Schools are comprised of teams, and these teams working together create the “team” that is the entire school. Although teachers are often stereotyped as preferring to work alone isolated in their classrooms, most teachers love working within a team—at least within a strong team. Weak or ineffective teams can be frustrating and potentially toxic. Because of this, the aspects of a strong team are critical for teams and leaders to know and understand.
There isn’t a step-by-step list of how to develop strong teams, but there are some universal guidelines and expectations that can help teams to become more effective. Here are some of the key ingredients for a strong team:
Strong teams start with trust. Trust comes first before anything else. Teams that work well together know this and make sure that trust exists before moving forward. At times, this means that teams create norms of behavior that they all agree they will adhere to. Some teams don’t formalize this, but it still exists. The old adage of “do what you say you will do” is the linchpin for trust within strong teams.
Strong teams welcome newcomers. New team members should never be seen as a threat or challenge to the original team. But in dysfunctional teams, this is sadly sometimes the case. Strong teams not only welcome newcomers, they see new ideas as a strength—not a threat.
Some of the strong teams have common goals. I’ve worked with teams that are extremely diverse and extremely effective. One important key to the strength of these teams is the common, clearly defined goal they are working toward. Even with differing styles or opinions, teams that can focus on working together can make a huge impact for students. This doesn’t mean that teachers don’t have individual goals for their own classroom, but that the team goal supersedes the individual goal when it comes to working together.
Strong teams work to improve. Some of the best teams that I have worked with always have a new idea, a new challenge, or a new strategy for the year. This isn’t because of a lack of effectiveness, but more of an intrinsic need to improve. These teams work together to improve as a group.
Strong teams like what they do. This isn’t one that can be changed overnight, but it can impact our hiring practices. All teachers and principals should like what they do, or we shouldn’t hire them. When it comes to teams, it can become more about having the right people in the right places in order to create a strong team. Teachers who are naturally better with primary aged students may not “like” a 5th grade teaching assignment. By getting all the team members to enjoy the content and the grade level, it helps to strengthen the team.
Strong teams listen. Within the team, this really connects to the trust building that is required for strong teams. But outside of the team, it is critical to listen. School teams don’t operate in a vacuum and should listen to the other teams and leadership in the school. We don’t define “listening” as just paying attention during a meeting, but to seek to understand the point of view of others that are involved. The same is true when meeting with others outside of the school system (i.e. parents). Listening to parents to partner with them is vital to students’ long-term success.
Strong teams know how to delegate, how to share the workload, when to slow down, and when to speed up. This one can be tricky, but the best teams do it with ease. There are times when teams need to put their collective heads down and get things done. There is also a time for team building and connecting. Team members have strengths, so as long as a shared workload is fair and manageable, delegation can be critical for being productive. It also takes time to develop, so be patient if you are part of a team that hasn’t mastered this one yet.
Strong teams know they're strong, but may not be able to define what it is that makes them strong or how they got there. This one is kind of like asking a great teacher to break down their teaching to say what makes him or her a great teacher—it can be hard to do. Really strong teams are built over time and have worked through issues of personality, priorities, and preferences.
So, where is a team to start? Maybe by reading this article together, the team can reflect on where they want to improve and what strengths they already have. There are many solutions to helping teams improve—some involve frank conversations, some involve setting the collective goals, some involve delegation and workload, and some involve communication and camaraderie. Regardless of the current status of the team, there is always room for improvement!
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