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Team Leadership: Building a Collaborative Learning Environment

Most schools exhibit a bureaucratic hierarchal structure. The school leader monitors performance, communicates information, maintains structure, supervises consistency of outcomes, and ensures that standards are met. Routinization, conformity, and uniformity of practice create a stable organizational structure and clear work processes.

Despite its effectiveness, the control and stability associated with hierarchal school environments may lead to stagnation and lack of innovation as teachers become isolated in their classrooms. Teachers are often individually occupied with day-to-day tasks and are reluctant in investing time and effort in team learning. Teachers may find it challenging to abandon their isolated classrooms to share insights and ideas about their practice with their colleagues or even critique other teachers’ work.

Why Team Leadership

A team leadership approach is imperative for building a collaborative learning environment that leads to an attitudinal shift from the personal ‘I’ to the collective ‘we’. A team approach to school leadership fosters participation, teachers’ involvement, open communication, and shared goals. It is particularly relevant at the high school level where departmental allegiance is favored. Teachers often form collegial relationships within the same department, develop a distinctive identity, create a unique environment, and closely identify with teachers teaching the same subject matter.

A team approach necessitates a leap from working behind a closed classroom door and supports collaboration among teachers from different departments. It encourages team members to contribute their expertise and skills and map their knowledge together. The team’s collective knowledge base is broadened, islands of expertise are created, shared mental models are developed, and untapped resources are utilized.

Building Collective Trust

Collaborative environments do not emerge organically. Creating a team does not guarantee that collaboration will take place because collaboration depends on the collective trust of the team members. Otherwise, teachers may feel vulnerable, and instead of collaborating, they would embrace a self-protective stance. Lack of trust would alienate teachers and constrain them to their classrooms.

Collaboration de-privatizes teaching practices and fosters common goals. It capitalizes on teachers’ expertise as they learn together, collaboratively and collectively constructing knowledge. Collaboration reduces teacher isolation and allows teachers to monitor their own performance as well as that of their colleagues to provide assistance, when needed. Mutual performance monitoring will be fostered, a behavior that depends on interpersonal trust, to reduce the likelihood that the team would experience a diffusion of responsibility.

Attending to Unique Contexts

It is important to acknowledge that teaching and learning are distinct and situational, and each teacher’s classroom represents a unique context. Team leadership supports the diverse skills, needs, goals, perspectives, and expectations of independent teachers while connecting the work of the team with the broad organizational goals. The team, operating as a learning community, must maintain a loose boundary by sharing knowledge with teachers in other departments and aligning its work with the way the school operates.

Successful teams can:

  • learn knowledge and new skills that result from the shared experience of the team members
  • perform interdependent tasks
  • effectively monitor their performance
  • dynamically adjust to various demands
  • apply conflict resolution practices

However, the school leader must balance the team approach with accountability. Hierarchy does not have to be abandoned in favor of an exclusive focus on a team approach. A focused pursuit that attends to what team leadership ‘means and does not mean’, as shown in the table below, would simultaneously capitalize on the strengths of hierarchal and collaborative cultures.

Team Leadership
Means Does Not Mean
  • Teamwork and Innovation
  • Collaboration and Participation
  • Collective Decision-making
  • Support and Trust
  • Shared Vision and Common Goals
  • Professional Growth
  • Interdepartmental Coordination
  • Diffusion of Responsibility
  • Loss of Stable Structure
  • Elimination of Accountability
  • Neglecting Content or Assessments
  • Uninformed Risk-taking

The hope is to incorporate teamwork into the fabric of the school to ensure the continuous improvement of the individual, collegial, and organizational levels through an ethic of care, support, and respect.

Written by Elissar Gerges, Education World Contributing Writer

Elissar has more than 10 years of experience as an AP and IBDP Biology teacher and Biology head of department. She holds a Master of Science in Education from Walden University, a Master of Education in Curriculum Studies and Teacher Development from the University of Toronto, and a Doctor of Education (EdD) in Educational Leadership, K-12 from Western University, Canada.

Elissar’s research focus is on learning communities, team leadership, instructional leadership, and integrating citizenship in science education. She is a strong advocate of science media literacy to enable all students, as active citizens, to critically evaluate science in the media to make informed decisions.

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