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August 17, 2021

Three Tips for Effective Team Building

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School Culture
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Strong leaders focus on “people” and “the process.” 
A new school year is a vital time for leaders to focus on strengthening our teams, and going into this one in particular, our ability to work together effectively will be even more necessary. During my two decades in education, I have had the chance to learn with and lead many different teams as a teacher, department chair, and director of curriculum. Over that time, I have discovered a few essential elements in bringing a group of adults together. With that in mind, here are three tips for designing effective team building to sustain community and culture development at the beginning of the year, and for the months to come. 

1. Know Your People.  

As obvious as this sounds, a recurring challenge we face in creating a team culture is that we don’t truly know the people we learn and lead with. Knowing others takes more than just simply being acquaintances. If we expect to strengthen team dynamics, then we have to truly understand who the people are that we share spaces with.  
To do this, we can employ two simple strategies: One requires flipping from statement to question in our interactions with colleagues. Rather than simply saying “Hello” or “Good to see you” when we run into colleagues and staff, ask a compelling question, such as “How did that lesson with the flying squirrel go?” or “When you bought your new car, what made you choose a Lamborghini?” If you can’t think of a question other than “How are you?” or “How was your weekend?” then chances are you don’t yet know enough about the person and need to work to understand them better. 
The second strategy can be applied to an entire school community. At the start of the year, create a large “D-DN-WT” chart. Cut a long sheet of paper off of a chart roll and put it up near the entrance of your school or district building. Break the chart into three parts: D, DN, and WT. The “D” stands for “I did . . .,” the “DN” stands for “I did not . . .,” and the WT for “I want to . . . .” Ask your team (this activity can work for students and family members as well) to share something they did over the summer, did not do over the summer, and want to do into the coming year. Have your staff sign their comments for posterity (or use a symbol rather than a name if you want to keep some level of anonymity) and then encourage everyone to review and consider what others wrote. Use the “D-DN-WT” chart to help understand who your team is and what makes each person indispensable to the group. You can use these charts at various times throughout the year to help stay connected with what works (and what doesn’t) for your community. 

2. Change the Context.  

Team building can take many forms, and no one form or design works for everyone. Some love the hands-on skill development associated with physical challenges, while others appreciate open conversation about texts and resources. Still, others feel most connected when they are on the periphery, watching the work from afar and engaging as they see fit. Since no one form of team building will work for everyone, it stands to reason that team-building experiences need to be varied. As you plan opportunities to start off the year, create a checklist that allows you to catalog how you will keep people moving, thinking, and talking. These three areas (movement, thought, and discussion) are necessary elements of strengthening teamwork. If we can design a team-building experience that checks all three boxes, then we’ve gone a long way toward fostering community and self-development, while also recognizing that no one form of team-building work will be a win (or loss) for everyone. 

3. Move Beyond the “Event.”  

One of the worst steps we can take when ending a team-building session is to actually end it. Cultivating a culture of care and building a strong community requires work—from everyone on the team—that doesn’t stop. To shift thinking from team building as an event to team building as a process, we have to do several things. First, we should start by connecting the actual team-building work with goals and outcomes for the year ahead. These long-term aspirations must be collaboratively created by the team itself; team building won’t be successful if your colleagues think the goals and outcomes are only yours. The second step is to lay out a progression of the team’s development (open to changes over time, of course). A schedule helps ground the work for everyone involved, and removes some of the fear of a constantly evolving and shifting initiative. The specificity of the schedule will depend on what the team aims to accomplish. For new or developing teams, greater specificity may be helpful. For well-seasoned ones, a flexible and open schedule may be more appropriate. In any case, we are generally simple creatures; patterns and predictability help us become more open to change. 
Third, an effective process has to, well, happen. Talking about the value of consistent development of the team, and then not making time to devote to this work beyond the professional learning provided at the start of the year, conveys that our words are in the right place, but our actions are not. So, give team building the time it needs and you will gain the reward of everyone feeling more committed and connected. 
Team building is essential. Whether the team is newly formed or well-established, there is always the opportunity to strengthen the ways in which we connect as a group to allow for better work, better results, and better understanding of each other and our respective needs. By incorporating these three strategies (and others), we can begin the year with a focus on people and process, and through that, cultivate long-term change. Lasting growth, after all, is what being part of the team is all about.

Fred Ende is director of Curriculum and Instructional Services for the Putnam/Northern Westchester Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) where he is responsible for supporting and leading the development of curriculum, professional learning, and innovative educational initiatives, and is liaison to the New York State Education Department regarding curriculum and instruction requirements and regulations. He previously served in this same organization as the assistant director of Curriculum and Instructional Services as well as regional science coordinator and director of SCIENCE 21. Before that, he worked for 10 years as a middle school science teacher and department chair in Chappaqua, New York.

Ende is one of ASCD's emerging leaders and currently is a board member in ASCD's Emerging Leader Affiliate. He has written and reviewed manuscripts for the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), Heinemann Publishing, Corwin Press, and ASCD and has been both a national and regional presenter for both associations. He is an avid writer who blogs monthly for SmartBrief and has also written for Edutopia.

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