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November 1, 2021

Leading Together / The Inner Workings of Teams

The sum of a successful team is greater than its parts.
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Professional Learning
November 2021 Berg header image: Abstract illustration of a variety of faces.
It's easy for educators to feel overwhelmed today. We want each and every student to feel healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged. Yet the COVID-19 pandemic has not only made this goal feel more distant, it has also exposed upsetting race-based patterns in which students are not being reached. Many of the instructional practices we once relied on are outdated, and our school and district policies are in need of an overhaul.
These needed adjustments—most of which are underway—are for the better, but it's a lot of change at once, and change is hard, especially when the goalpost feels increasingly out of reach. It's enough to make educators exclaim, "I can't do this!" The truth is: You're right. You can't do this. But together we can.
Research on teachers' collective efficacy has long shown that where teachers believe in the difference they can make together, they succeed in making a difference together. They take the risks needed to meet the team's high expectations and support one another to meet them.
In fact, a Massachusetts study of teaming practices during the pandemic found that schools with strong teams pivoted quickly and successfully to online learning, while schools in which teachers worked in isolation simply were not structured to provide what teachers or students needed to thrive.
True teamwork, however, is much more than the absence of working in isolation, and a team is more than merely a group of people. A group becomes a team when its members share a vision for what they aim to accomplish together; trust one another enough to coordinate their efforts to achieve that vision; and develop a collective identity in which the sum is greater than its parts. To be sure, doing these things effectively is easier said than done and requires strong structures and cultural norms for communication. But, when groups manage to become true teams, they can take on and achieve far more complex goals than individuals ever could alone.

Reflective Practices for Teams

If you lead a grade-level, department, or schoolwide team, why not put it to the test? Engaging your colleagues in reflection about the team's vision, strengths, and identity can build solidarity and even a sense of pride in team membership.
To determine if your team has a shared vision, simply ask: If our work is successful, what will be true about our students' products and performances? About our professional practice? About our school? Take team meeting time to have everyone articulate a response to these questions in writing, and then compare the responses to evaluate the extent to which you are headed in the same direction. Operating under a shared vision is one thing; naming it explicitly is another. If there is misalignment, leave room for members to hear one another out. If there's near-alignment among members, discuss how the team's work fits within the school's larger vision.
An effective and efficient team maximizes the strengths of each member. Does your team know what everyone's strengths are? Ask each person to name an area of professional expertise or experience they have in relation to the team's work. If your team has been collaborating for some time, ask each member to also identify something they view as a strength of each teammate. We all have things we appreciate about one another's expertise; there's power in articulating these qualities. Be sure to capture these reflections as a resource you can return to later. Before you plan to repeat an activity in your team's repertoire (such as looking at student work, unit planning, or preparing to host a family event), reflect on your team's experience in light of this new information by considering how you have (or could have) utilized the team's strengths as assets.

True teamwork is much more than the absence of working in isolation.

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Jill Harrison Berg

Successful teams are greater than the sum of their parts. Over time, team members develop confidence in what they can accomplish together, and other educators in the building increasingly value what the team produces. How do faculty members refer to your team? Simply listen to them. If they're still thinking about Math Night as "Jill's event" or they refer to your meetings as "Jack's meeting," it's time to talk up the power of "we." Take the lead in offering the team (as a whole) specific praise about what you do well and offer gratitude for what you appreciate about participating in the team's work. Then encourage others to do the same. Use "we," use your team's name, give your team a nickname, create a symbol or even a special handshake. Over time, the team will take on its own identity and members will use the team's name with pride in all you have accomplished together.

Nurturing the Work

You've no doubt put time and attention into getting your teams off to a strong start. Now that the school year is underway, take stock of your team's inner workings and nurture its ability to accomplish more than any one member could alone. By doing so, you will be creating conditions for your students—and your colleagues—to feel healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged.
End Notes

1 Donohoo, J., Hattie, J., & Eells, R. (2018). The power of collective efficacy. Educational Leadership75(6), 40–44.

2 Johnson, S. M. (2021). Why teacher teams are more critical than ever. Educational Leadership79(1), 59–63.

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