As I write this week’s blog, I am full of memories of last weekend’s Minnesota Vikings/New Orleans Saints NFL game. It was a game… right to the very end-it was back and forth with the Vikings scoring a touchdown as the clock marked the final seconds of the game. (I know it wasn’t the game my school in Lafayette, LA was hoping for but it sure was a great one!). The level of sound in the US Bank Stadium reached an all new high and if the Vikings beat the Eagles tomorrow, Super Bowl Sunday will be “super” special for Minnesota. It would be the first time ever that a team hosting the Super Bowl actually is in it… fingers crossed for all my friends in Minneapolis!
I will be wearing my purple and cheering with all my heart. But, no matter what happens this weekend, the Vikings played as a team all year, especially last week. They stayed tough and they worked together to get the job done. They had to win to move on and they accomplished their goal.
So, what does it take to get a win? Is it “will” or “skill”? How do you go from “how I play” to “how we play”? Is it about a group of individuals with a ton of talent that guarantees a win? How do you distinguish between “a group” and “a team”? Who is the “leader” of the team? Is it the coach or the captain or does the leader rise from the ranks? In this seventh blog in my school improvement series, let’s look at how a school can create more winning teams…
In Jim Collin’s best seller, Good to Great (2001), he taught us that getting the right people on the bus was a first step in making sure we had the right team. I am sure, in sports, as in many corporate environments, that is a huge part of management decisions including careful analysis of who is on the team, who is available, how much money they can spend to bring new people on board, what skills and attitude they will bring to the table and frankly, who shouldn’t be on the bus that is there now. In some cases, principals have the ability to “pick” their teams but in most schools that I have worked in, staffs come together based on a variety of reasons, including seniority within unions, years of experience within a school or district, hiring and exit procedures and of course, what the schools need for course and content specialities. On the first day of school every year, leaders gather their “teams” and in many cases, hope for the best. The intentional, strategic and very specific work of creating a collaborative culture is often left to chance. But not in many schools, leaders, like Wille’s principal Jan, understand the need to develop a strong team and after many false starts she was able to set the foundation for shared ownership of her students. Here is how…
In my world as an educator, collaborative cultures are defined as professional learning communities (now, I say this here because I want my readers who are not in the education business to understand the terminology and I so appreciate that you are reading along with us!). Since 1998, I have been influenced, inspired and mentored by the writings and teachings of Dr. Richard DuFour. Rick authored (and coauthored) several books with the intention of ensuring that educators deeply understood the how, what and, most importantly, the why… the impact of effective collaborative cultures in schools on student learning.
A professional learning community is defined by three big ideas: learning, collaboration and getting results. It requires interdependence of teachers on each other. And, as Rick would often remind me, that is what really creates the difference between a group and a team. I might be able to teach my class by myself but in a school with an effective professional learning community culture, I depend on my peers (and they depend on me) to help me understand what my students need and how I am going to get results. We all contribute to the thinking and learning to determine what we will do to meet the needs of every student. We share the ownership for students and we work together to ensure that every student is learning at high levels. Last year, we lost our dear friend, Rick, to cancer. As I wrote about last week with Wayne Hulley’s influence, Rick’s teaching continue to inspire and his legacy lives on. He spent his life supporting educators in their understanding of why and how we work together to ensure learning… not just teaching but learning and this work continues in his writing, video messages and with those of us who continue to seek continuous school improvement. If you have a few minutes, I highly recommend that you watch this video of Rick speaking on Groups vs Teams: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0hV65KIItlE
At Willie’s school, Jan had done some work to create a collaborative culture. As I said earlier, she had a few false starts and she was nervous about having discussions about common purpose, beliefs and values. Jan easily admitted that her first step to build teams within her school didn’t go very well. She did many things correct- she created time on the schedule for teachers to meet and collaborate, she reviewed some structural expectations, like what an agenda would look like, what the work should be that is discussed and she tried to visit with the teams of teachers on a regular basis. But, what I learned when I visited her school was that teachers were mostly getting together because it was expected of them. They were being polite and compliant. (Well, most were polite… not the team who sat with their backs to each other when they were talking! Just as in business, we have “office politics” in schools as well.) Overall, in the school, teachers were trying but really didn’t understand why this work was important and what the outcome could be as they worked together. There were groups… but not really teams. And, most importantly, the first team, a bigger team, was not created. Jan was trying to do everything by herself. She had not created a shared leadership model and so everything was seen as “her vision, her beliefs, her mission.” And, she was exhausted.
It was time to take a few steps backwards so we could go forward. It was time to build common understanding, as a school, of the foundational elements of collaboration and at Jan’s school we started by working with a small group of teachers to create and guide the deep learning that was needed. This “guiding coalition” worked hard and got us to the next level and over time, more and more teachers understood why they were collaborating. More about this focus on collective commitments next week! And, Go Vikings Go!!