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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

How to Get Kids to Work as a Team If the Adults Around Them Can’t

By Peter DeWitt — August 18, 2012 5 min read
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“To get anywhere you have to build relationships with many different people-people who disagree with you, the skeptical and cynical. If you are to have any chance of progressing, you have to have enough empathy for their situation so that you can relate to them.” Michael Fullan (The Moral Imperative Realized. P.6)

Educators will tell you that teamwork is vitally important to moving forward, especially during our present times in education. Without a team teaching, building or district leadership can feel very lonely. The problem is that a team dynamic can create problems when trying to confront an issue. There are times when we spend more time working out the issues on a team than spending time moving forward and finding innovative ways to educate our students.

Educators like to focus on 21st century skills or career and college readiness, depending on the phrase du jour. One of the most important skills that students can learn is collaboration. Many of us understand the importance of collaboration and we use phrases like “Many hands make light work "(John Heywood. 1497-1580). Unfortunately, there are other adults who talk to students about the importance of collaboration but rarely use it themselves.

We often do that. We ask students to do things that we would never do. “Don’t drink in the computer lab” as we bring water or coffee into the room with us. “Don’t use your cell phone” as the adults text with someone about something that is far from work related. “Do as I say, not as I do” comes to mind during these situations.

We tell students that it’s important to work together at the same time we may be ignoring someone who we do not like to work with, and that should cause some internal philosophical issues for all of us. I get it. We have to work with people who are at the other end of the spectrum. They have different religious and political beliefs or they just can’t see the other side of the story. Instead of looking at this as a strength of the team, it is often looked at as a weakness.

Egos and Insecurities
“Typically, a social system will honor some mix of values, and the competition within this mix largely explains why adaptive work so often involves conflict.” (Ronald Heifetz. p.31)

Most people do not like conflict. They do what they can to avoid it and even go so far as to not talk with another person they work with for months or years at a time. It’s easier for people to just ignore each other than it is for them to work out their differences. When this happens in the school system, it can send a very hypocritical message to students.

We have all been there. We have been the topic of the meeting after the meeting. When we’re lucky we are in the meeting after the meeting. To say that we have not been in those situations is untruthful. We tell kids to stand up and not be bystanders but we do not always follow our own advice. What can we learn from this?

Educators need to take a hard look at how they approach their school day and school year. Whether they are a teacher, teacher’s aide, principal or central office administrator, they need to understand the role they play in the function of a team. Everyone plays a role, whether they are the adult who never says a word or the one who always has an opinion.

The problem with teams is that so many personalities come together and as much as adults want to act like...well, adults, they revert back to childhood and their feelings get hurt. There are adults with egos who always have to be right and other adults who have low self-esteem that always feel that they’re opinion doesn’t matter. The interesting thing is that those people with egos and those with low self-esteem are not that different. Both have a need to be right. The following are some of the roles that adults play and we should prepare children to deal with those roles.

Consensus builder - Whether they work on one person at a time or the whole group, consensus builders try to get the group on their side. Building consensus is important but only if it’s done with integrity.

Task master - This person always wants to get the job done. It’s important to have someone like this on your team but make sure the job is getting done correctly.

The Thinker - This person doesn’t always contribute to the meeting until the meeting is over. They like to reflect on what was said and go back to the topic later. Reflection is great but too much of it can slow the process down.

Laidback - This person will go with the group, no matter what the decision is. They can either see both sides of a decision or they have no opinion and just want to get it over.

Focused Participant - Every group needs someone who can think fast and see all options and pitfalls ahead of them. The thinker doesn’t need to reflect because they are quick on their feet.

There are so many roles that people play in meetings and on a team. Students need to understand that there is strength in working with people who are different. There is even great strength, and more of a chance to learn, when students challenge one another. It can help bring the team up to another level.

Working as a Team
Working as a team isn’t easy and our students need to know that but so do the adults that work in our schools. Being passive aggressive isn’t healthy for any school system and adults need to learn how to work out their issues so they can teach students the same lessons. We often do not take the very advice we give, and expect students to act the very way we don’t.

There is nothing more important than teamwork but when adults keep using behavior that fractures the team, it may be so broken that they cannot repair the damage. Times are hard enough in education that we need to learn how to work through these issues together and not apart. Our students can learn valuable lessons when we follow the very advice we so easily give.

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Fullan, Michael. (2011). The Moral Imperative Realized. Corwin Press. Thousand Oaks, CA.

Heifetz, Ronald A. (1994). Leadership Without Easy Answers. Harvard University Press. Cambridge. MA.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.