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What Makes Effective Teaching Teams Tick?

Many of the most successful schools share a common trait: they teem with the spirit of team teaching, which has huge benefits for students' academic and social growth. In this article, Education World's "Principal Files" team examines the characteristics of their strongest teaching teams. What makes those teams tick? Included: Benefits of teaming, plus "Ten Commandments for Effective Teams."

You can feel it when you walk into a school. The building buzzes with the energy of eager students. That buzz is an indicator that there's a whole lot of learning going on. And when you find a school that teems with the energy of learning, chances are there's a whole lot of teaming going on too.

Principals like Marguerite McNeely have long seen the value and benefits of such teamwork. "Our school does a great job with teaming," McNeely told Education World. "Our teachers love the opportunity and challenge of coming together to plan for their students and solve problems."

Characteristics of Strong Teaching Teams

When teachers are part of a team, they all have an equal stake -- and share equally in the risks -- when it comes to ensuring the success of their team and their students, added McNeely, who is principal at Hayden Lawrence Middle School in Deville, Louisiana.


More On Teaming

Most schools, whatever their grade spans, use some degree of academic teaming. Teaching teams can be structured in many different ways. Click here to read how teaming works in the schools of principals who contributed to this article. There you will also find the "Ten Commandments for Effective Teams" and a list of teaming's benefits.

"The strongest teams have members who have open minds, strong work ethics, creativity, and good leadership," she said. "There's no room for personal agendas when it comes to teaming."

At Kirbyville (Missouri) Elementary School, principal Addie Gaines reports that whole staff meetings have become largely unnecessary because of the school's efficient network of strong teaching teams.

"The important characteristics of a strong team are that the members work together, acknowledge and use each other's strengths and talents, and allow and encourage individuality," said Gaines. "Team members are dedicated to their common goals and they also care about the other members of the team.

"If a team is focused on its goals, then everyone has a single language and a single focus, which allows the goals to be accomplished. Our teams work together to see all students as 'our students' rather than 'my students' and 'your students'."

Team members feel supported by their peers, added Gaines. "Strong teams help create better teacher morale because each individual teacher always has others on whom he or she can rely."

When principal Larry Anderson creates teaching teams at Gunther School in North Bellmore, New York, he seeks to pair teachers who have complimentary styles. Some of the other attributes Anderson considers when he does his teacher "matchmaking" are a teacher's

  • genuine and sincere respect for and trust and confidence in their colleagues;
  • willingness to share ideas and resources;
  • desire to establish common grade-level goals and protocols;
  • willingness to divvy up responsibilities in a fair, equitable way;
  • strong and positive endorsement of the notion of inclusion; and
  • an embrace of a collegiality mindset. (In other words, they're not going to try to show up the colleague; they don't think "I'm better or more talented than you are.")

Team Talk

At Hiawatha Elementary School in Othello, Washington, grade-level teachers meet weekly to discuss important themes. The discussion the first week of the month centers on reading; the second week's discussion centers on math; week 3's meeting focuses on writing; and the fourth meeting of the month focuses on other areas of the curriculum. Of course, that schedule isn't set in stone, principal Heather Franklin told Education World. "Reading and math are a big focus in our district, so they are often discussed," she said, "and we often talk about data and what we can do differently across the curriculum."

Teachers do a great job of keeping team meetings focused on important discussions that affect students, and not getting sidetracked, added Franklin. "That weekly planning time is definitely used as collaboration time."

In Hickory Hills, Illinois, a Chicago suburb, principal Lucie Boyadjian shares that staff development has been a key to helping teams succeed and achieve the goals they establish for student learning. Teams are encouraged to make their needs clear so the district can support them. The district's curriculum director has provided extensive in-house staff development, Boyadjian told Education World.

"It is critical for teams to provide feedback and input about how things should go within their school," she added. "That builds unity and it creates ownership of, and within, the system."

Teams Share a Vision

At Edenrose Public School in Mississauga, Ontario (Canada), grade-level teams discuss long- and short-range goals, assessment, and other grade-level issues with guidance from the school's School Success Leadership Team. That team comprises a representative from each grade level, the in-school support teacher, other support staff, and a representative from the school council, said principal Deepi Kang-Weisz.

Kang-Weisz sees it as her job to keep grade-level teams on track. "When a team hits a rough spot, my job is to review with them their mission and our school vision, values, and goals," she said. "I re-engage them in dialogue about student success.

"It is important that I continue to support and recognize the efforts of all team members. They need to feel valued and supported. To continue to celebrate their successes is key to maintaining a positive morale."

At the Chicago International Charter School, a K-12 school, principal Charlemeine Zemelko says that teaming helps make her school a special place. "We have a shared vision, and we practice it as a team," she told Education World. "We eat together, we plan cross-curricular activities, we communicate similar writing expectations across grade levels As a result of this shared vision, morale is higher than ever."

"Working as a cohesive team we have found that student achievement is on the rise too," she added.

Teaming Yields Student Achievement

Grade-level teams have also helped improve student achievement at Franklin School in Rahway, New Jersey, according to principal Margaret Morales. "Over the past three years, we have seen increased student achievement because of the commitment teachers have made to coming together and sharing strategies, best practices, and concerns about individual students.

Teaming Is

Guiding, not directing.
Collaborating, not competing.
Guidelines, not rules.
Activities, not lectures.
Diversity, not sameness.
Openness, not secrecy.
Active, not passive.
Involved, not isolated.

Adapted from Use of Teams in Classes

"Each year we adjust the goals and expectations for grade-level teams and plan in order to sustain growth and improvement."

Morales does not always sit in on grade-level meetings, but when she does she asks team members for comments or concerns with which she might assist. "Some teams have asked for support in a particular area," said Morales. "For example, one team was looking for support with math strategies. I contacted the district supervisor and was able to set up a half-day workshop for them.

"From time to time I have asked teachers to share ideas or concerns expressed in grade-level meetings at our general staff meetings. That way, teaching and learning strategies can be shared across six grade levels rather than just one."

In many cases, a strong team leader is the key to team success, added Morales. "A strong team leader keeps the team meetings on track. Meetings have a purpose, and a measurable outcome. The teams don't get caught up in negativity. They get more accomplished."

Vertical Teams Too

At Scott Johnson Elementary School in Huntsville, Texas, all teachers are members of two teams -- a grade-level team and a vertical team. Each vertical team includes a teacher from each grade level as well as a special ed teacher or a "special" (art, music, PE) teacher. Vertical teams meet once every three weeks to discuss an assigned topic. For example, one recent topic was "Share with your team how you have integrated technology and instruction." Each vertical team also has responsibility for a special area of the school, such as keeping the marquee current or updating the lobby bulletin board.

Vertical teams get ideas flowing across grade levels and provide learning opportunities for all teachers, explained Beth Burt, the school's principal. "The concept of vertical teaming has opened communication between grade levels," she told Education World. "That, in turn, has improved student achievement."


"Little Extras"
Strengthen Teams

At Hayden Lawrence Middle School in Deville, Louisiana, principal Marguerite McNeely works alongside her school's teams to keep them on track and ensure success. But she also thinks it's important to do "little extra" things to demonstrate her belief that strong teams yield strong results. "Every six weeks, team members vote for the outstanding member of their team, and we recognize those people at our school-wide awards assembly," McNeely said. "And from time to time I like to surprise teams with refreshments or other special treats just to let them know how much I appreciate their hard work."

Vertical teams can be found at Doctors Inlet Elementary School in Middleburg, Florida, too. There, principal Larry Davis has five "vertical" committees -- Student Improvement, Multimedia, Spirit, Curriculum Council, and Vertical Alignment. "The Vertical Alignment committee is new this year," explained Davis. "It was formed to provide a forum for discussing specific curriculum issues and looking at student work across the grades. It has been very helpful to examine the grade levels at which certain skills are taught and how much re-teaching occurs."

Each of the five committees, which meet monthly, includes a representative from each grade level. Grade-level representatives bring concerns from their grade-level teams, then communicate information back to those teams. Each committee includes a chairperson, elected by the committee members. The chairperson sets the agenda for meetings based on concerns, ideas, and suggestions filed by staff members.

"The best way for any team to function smoothly is to have an agenda for meetings," said Davis. "That keeps committees on task. There's less wasted time. If new issues come up, they can be addressed in and 'open forum' time after agenda items have been accomplished."

Weak Links Test Teams

It is generally agreed that a strong team can bring huge benefits to students, but what if a team is not so strong? "Teachers love the idea of teaming, but it is very important to remember that any team is only as strong as its weakest link," warned Dr. Layne Hunt, principal at Monroe (Michigan) High School.

"It is incumbent upon each member of any team to strive to be the strongest member of the team," added Hunt, cautioning that "there can be a fine line between striving to be one of the strongest members of a team and appearing to be trying to distinguish yourself from the team members. Confident, capable, and compassionate team members know the difference while weak, insecure, and marginally capable team members do not. A team that has even one of the latter types could be destined for disaster.

"Students will not succeed if faced with a group of teachers whose work together is disjointed, disconnected, or, in some cases, dysfunctional."

It is Hunt's goal to redefine the paradigm of what a team structure looks like within a school. "My goal is that every member of my staff will conduct him or herself as a member of a team that has as its goal the authentic academic and social development of each and every one of our students," he added. "When that happens, each staff member will truly understand what it means to be on a team."

Click here to learn more about teaming. On this linked page, you can learn about the variety of teaming formats used in the schools mentioned in this article. You will also find the "Ten Commandments for Effective Teams" and a list of teaming's benefits.


Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World® Editor-in-Chief
Copyright © 2005, 2017 Education World

Last updated on 07/20/2017