Leveraging Excellence Through Teams

School leaders know that when your team is growing, students are growing.  When one team outshines others (usually in regards to specific key performance indicators) it has the potential to breed a domino effect of excellence across a building or district.  But how do you take silos of extraordinary practices and duplicate them effectively for all students?

During my first year teaching on the west side of Indianapolis, I joined a team.  While student teaching at another Indianapolis Public School, I overheard a few teachers bashing the district regarding a mass email the Superintendent had sent.  The district was serving over 35,000 students at the time and Riverside would be its first “restructured” elementary school in the state.  In fewer words: the school had not met AYP for a number of years and was going to be turned around.  My ears perked up as I overheard the snickers that “no one would ever want to teach there.”  Though I did not have a district email as a novice student teacher, I snooped around to find the contact info for the Assistant Superintendent.  In true rookie, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed fashion, I sent her a bold email of interest with my college resume attached.  Call it what you want – but I received an interview and was hired! I am forever grateful to my first principal (Doris Thompson) who believed in me and furthermore, coached me.  Throughout my first year teaching, I learned invaluable lessons that have continued to influence my leadership…like:

  • You can still continue walking in your calling even after a tragedy (one of my second-grade students was murdered my first year teaching); it forever changes your urgency and who you are as an educator.
  • Living in the community where you teach/lead builds trust, credibility and a deeper endearment and passion to advocate for students and teachers in your school community.
  • You do not have to yell to be heard.
  • Your school is more successful when you have teams of maniacs who collaborate consistently and efficiently.
Lewis Staff
Great teams have traditions. At an annual holiday party during one of my years serving as an administrator at Chicago Public Schools.

So what does this mean for leveraging practices within your school?  Teams of people naturally come together in pockets throughout your school.  Yes, people are meeting outside of the scheduled weekly grade-level team meetings you work so hard to plan.  This is where the magic happens.  In my personal story, our team made AYP after the school had experienced years of failure.  But the staff was not just staying in their own hallway; people were willing to help each other out no matter what.  Even if a teacher is struggling with, let’s just say, behavior management – when they start utilizing a buddy teacher or asking others for advice, the hope is they will gravitate towards those with effective practices.  Sometimes this happens naturally, but if you notice slow to no movement with development of select team members, try these strategies to leverage excellent practices across your building/district:

  • Support, support and….support! If you want to develop a culture of teaming purposefully across your school or district, it begins with what you model. Get some skin in the game and be willing to be part of the team. The more you are involved and creating a positive culture of teaming, you are increasing morale and trust. In turn, it decreases the likelihood of having negative team members who become influencers.  
  • Targeted and specific feedback:  If there is an area where a teacher needs improvement to make a greater impact with students, be specific and targeted with one key lever.  The phrase “Do less better” is a good rule of thumb when selecting areas of coaching.  Likewise, be sure to offer targeted and specific praise! Kim Marshall has authored books and developed multiple tools for conducting mini-observations.  He shares this methodology in a great podcast here.
  • Teacher-led professional development: This requires you to know your team’s talents very well and be able to bring them alongside you in collaboration.  Be strategic about your selection and identify personnel whose data consistently shows growth because of their practices. Select high-leverage practices for development that, if implemented school or district-wide, would have a huge impact on student achievement. 
  • Peer observation: Make time and space for teams to see one another in action.  If they see something that improves instruction, it will likely show up in their own practice.  Create a structured protocol that helps teachers identify what practice they observed, its impact upon student learning, as well as a plan for implementation into their own practice. This also requires a deeper level of trust between your staff members.

A “team” feeling within your district or school does not happen by coincidence.  Developing effective and energized teams is hard work.  It starts with the right people (leaders, teachers, support personnel) honoring one another.  This means working to understand where each other comes from, why each person thinks as they do and what we all have in common in order to move the team forward to better serve every learner.

A great book recommendation specifically targeting talent management and school culture (i.e. selecting and leading your team) is The School Leadership Playbook.  It can be found here and features the Transformational Leadership Framework, developed through extensive research and partnership by co-authors, Jean Desravines and Benjamin Fenton.  Both serve in executive leadership roles with New Leaders, an innovative school reform organization that develops and supports highly effective leaders.  Learn more about New Leaders here, which happens to be my alma mater school leader training program.

 

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