Go team!


The title of our staff’s latest shared Google presentation was, “Go Team Brecknock!” I’m not sure what compelled me to name it that, but I think it’s because the first hour of our morning (before we provided teachers with sweet freedom to collaborate with their grade level peers for the remainder of the day), our discussions focused on the “state of our school,” an overall look at some data trends, where we are, where we need to go, and how we’re going to get there. We are a team, working toward the collective goal of improving learning experiences for all children.

No single person can move a school, therefore team dynamics become critical. We modeled our own professional learning community work after DuFour’s model. One of the “big ideas” of Dufour’s PLC is A Culture of Collaboration:

Educators who are building a professional learning community recognize that they must work together to achieve their collective purpose of learning for all. Therefore, they create structures to promote a collaborative culture…. For teachers to participate in such a powerful process, the school must ensure that everyone belongs to a team that focuses on student learning. Each team must have time to meet during the workday and throughout the school year. Teams must focus their efforts on crucial questions related to learning and generate products that reflect that focus,   such as lists of essential outcomes, different kind of assessment, analyses of student achievement, and strategies for improving results. Teams must develop norms or protocols to clarify expectations regarding roles, responsibilities, and relationships among team members. Teams must adopt student achievement goals linked with school and district goals. –What is a professional learning community? (DuFour, 2004)

What makes a strong team? What makes a dysfunctional team? I’ve seen both in action, and I’ve been part of both. As administrators we need to recognize the characteristics of effective teacher teams so we can build capacity within them, strengthening the organization as a whole. To further extend this collaborative power for learning, teachers can and should incorporate team-building and team problem-solving activities into their classrooms with students.

A team of researchers from Centre for Innovation in Education from the Queensland University for Technology set out to identify the characteristics of effective school-based teams through the lens of micropolitics. Their findings are relevant for schools and school-based systems dealing with school-based management and similar reforms/restructurings in that they developed a tool to assess and enhance the effectiveness of teams. Critical reflection of team dynamics should include a look at the

  • clarity of the team’s role and objectives
    • competence and credibility of the team members
    • uniformity of members’ values and their commitment to team work
    • interpersonal relationships and communication among members and between members and other staff
    • accessibility of professional development opportunities for the team and for its individual members

    Developing strengths in these dimensions will better establish school teams in that they will be more prepared to engage in decision-making processes, develop better relationships among colleagues, and embrace future possibilities rather than focus on current realities (Cranston, Ehrich, Reugebrink, & Gaven, 2002).

    I am generally pleased with the collaborative efforts my teachers are making. Each team is finding their way… each team member is defining and honing his/her role in that team. One area where we need to develop is in our team leadership/coaching roles. Team leaders were appointed and attended professional development sessions on coaching and adult learning. This experience was not enough to impress upon our teacher leaders the essential components that exemplify a true leader. They need continuous exposure to new ideas, time to conduct peer observation and reflections, and time spent with administration to work at defining and refining the shared vision and goals of the school. Most of all, these team leaders need to extend trust to all members of the team and school, and need to be trusted by all. This aspect requires a lot of work and dedication on everyone’s part.

    Finally, I’d like to share @l_hilt’s Dos & Don’ts of team dynamics….

    • Do seek to act upon that which you can positively change. Don’t be negative and dwell on things you cannot.
    • Do be a giver. Don’t be selfish.
    • Do understand that “the way we’ve always done things” is not necessarily the best way to help students learn. Don’t get sucked into a solitary cave of complacency.
    • Do communicate clearly, accurately, and respectfully. Don’t hide your feelings about a situation or make them known maliciously.
    • Do be open and accepting. Don’t be defensive.
    • Do realize that you are not the most important part of the equation. Don’t forget for one second that the child is.

    Who are the Problem Solvers?

    Many look to the principal to be the problem solver.

    We can’t agree on how to schedule these students. What should we do?
    There’s an issue with the lunch cards in the cafeteria. How should we handle it?
    My child is being bothered by another student. Can you help us?
    We’ve tried many different instructional approaches with this child, but he’s still not understanding. What can we try next?
    Most principals are inherently skilled problem solvers. One of the benefits we have in our role is being able to step outside of the situation and view the varied aspects of the problem before offering input into how it can best be solved. As sometimes uninvolved participants in the conflict, we can remain cool-headed, consider all options, and draw upon our experiences to help craft possible solutions. John Gardner reflects in On Leadership that leaders who work to resolve conflicts use their influences to eliminate irrational demands, and “foster the transition from a cross fire of accusations to a collaborative search for solutions” (p. 105). Leaders look for the underlying causes of the disputes. Is it a lack of communication? Insensitivity to needs? Leaders then work to solve conflict in an environment of open communication and honesty and explore all alternative solutions.

    Let’s examine the graphic above, shared from one of my favorite sites, Indexed. (Go to this site after you are finished reading my post. And after you are finished commenting. It’s so smart.) On one hand, the graphic is an accurate representation of how someone from outside of the situation can bring a unique, honest, unfiltered perspective on the conflict. It is sometimes easier for that person to recognize a solution and thus, it becomes less “impossible” to solve. However, personal accountability is huge. The more invested in a situation someone is, the more difficult, ultimately, it is to solve the problem. But truly, can anyone other than the people so deeply involved make the change?

    Principals are certainly not the only problem solvers in the school. In fact, some of the best principals will insist that teachers who raise an issue also present possible resolutions to that problem. Last year a team of teacher leaders in our building read John G. Miller’s QBQ: The Question Behind the Question: What to Really Ask Yourself to Eliminate Blame, Complaining and Procrastination. Intense subtitle aside, the guidelines within this text really help you focus on what you can do to alleviate a problem as opposed to look to others to solve the problem for you. When a teacher asks, “How can I improve this situation?” “What can I contribute?” or “How can I make a difference?” he is placing himself in a different frame of mind that will empower him to be an active part of finding the solution to the problem, not just bringing the issue to someone else’s attention.

    How do these principles apply to our lives in schools? Reading Brian Crosby’s words about what teachers need from administrators helped me reflect on the fact that most teachers want to be held accountable, want to be involved in the change process, and want to do what it takes to improve their practice and their schools. They don’t want change handed to them- they want to be active participants in the process. Anyone who has ever tried to initiate change in an organization knows that conflict will certainly rear its ugly head at some (and likely, all) points in the process. Problems will need to be solved.

    Carry this premise into the classroom as well. Teachers and staff should model for students what effective problem solving looks like – identify the issue, examine the facts, determine the emotional elements involved, brainstorm possible solutions and the consequences of each, agree on some form of action, and continually reflect on that decision to ensure it was right. Students will absolutely need to be adept problem solvers in all capacities in their adult lives, and we need to help them hold themselves accountable for the fact that they do have the power and skills to make the right choices.

    Principals are problem solvers, but we cannot, and should not, do it alone. We need the expertise and creative solutions of our faculties, parents, and students to help us. I’d love to learn about the different approaches to problem solving in your schools!

    What's best for kids?

    “It’s what’s best for kids.”

    Have you heard an administrator use this phrase to justify decisions? Did you think, “Cliche.” Or, “Easy for her to say.” Or, “How convenient, no one can argue with the merits of We do what’s best for kids.”

    Well, it’s true! Who can argue with it? No right-minded educator, that’s for sure.

    Administrators who say this, and mean it, stay focused on student needs and make students the center of the decision-making process. Those of you that are parents, or who have a child in their personal lives in any capacity (here’s where I gush about my sweet, sweet new nephew who was born today!) exist in a reality where in their family, children are the centers of their lives.

    Children are, and should always be, our focus. Our schools should be families. What are some ways to transform your school into a family of learners?

    Include parents. Often. Always. See David Truss’s thoughts on doing so. At our school, we held our first Moms & Muffins and Dads & Donuts mornings this year. All extended family members invited, too! We had an amaaazing turnout. It was unreal! I have never seen so many people packed into our cafeteria. I met Dads and Moms I’d never met before. Parents walked their children to homerooms after our breakfast. Some stayed to volunteer for the day. What a beautiful thing!

    Build morale, the subject of recent posts by Dave Bircher and Janet Avery by making connections and building relationships with staff and community members. Show them videos of your dogs. Ask them about their families and their summer vacations. To start our opening day, we’re doing a round of “speed dating”-esque reconnect time where we’ll get in two circles, and every 2 minutes, the people in the inside people will move to the left. Two minutes, introduce yourself and tell them all about your summer/life. Tell your partner one goal you have for the school year. We had a difficult year last year, when a colleague passed away from breast cancer. This year will continue to be about healing. As the principal, I need to support my colleagues in their grief and help build relationships, because the success of our students depends on it.

    Get to know, and love, your students. When I hear teachers say, “I don’t have to like all of my students, I just have to act like I do,” I get really tense and uncomfortable and a whole list of other adjectives. There are students who will always push your buttons. I was one of them, I know I was. Get to know each and every child on a personal level. Find out what they’re all about. How else can you possible expect them to respect you? Because you’re the teacher? Because you’re the principal? Children respect those that show them respect. They’re children.  Know your students on a personal level, because doing so will make discussions about behavior that much easier. George Couros often explores the importance of developing rapport with his students and the positive impacts this has on his practices.

    I will conclude with just one example of when I was convinced that the children I serve are indeed part of my family. A  young man in an intermediate grade made some unwise choices, and was spending the day in my office. He was getting a bad rap around the school (and frankly, the community) for his behaviors, and it seemed as though the whole world was against him. His classmates were in the hallway outside of my office en route to the library, and not only did every single one of them crane their necks to see how he was doing in my office, several of them said, “Hi, buddy!” and “How are you, friend?” from their place in line. One boy in his class, a boy who was also known for lapses in judgment, asked to come inside my office and see his friend. He walked over to the boy, put his arm around his shoulder, and quietly, almost in a whisper, encouragingly said, “It’s okay, buddy. We all make bad choices sometimes. We know you’re a good kid.” And he turned on his heel and headed back to the line.

    My heart burst.

    We do what’s best for kids. They’re our family. Their teachers and parents are family. As educational leaders, we’re the head of this family, and we have to commit to making it the best it can be.

    Leading with Walkthroughs


    Walkthrough observations take many forms in the elementary, middle, and secondary levels. This practice typically involves the principal or other supervisor spending a few minutes observing a classroom to take a quick pulse of the teaching and learning occurring. Some districts tie walkthrough reports into the formal teacher evaluation system. Others use walkthrough forms to provide informal feedback to teachers. No matter what system is used, there are several characteristics of walkthroughs that in my experience have made them more effective in changing teacher practice.

    1. Decide on your “look-fors,” and be sure teachers are well-versed in this content.

    Our district utilizes the iObservation system for walkthrough observations. iObservation provides a variety of comprehensive walkthrough forms based on the works of Marzano and Danielson. Many of the qualities of Learning Focused Schools are also represented on the forms, and since our teachers are expected to utilize these strategies in their instruction, the iObservation system provides us with many look-for options in the classroom. The forms I used most frequently last year were the Research-Based Instructional Strategies K-12, Research-Based Classroom Management K-12, and Teaching Authentic forms. Our district also has the option of accessing our state’s formal evaluation forms through this system. We use tablet PCs to visit classrooms, complete the checklist forms of the strategies we see in, and can add narratives when needed. iObservation includes banks of coaching questions to help lead discussions with teachers, as well as rubrics that identify teachers as Beginning through Innovating on specific strategies. The rubrics are probably the most powerful aspect of the program, as teachers can identify where they are on the rubric, and using the descriptors provided, work to improve to the Innovating level. For many strategies, there are embedded “Best Practices” videos that teachers can watch to see a master teacher execute the strategy in the classroom. It’s a comprehensive program that we have not yet used to its fullest potential.

    The article Classroom walkthroughs: Learning to see the trees and the forest by Howard Pitler with Bryan Goodwin provides solid examples of look-fors in the classroom. They suggest principals ask these six questions to guide their classroom observations: Are teachers using research-based teaching strategies? Do student grouping patterns support learning? Are teachers and students using technology to support student learning? Do students understand their learning goals? Are students learning both basic and higher order levels of knowledge? Do student achievement data correlate with walkthrough data? The authors conclude with their thoughts that walkthrough observations should be used for coaching, not evaluation. Walkthroughs can be used to measure the school’s staff development efforts as well.

    iObservation is an instructional and leadership improvement system. It collects, manages and reports longitudinal data from classroom walkthroughs and teacher observations. Teacher growth and leadership practices inform professional development differentiated to individual learning needs for every teacher and leader to increase his/her effectiveness each year.

    Another tool I’m looking forward to using this year is ISTE’s Classroom Observation Tool (ICOT). This is a free online tool that helps administrators and observers look for key components of technology integration in the classroom. What I appreciate about this tool is that it does not focus strictly on technology use, but also on student grouping practices, varied learning activities, and NETS Teachers Standards observed.

    Look-fors will vary from school to school, but it is imperative that teachers are knowledgeable about what supervisors will be observing on their visits, and that they are supported in using these strategies in the classroom.

    2. Follow-up conversations are crucial.

    Our teachers truly desire constructive feedback about their practice. Though it might not always be easy to hear, a teacher cannot possibly seek to improve without input from a supervisor or colleague. A walkthrough observation is not complete without some type of follow-up conversation. This can be as informal as making sure you drop into the teacher’s room after school to comment on the positive practices you saw, to offer suggestions for improvements, and to share your walkthrough paperwork. In our iObservation system, our teachers log in to access their completed forms. They can start an online conference in a confidential message-board-type-forum with the observer to answer any questions that were posed, or interactions can occur via the iObservation email system. The reflective practice component of walkthroughs is vital.

    3. Talk to students!

    I do not complete a walkthrough without talking to at least one student in the classroom. Questions I typically ask include, What is your essential question for this lesson? What do you think your teacher wants you to learn as a result of completing this activity? How will you know that  you have learned (insert objective here). How do you know your work meets the standards set for you? I also enjoy when students read their writing to me or show me their latest project work. If I am observing learning centers, I like to join in the fun!

    Walkthrough observations were recently the topic of discussion on the #cpchat and #edadmin hashtag on Twitter, so be sure to check out the meaningful discussions to learn more. This year, I hope to expand the use of iObservation for peer-peer learning walks and observations. Administrators and teachers, please consider commenting on this post with walkthrough practices you’ve found to be most effective, or most ineffective.

    Collaboration Inspiration

    How do you focus change efforts to create a more collaborative and mentoring culture for both educators and students? This was the topic of the 7/13 #edchat, and it sparked quality conversation among participants.

    I have worked in both self-contained elementary and middle school team teaching environments, and I truly believe that I developed as a professional, took more risks with my teaching, and became a more skilled communicator when I was a member of a teaching team. It is far too easy for educators to fall into their own, safe routines without much considering how things could be done differently. The scary this is, this routine and sense of complacency can continue for years upon end.

    We embarked on the PLC journey last year in our school, and it of course was not without its bumps along the road. We got creative and ran a whole new master schedule, where grade level teams now had “specials” at the same times throughout the cycle. This allowed for two days out of six that could be earmarked as “common” planning times. Within the confines of the contracted teacher day, there was not a lot of flexibility to provide teachers with additional collaboration time. We learned about the characteristics of PLCs, developed team norms, discussed what collaboration looks like, developed team feedback sheets, etc.

    In the first year, I felt as though teachers did embrace the “idea” of collaboration, and many commented that they appreciated having common planning times so they could “touch base” with one another during the day, but very few teams experienced true collaboration during these times.

    Our school’s leadership team noticed this, and the reasons became clear that from the teachers’ perspective, their planning time was “theirs” and they should not be held accountable for meeting with others during that time.

    While, in my opinion, there are just so many things wrong with that line of thinking, I have already addressed that concern in a prior post, so instead I ponder ways of righting that situation in a hopes of helping my teachers create a new mentality and attitude about collaborative planning. The first thing our admin team did was to schedule PLC time for each grade level team, once per month, for 1 hour at the end of the day, where two support specialists and myself covered their classes for that time. This tactic proved successful, and many of the teams truly immersed themselves in student data and planning for instruction to help meet the needs of students. The downside to this plan is that I could not be a participant in these meetings, nor could my support team.

    A realization made through an interaction with Michelle Sumner @edtechdhh during #edchat was that some teachers would rather just close their doors to collaboration due to all of the personal “planning” they feel needs to get accomplished, however if they engaged in the team approach to planning, the time spent on clerical/mundane “planning” tasks would decrease significantly. I have to help them see the benefit of collaboration!

    The purpose of this post is to encourage those building leaders and teachers who thrive for collaborative opportunities to keep searching outside-the-box for solutions to the lack of time and opportunities that typically plague, in particular, an elementary teacher’s schedule and resources. I established a wiki for our school to encourage collaboration within the first few months on the job- I believe we had one post. My teachers aren’t ready to collaborate in that type of environment… yet. I think as their comfort with the tools grows, we can make it work. As teachers see the value in collaborating among themselves, my sincere hope is that they will infuse the power of team thinking and doing in their classrooms with students.

    Thanks for reading! I leave you with a little collaboration inspiration and please comment as to how you have achieved success with all forms of collaboration in your schools!

    All Things PLC

    Classroom 2.0

    The Educator’s PLN

    The Lesson Study Project

    The Benefits of Teacher Collaboration

    What is Teacher Collaboration?

    Teacher Collaboration on WikiEducator