Truth For Teachers – 10 principles for building a more efficient teaching team

Truth For Teachers – 10 principles for building a more efficient teaching team

Coworkers can make or break any job. In education, our teaching teams can make our jobs easier and more joyful, or harder and more stressful.

I’ve worked with teams where we brought out the best in each other, divided up work efficiently, and enjoyed our work together. I’ve also worked with teams that didn’t deserve the name, where the other people teaching the same class made my job more difficult. I’ve seen teams that seem to multiply the members’ time by sharing the work, and teams that suck up the members’ time with never-ending meetings.

What I’ve learned from my various team and co-teaching experiences is that it pays to explicitly discuss the functioning of the team. You can’t just hope for a well-functioning team; you have to plan for it.

Whether you are on a large grade level or common course team, or a co-teaching team of two; whether you have worked with this team for years or have been placed together for the first time; whether your team is already pretty functional or super inefficient — this team checkup can help you make this the year your team brings efficiency, inspiration, and joy to your job.

Truth For Teachers – 10 principles for building a more efficient teaching team

A Foundation of Trust

Trust and assuming the best of each other are the essential foundation for any well-functioning team. I worked with a team several years ago where we were constantly arguing about what to teach — in history, there are endless events and examples, so there are tons of decisions to make.

Our meetings were often debates about the value of assessing students on different examples of imperialism or Cold War policies. However, no matter how much we disagreed about these specific decisions, we trusted each other. Our underlying assumption was that we all wanted to support student learning, so we could always resolve these conflicts with compromise.

I’ve also seen situations where there is no trust and no assumption of good intentions. I’ve seen teachers who assume their colleagues have ulterior motives for their decisions or that they’re trying to make them look bad. I’ve seen people agree in meetings, and then go off and do things their own way. I’ve seen people who believe their colleagues are ineffective, and so can’t recognize anything good those colleagues do. I’ve seen colleagues who don’t speak to each other unless absolutely necessary or avoid discussing the real issues on their team. In this type of situation, not only are students not getting the best possible learning, but these teachers are miserable at work.

If you are working with a team with a history of mistrust and assuming the worst, I think that needs to be addressed directly. It might be in a general way: “We have not always trusted each other to be professionals or to do the best thing. We’ve made assumptions about each other’s motives that were not positive. We need to acknowledge this and work to change it. Can we all agree to start by assuming the best of each other? No matter what someone does, we will assume it’s because they believe that is best for student learning. Can we start there?”

Depending on the details, you might find it necessary or helpful to get more specific. Individuals might need to talk about the specific harm that has been done. A restorative circle can be an effective approach for that type of discussion because it gives every person an equal voice. Whichever approach you use, every team member needs to be honest with themselves about their assumptions, and genuinely work to give them up. If you continue to believe, “This person can’t change,” or, “This person doesn’t work hard enough,” or, “This person can’t be trusted,” the team will never be able to move forward.

The steps of this check-up work best when there is a foundation of trust. And as long as the need for trust has been openly acknowledged, I believe these steps can also help build trust in a team that has been struggling.

Step 1: Reflection

The first step is to reflect on how the team has been working. What is going well and what are the team’s successes? Be as specific as you can with successes – which students have shown improvement? Which units or lessons have been made more effective and more engaging? Which assessments have been more aligned with standards? In what ways has the team made everyone’s job easier? What have you learned from each other?

Next, reflect on what hasn’t been going well. What is frustrating members of the team about how it works? What takes more time than it should? Where does the team get bogged down, and what never actually gets done?

If you’re doing this check-up with a brand new team, this reflection can be based on past team situations. In other teams you’ve worked with, what went well and what was difficult? What would you like to repeat or avoid in this new team?

Step 2: What are your district requirements?

Clarify the district or school requirements for your team, in terms of what is required for all teachers to do the same way. For example, in my high school setting, common course teams are required to have common assessments based on common learning targets, and the same grading policies; we’re not required to have exactly the same daily lessons, assignments, or materials. It’s helpful to explicitly state the requirements with the entire team; don’t assume that everyone knows the district policies.

Step 3: What are your team’s non-negotiables?

Next, discuss other aspects of your work that the entire team will do the same way, that go beyond the district requirements. What does your team expect everyone to do the same, and what is okay for people to do differently? It is essential to make this explicit, to build trust and streamline decision-making.

If one teacher assumes the whole team will give the same assignments, and another teacher alters or skips an assignment, it’s easy for the first teacher to interpret that as a lack of teamwork, or bad teaching, or deliberate disrespect. But if all team members have agreed, we don’t have to always give the same assignments, it nips the problem in the bud.

Items to consider for team non-negotiables (assuming they’re not district requirements) include:

  • Dates and format for assessments
  • Grading and late policies
  • Assignments that go in the gradebook
  • Differentiated and modified assignments and assessments
  • Day-to-day planning

Step 4: What are your personal work styles?

Once the teaching elements that need to be uniform are designated, it’s time to acknowledge that you’re all individuals. Everyone deserves to work in a way that enables them to do their best and maintain their work-life balance. I suspect this is a step many teams never discuss, and that can so easily lead to misunderstandings and resentment.

For example, I had a colleague who frequently had new ideas for the next day’s lesson in the evening and sent off an email at 8 or 9 p.m. with her exciting new plan. However, one of my strict work boundaries is that I do not check school email after I leave for the day. So I never saw her emails until the next morning, when it was often too late for me to change my plans. I had to actually say to our team, “I don’t check school email after I leave for the day, usually around 4 p.m. It’s one way I maintain my work-life balance. So anything you send after that time, I won’t see until the next morning.”

With this contrast in our work styles out in the open, we could agree that we didn’t need to do the same thing every day. If my colleague had a great new idea she wanted to try, that was fine, and it was also fine for me to stick to the original plan. Without this conversation, it would have been so easy for her to resent me for ignoring her emails, and for me to resent her for infringing on my evenings.

As another example, while teaching from home during the pandemic, I found it worked best for me to do any schoolwork I needed to complete over the weekend, first thing on Saturday morning. It felt great to get schoolwork out of the way immediately, and it was the best way to ensure I had a true mental break from work for the rest of the weekend. However, when I shared a new or updated document with my team on Saturday morning, this made one of my team members feel guilty that she hadn’t done her part of the team work yet.

We had to discuss the fact that we had different work styles, and that my Saturday morning emails were not a judgment pushing her to get to work. We had a meeting where each team member laid out when we prefer to work, and affirmed that everyone’s preferences were fine, as long as work got done when it was needed.

In the course of this discussion, we also decided to change our weekly meeting day. We had been meeting on Fridays to plan the following week and divide up the preparation tasks, but this made some team members feel obligated to work on weekends. We found that by meeting on Wednesdays instead, we created a longer cushion of time for team members to do their preparation, allowing everyone to work at their preferred times and protect their weekends.

So for this step, have a conversation about when and how each team member prefers to work, and how that will affect the team. When do you prefer to do planning and preparation work? When do you prefer to grade? When do you check email? How far ahead do you prefer to plan? What is your tolerance for last-minute changes in plans? What are your boundaries around work – when do you not work? When do you not check email? Acknowledge everyone’s personal preferences as valid, and figure out how to schedule work as a team without infringing on these preferences.

Step 5: What are your overall teaching & learning goals for your class or grade level?

Now it’s time to discuss the team’s goals for the actual teaching you share. It might seem strange to put this after several other steps — shouldn’t goals be first? However, I think it’s important to acknowledge the team’s parameters and boundaries first. It doesn’t make sense to set goals that don’t fit with district requirements, or won’t be possible based on team members’ boundaries. Steps 2 through 4 give your team the framework you are working within, ensuring your goals are compatible with that framework.

The goals you set as a team will vary widely depending on your district requirements and curriculum, and what kind of team you are. I’ve taught 9th grade Global Studies for a long time, which is a subject where we have tons of decisions to make about what to actually teach since literally all of human history falls in the scope of the class.

Our team set two goals to help us make those decisions: 1) to teach history that helps students appreciate and understand other cultures and parts of the world, and learn not to be ethnocentric, and 2) to teach history that helps students understand the context and causes of current events. When we disagree about what to teach, we can come back to these big-picture priorities and choose the content that best furthers these goals.

Here are some questions to help your team consider your goals:

  • What are the overall objectives for this class, subject, or grade level?
  • What do we want students to take away from this class at the end of the semester or year?
  • What do we hope they remember 5 years later?
  • How will we prioritize content versus skills?
  • What priorities will we use to make decisions about teaching and learning?

Step 6: What’s your meeting schedule and communication plan?

Here is the time to make some practical decisions. When will your team meet? I think for most teams, once a week is a reasonable meeting schedule. If your team decides to meet more often, I recommend designating specific tasks or decisions for each meeting, to ensure the meeting time is worthwhile. It’s important to take every team member’s schedule into account in this step.

At the high school level, we can have one team member who only teaches this shared class, while other team members also have two or three other classes to plan and prepare. The shared class cannot take up a disproportionate amount of these teachers’ prep time. Be thoughtful about when during the week the team meeting is scheduled, like in the example I gave in Step 4.

Will you meet at the beginning of the week, the middle, or the end? Are you planning for the upcoming week, or are you planning a week ahead? Maybe you can designate one meeting a month to do the overall planning for the month, and then weekly meetings are for creating materials and discussing student needs. Be clear about the reasons for your meeting schedule and goals for each meeting.

Another aspect to consider is who needs to be included in the team meetings. Is it a meeting of content or general education teachers, or are there special education and other support teachers who need to be there? Maybe the special education teacher needs to attend the meeting every other week, and the alternating weeks focus on content decisions. Be sure the meeting schedule includes every team member in a productive way, including special education teachers, English language teachers, speech/language teachers, psychologists, social workers, counselors, and paraprofessionals.

Next, make a plan for communication between meetings. I’ve seen teams where there is a designated meeting once a week — but the team members check in with each other informally so often, they really end up meeting every day, and all their prep time is absorbed by the team. That is not an efficient or respectful use of people’s time, especially if teachers have different numbers of classes or subjects they’re responsible for.

Is the team’s primary channel of communication going to be email? Email is quick, but can also be disorganized — have you ever wasted time trying to find which email chain contains the information you need? Consider a shared document, so all discussion is recorded in one place.

On my Global Studies team, we have a shared planning document for each unit, and we use comments to assign who is updating something, to make suggestions for changes, and to indicate when a document is ready to copy or post for students.

Another team at my school uses a shared spreadsheet as a to-do list. Every lesson is listed, and there are columns for who is updating it, the deadline, and notes. Then there are checkboxes for creating the presentation, creating the video, creating the homework, and posting the materials for students. This is a very efficient way for the team to communicate about what is done and who is doing everything. Whatever the method, discuss with your team how you will avoid using up all your prep time with inefficient daily checking in.

Step 7: What are your meeting norms?

With your meetings scheduled, it’s time to plan for those meetings to be efficient and effective. Establishing norms can make a world of difference in how well your team uses your meeting time. Here are some questions to consider:

  • Who will make the agenda, and what format is useful?
  • Who and how will you take notes during meetings?
  • What routines should be part of your meetings? For example, starting with a celebration or bright spot; checking the last agenda or to-do list; a specific type of opening or closing.
  • Are there specific tasks or decisions to complete as specific meetings?
  • How will you ensure every team member has a chance to voice their ideas?
  • What norms do you need to ensure the team stays focused and efficient?
  • How will you deal with it when the team gets off task?

Outside of meeting norms, it’s also good to talk about your norms for when you have a problem or disagreement with someone. Is the expectation that you go directly to that team member and discuss it with them? Is it acceptable to discuss the issue with someone else on the team or outside the team first? Should the issue be discussed with the entire team?

In episode 188, Angela talked about the secret rules we have for other people’s behavior — the conscious or unconscious assumptions we make about how people should behave, which are not explicit and not shared by everyone. This situation of what to do when you have a problem with someone is an example she gave in the episode. When we judge others’ behavior based on our secret rules, we set ourselves up for conflict and misunderstanding, because we’re holding people to a standard they don’t even know about. Making the team norms for dealing with problems explicit can prevent so many misunderstandings before they start.

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Step 8: What can you divide up, and what do you need to let go of?

In my experience, the ideal team is one where we share enough of our day-to-day plans that we can divide up the prep work. With common assessments, we can have one person update the assessment for this year, and then separate people create any modified versions we need for specific students.

We can take the three examples we’re going to teach in imperialism and have one person prepare the materials for each. When we taught virtually in the spring of 2020, and basically everything had to be adapted for the new reality, this ability to divide up the work in my Global Studies team kept us sane. If your team can’t divide up some of the prep work, I think you’re doing more work than you have to.

But dividing up the work also means you have to let go of things. You might have to let go of formatting preferences, font choices, or file naming systems. You simply can’t expect everyone to do these details your way, nor is it a good use of your time to change the font of every document your team members make. You might need to let go of more substantial aspects as well. Maybe you wouldn’t have phrased the question that way, or chosen that particular text, or had that number of practice problems. But is the difference worth the time it would take to redo it yourself? Is the team version good enough? Is it a minimum viable product?

The more you can use the work of your team members as it is, the less time you waste. And if there are issues with the materials someone creates that you think really do matter, that could affect student learning, then discuss it directly as a team, so the team has some shared standards for materials.

Something I think every team needs to let go of is the need to be exactly the same every day, in all aspects of teaching. Such uniformity is simply not realistic; teachers are individuals, and every class of students is different. Activities will take different lengths of time; one class might get super interested in a topic and spend lots of time on it, while another class breezes through.

No one should make a habit of breaking the team’s non-negotiables, but the team should also acknowledge it might need to happen sometimes. If there is a fire alarm or other emergency during one class, it might not be fair to give them the same assignment. If one teacher has taught the class for years while another is brand new, it’s not realistic to expect them to spend the same amount of time on every lesson. Set your team parameters, but be realistic and flexible about them.

Step 9: Advocate for your team at the school and district level.

Your team functions within many larger systems, including your school and district. Make sure that your team is advocating for what you need to be effective. Every team that is expected to collaborate should have designated common planning time within the work day.

Without this basic requirement, it puts the burden on the team to find a time to meet, which can be super challenging when team members have different schedules and responsibilities outside of work. Administrators might say it’s difficult or impossible to make this time, but if collaboration is a priority, then shared planning time should be a non-negotiable aspect of the schedule.

Another point to advocate for is consistent teams from year to year. The steps I’ve outlined here are not easy to discuss and resolve; it takes time to develop an effective working relationship, and if the team changes every year, it will simply never happen.

Finally, it’s important for your school and district to give clear and reasonable guidelines for teams. Administrators need to be explicit about their expectations for commonalities across teams, like the ones I listed in Step 2. If your school gives no guidelines, but your team can be criticized for teaching differently, you are being set up for failure. Ask all the questions you need answered for your team to be successful and efficient.

Step 10: Check up on your team regularly.

One conversation is not enough to keep your team running smoothly year round. This team check-up needs to be an ongoing process. I recommend doing the whole check-up at the beginning of a new school year, and at that time, plan a few points throughout the year for reflection and adjustments.

Halfway through the first semester (or 9 weeks into the school year) is a good time to check in with the team to see if the plan is working for everyone. It’s essential to check in at the end of a grading period or any time people’s schedules change, since meeting schedules and other details might need to be adjusted. And the end of the school year is a good time to take notes about what worked and what didn’t, before those details are forgotten. Tend to your team with care, the same care you give managing a class of students, and it can be a source of inspiration and enjoyment at work, and balance between work and life.