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October 1, 2020

Leading Together / Teams to the Rescue

In a time of crisis, cultivating collective efficacy among teams is key.
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The sudden and simultaneous shifts in educators' physical, emotional, and professional routines due to the COVID-19 pandemic have been a shock to our collective system. Change is hard anytime, but when coupled with the constraints of social distancing, limited access to loved ones, and uncertainty about the magnitude and duration of these changing circumstances, it can push us to the edge. When schools cultivate strong teams, however, they create conditions that keep educators from being pushed over it.
Unlike just a few decades ago, most teachers today are members of teams (with grade-level or content-alike colleagues—or both) and have protected times during the workday to meet and collaborate. Unfortunately, in practice, there is wide variation in team effectiveness. Some teams have meetings that feel like a waste of time, which only increases teachers' anxiety about their personal and professional challenges. Other teams come together eager for a chance to connect as colleagues, to address shared problems of practice, and to collaboratively work to improve conditions for teaching and learning. In the context of today's sudden shifts, such high-functioning teams are a lifeline. What makes the difference between these two types of teams? A culture of collective efficacy.
Collective efficacy is a group's belief in its ability to do its work well and make an impact. Studies have shown that teachers' collective efficacy is so strongly correlated with student learning that the effect size on achievement is "more than double the effect of prior achievement and more than triple the effect of home environment and parental involvement." Collective efficacy creates a self-sustaining cycle: The belief that we can make a difference together makes us want to make a difference together and makes us put in the effort needed to make a difference together so that we are more likely to make a difference together—which only serves to further strengthen our sense of collective efficacy. If leaders get the ball rolling, educators can experience team meetings as sustaining circles of support.
Collective efficacy might even be an antidote to some of the socio-emotional challenges teachers face during this pandemic: Teams with collective efficacy engage in behaviors that mirror those research recommends for supporting individuals coping with trauma. For example, when collective efficacy is present, we're drawn to work and connect with others in a way that reduces the sense of isolation that social distancing exacerbates. We have place and time to talk through experiences, concerns, and coping strategies with peers who can respond with empathy. In addition, where collective efficacy thrives, team members help each other remain focused on shared commitments. They provide both support and accountability to one another as they work toward their valued goal, leading to empowerment in the face of challenges instead of self-blame, detachment, and despondency.
It is worthwhile, especially now, for teacher leaders and principals to consider what they might do to strengthen collective efficacy in educator teams and help their colleagues find a sustaining sense of purpose and camaraderie in their teamwork.

A Culture of Care

Leaders seeking to cultivate collective efficacy must first ensure each team has a clear and challenging goal, as well as the support needed to achieve it effectively. Whether the goal is determined by the principal, a teacher leader, or generated by the team itself, that goal should be something team members recognize as worthwhile. During this pandemic, the goals and tasks before our teams are of great consequence. By taking time to emphasize the importance of teams' goals, acknowledging the challenges involved, and communicating frequently to identify needed resources—such as time, materials, models, or research—principals and teacher leaders can help all teachers develop a sense of agency over the crisis and feel empowered to make a difference.
A second strategic move for cultivating both collective efficacy and a community of care is inviting teachers to share their stories—the good and the bad. Stories of success not only offer opportunities for team members to recognize one another's accomplishments, they also provide credible and inspiring models that allow teachers to build confidence in one another's competence and help them to learn ways they can capably support each other. Stories of challenges are equally essential to healthy teams. Teachers' willingness to be vulnerable invites colleagues to respond with support and to reciprocate an open attitude about their own challenges, thus strengthening trust. Sharing our experiences and reflecting openly together creates a culture of psychological safety and assures teammates that they are committed to one another's growth. In this era of crisis, all educators benefit from speaking and listening from the heart, from sharing their stories and being heard.
Developing collective efficacy requires recognizing the seeds of our individual self-efficacy, but educators are humble people. That's why we tend to have a hard time with the third strategic move: naming or celebrating our own strengths. Principals and teacher leaders who want to bolster collective efficacy in their teams need to give members a nudge and shout out their assets. Sure, the best teachers are learners, but just because we recognize we have areas in need of growth does not mean we can't also acknowledge our areas of personal mastery. Everyone is great at something, and these trying times present the perfect opportunity to acknowledge our own and each other's strengths. Teams can take time to make the impact of their efforts visible, celebrate that impact, and exchange positive messages. These positive messages are direly needed to buoy our spirits as we work through this school year.

The Way to Well-Being

Given the pace of change during this pandemic, there is a vast amount of critical information to be shared and high-stakes decisions to be made. Many teachers are feeling overwhelmed and on the brink of burnout. Teams represent a community within which such information can be digested and implications for practice can be discussed in ways that are both personally and professionally sustaining. In context of the current crisis, cultivating collective efficacy in teams is necessary for supporting the well-being of adults, as well as the quality of education for students.
End Notes

1 Donohoo, J., Hattie, J., & Eells, R. (2018). The power of collective efficacy. Educational Leadership, 75(6), 40–44.

2 National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare (n.d.). How to manage trauma. Retrieved from: https://www.thenationalcouncil.org/topics/trauma-informed-care/trauma-infographic/

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