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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

Leading Impact Teams: 5 Keys to Developing Rock Star Teams

By Barb Pitchford & Paul Bloomberg — June 10, 2016 6 min read
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Today’s guest blog is co-authored by Barb Pitchford and Paul Bloomberg of the Core Collaborative.

Question 1: How many hours have you spent in “team meetings”?
Seriously, take a minute and estimate the amount of time you’ve spent with your ‘team':

  • analyzing data
  • planning your next unit
  • writing assessments
  • talking about strategies
  • listening to a colleague go on (and on?) about a teaching moment or ‘adventure’
  • trying to figure out how to engage students
  • managing behavioral problems

Make it easy on yourself. About how much time have you spent in teams this year? And your estimate is _____?

Question 2: Given the time you’ve spent, how valuable has it been in improving your practice?

Keeping it Real
Here’s the reality. Most teachers spend less than 1 hour per week formally (scheduled time) collaborating with colleagues. Given the 40 hours a week we work in school (not counting the many hours outside of school we prepare, worry, plan, etc.), that’s about 2.5%.

So what can teams do to make the time spent with colleagues so valuable that they can’t wait to get to their team meeting to share, to learn, to debate, to celebrate? What can teams do to make their time together not just productive but a powerful tool to improve teaching that actually has an impact on student learning? After all, isn’t that why we ‘collaborate’?

Before we go there, let’s briefly identify why ‘collaboration’ is a very big deal these days, and not just in education. Google recently conducted a three-year study on teaming called Project Aristotle. Not surprisingly, they found that working effectively together can reap powerful results that depth and innovation come from interactive problem solving. Most businesses now work in teams. Isolation and autonomy are OUT - teaming and collaboration are IN! Simply put, ‘we’ is smarter than ‘me’.

What Makes Productive Teams
We actually know exactly what makes teams productive (and what does not). Gallimore & Ermeling et al (2009) cite five components:

  • Job-alike teams (common relevant focus)
  • Clear goals
  • Trained peer facilitator
  • Inquiry-based protocols
  • Stable settings (protected time, principal commits to the process over time)

Recently a paper out of Harvard Graduate School of Education by Johnson, Reinhorn, and Simon (2016) examines how collaboration works best, listing five factors that contribute to a team’s success:

  • Clear worthwhile purpose
  • Sufficient regular time
  • Administrative support and attention
  • Trained teacher facilitators
  • Integrated approach to teacher support
  • Beginning to see some consistencies?

5 Critical Components
We have worked with hundreds of teams in the field and the research supports what our claims. Here are the 5 critical components of “Rock Star Teams” that ensure engagement, analysis, and debate - hallmarks of effective teaming.

  1. Purpose - common purpose and goals (authentic relevant commitment)
  2. Support - administrators actively promoting and participating in team learning (walk the talk)
  3. Trained facilitator - promoting inquiry-based protocols
  4. Safety - Listening is a critical and shared skill where team members feel safe to share, feel free to talk about the tough stuff, and to have hard conversations to stimulate reflection, analysis, and deeper thinking
  5. Collective action - it’s not just talk...collaboration results in thoughtful action

At the core of the work, these teams are learners...they are constantly and relentlessly reflecting on their practice, their strategies, their actions and asking, “What is our impact on student learning?” These teams make a difference. They are constantly learning in service to their students. And in the process, they are building efficacy, that is, the belief that they can and will make a difference in student learning.

As longtime educators who believe in the power of good teaching and even more, good teachers, our belief was validated when John Hattie (2014) identified collective teacher efficacy (CTE) as the highest educational influence found in the research literature to date, 1.57 effect size! This translates to more than quadrupling the rate of learning (.40 effect equals about a year’s growth in one year’s time).

The ‘collective’, that is, teachers working together to make a difference in students’ lives, have the potential to change kids’ lives. In fact, CTE can mitigate the effects poverty (Hoy, Sweetland & Smith, 2002). That’s what we all want out of our precious team time, i.e., collaboration so relentlessly effective that we can guarantee positive impact on ALL students.

Taking Collective Action
So how do we make that happen? Back to our 5 components.

Purpose: At the end the day the most important goal is to develop learners that:

  • know themselves as learners
  • know how they learn best
  • are genuinely engaged in the learning process

This is not top down accountability, ‘meeting because we were told we have to’. This is about authentic, real-life, ‘we want to learn and grow’ purpose. The team has to share the commitment that they can make a difference for ALL learners.


  • Protected Time Weekly - When are you meeting? Where? Exactly what time? Set the agenda based on the team’s plan to reach the goal.
  • Advocacy from administration - committing to protecting team time, not usurping collaborative time for ‘other business’, ultimately promoting and participating in collaboration.

Team Facilitation: Research and practice is clear, all teams need a trained facilitator that ensures the meeting is focused, efficient (roles and norms required here), and balanced (all voices heard). Not one second of time is spent on who’s taking notes, what to bring to the meeting, etc., and filibustering is not allowed. Facilitation can be shared, rotated, and/or a year-long commitment. In our Model Teams approach, we build facilitation skills naturally and always require an administrator plus a volunteer (or two) to learn the basics.

Teams need to learn how to conduct a hassle-free efficient meeting. Think of this as developing a 21st century skill. With practice, teams learn effective ‘teaming’ by following set protocols based on the purpose of the meeting. Protocols ensure that teams can efficiently:

  • Analyze student work
  • Understand their impact on student learning
  • Enhance effective practice
  • Ensure that students don’t fall through the cracks
  • Take collective action that is responsive to students

Safety: In a recent 3-year study (Project Aristotle) on team effectiveness, Google, (where almost all work is done in teams), found that lack of team trust was a common issue in the less effective teams. Psychological safety - conversational turn taking and empathy - matter! Be intentional and transparent about building trust. Sharing your mistakes and challenges is psychologically risky so to do so requires a safe environment. Talk as a team about the importance of trust. Practice sharing something personal. Take a team trust survey (many free on-line versions) and see where your team stands on trusting one another. Have a plan about building trust and check back in every 3-4 months to see how you’re doing. Most importantly, do not underestimate the importance of trusting one another when doing this very important work.

Collective Action: Analyzing, dialoging, intense conversations are important, but without concomitant ACTION following the discussion, what’s the value to students? To be blunt...so what? Impact Teams are about thoughtful, strategic action to ensure high levels of student and teacher learning. Impact Teams are about building and sharing knowledge to take responsive action in service to student learning, to take thoughtful collective action that makes a difference for all students.

Growing from Within
Schools don’t get better from the top down. They get better from learning and growing from within. And the core of the ‘within’ is teachers learning from one another to improve practice, to continuously learn from one another to be the best they can be in service to all students. We know how outrageously complicated teaching and learning is in today’s world. It’s simply not possible to teach consistently well alone. We must work together purposefully, efficiently, and effectively to have a positive impact on all students and to build a culture of efficacy.

Creative Commons igame courtesy of Fjaka.

Connect with Paul and Barb on Twitter.

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.