were examining.  The questions are as follows:

  • What do we know from looking at this data?
  • Do we know which students are learning and which are not?
  • What patterns can we observe?
  • What concerns are raised by a review of the data?
  • What other data sources will help to clarify and inform our teacher practice?
  • How do the programs we have in place connect with the concerns we have identified?
  • What additional data can we collect?
  • How well, overall, are our students doing on each standard?
  • Do all of the items on each standard have a high percentage of correct answers?
  • If not, which items under each standard have a high percentage of incorrect answers?
  • On the incorrect test items, is there an incorrect answer that was selected by a high percentage of students?
  • What kind of mistake is represented by this choice?
  • What items do we need to disaggregate to find out if there is a pattern of students not doing well such as boys vs. girls, children in poverty, or students who have an ESL or special education designation?

When best practices become the focus of team discussions, it is important to remember that all discussions must center on specific actions to increase student achievement.  Topics may include ways to engage students at the beginning of a lesson, strategies to help students process their learning throughout the lesson, the use of formative assessments to make instructional decisions, summarizing strategies, ways to meet the needs of diverse learners, and ideas to promote higher level thinking.  Best practice areas of focus should be based on what an analysis of the data reveals about student learning needs. 

The use of the team structure to analyze data and solve problems collaboratively can have powerful results.  As a result of productive team meetings, teachers should return to their classrooms with the mindset that they are now better equipped with specific ideas and strategies they can use to help every child learn and experience success.


Permission is granted for reprinting and distribution of this newsletter for non-commercial use only. Please include the following citation on all copies:
Oliver, Bruce. “The Power of the Team.” Just for the ASKing! September 2006. Reproduced with permission of Just ASK Publications & Professional Development (Just ASK). © 2006 Just ASK. All rights reserved. Available at www.justaskpublications.com.