Imagine that your teaching team has just been given the task of designing and creating the graduation experience and trip for the first 8th grade class in your school’s history. How would your current team respond? Would you be up for the task?
This very task was handed to my colleagues and me at the beginning of our second year together. It wasn’t easy, but with the foundation that we had already established in our first year as a team, we were able to pull off a graduation ceremony that parents continue to rave about and a class trip that our students still celebrate.
For the past five years, I have had the great privilege to be a part of a thriving team of teachers. I am lucky that my team mates are experts at their craft and have a rare passion for education. Each one has a strong desire to innovate, create unique learning experiences for students, and go beyond the call of duty to create a positive culture for teachers and students alike. Throughout the years, we have supported each other in our quest to provide the best educational experience possible for the young people that we serve.
But the truth is, our team did not become cohesive by accident—and it was certainly not inevitable. Rather, it was something that we intentionally cultivated from the moment we met. In hopes that other teams will benefit, I have created a list of a few practices my colleagues and I use to create—and maintain—a cohesive teacher team.
1. Align your values. Our conversation did not start with what we needed to get done to be ready for the school year; instead, it was focused on our views on education. Many of our initial meetings weren’t very productive in terms of checking things off a list, but they did produce a shared vision for the spaces in which our students learn. We believe in educating the whole child—that you must start with children’s hearts before you can access their minds. Each and every child is brilliant, and we should create spaces and experiences that allow this brilliance to shine through. This vision is the roadmap we use to make our decisions.
While this process may not seem efficient at first, creating a shared vision will save you time in the long run. For my team, this work has proven to be more important than any box we could have checked off our back-to-school lists.
2. Identify your strengths. What’s your superpower? How about your teammates’ superpowers? Taking a moment to define and share each team member’s strengths is a great way to build connections and to understand the people you work with daily in a deeper way. Our team believes that every teacher is a leader, and each of us has our own leadership style. We make each of our styles known by taking this short personality quiz and sharing our results. This activity might take up a full meeting, but it is time well spent. When conflict arises in our work, it is far easier to navigate because we have a better understanding of the people on our team.
3. Define your purpose. Why do we educate? This is a question few teachers have time to contemplate, let alone discuss with other educators. Although we may never settle on a definitive answer, there is a lot that we can discover about each other along the way. Big-picture conversations have helped my team develop a better understanding of our philosophies on discipline, teaching style, student voice, and community. Just as a school must have a mission and vision statement that everyone buys into, every team of teachers needs a shared mission and vision. When push comes to shove, it is important that we have a compass and a roadmap so we can make sure that we are giving our students the education they deserve.
4. Value your process. Establish meeting norms and practices for your team. Taking time to hash these out before confronting the many challenges of teaching will help your team be more effective in making decisions that are worthy of your students. My team has a toolbox of practices that we implement in our meetings. We use different strategies for different purposes, but we have been intentional and consistent about making sure we are taking care of each other so that we can take care of our students.
One of my favorite practices we have implemented is a five-minute write and share-out. At the beginning of our meetings, we take five minutes to write down our frustrations, celebrations, and aspirations. The important part is not how well the pieces are written—it is the process of reflecting and sharing with each other. Through this activity, we gain insight into what is happening in each of our classes and build a better understanding of our respective struggles. Often, we use frustrations discovered in the exercise as agenda items for our meeting, which allows us to address pressing challenges and troubleshoot problems.
If we want to encourage our students to be kind and empathetic critical thinkers, then we must reflect these values both in how we interact with our fellow teachers and in the decisions we make as a team. Because we have established a vision for our students, my colleagues and I will not be complicit in activities that do not align with our vision. For example, my team has challenged our administration a number of times when policies went against what we knew was right for our students. In support of our fellow team members and our students, we have rallied and redesigned systems. This level of support would not be possible without our team’s shared vision and values.
While it is beautiful to look back on the successes we’ve had, my eyes are always fixed on the future. My team will continue to learn and grow, as people and as teachers who are working together to make each other stronger. We are in the process of graduating another group of students, and we want to ensure that we are creating experiences for our students that will have a long-term impact. I know this will be the case if we continue to guide our work by asking, “What can we do to bring our team closer together, so we can create more opportunities for our students to shine?”
Photo provided by author.