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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Professional Development Opinion

Can’t Get Along? Here Are 5 Skills Needed for Every School-Based Team

By Peter DeWitt — January 30, 2022 4 min read
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We have all been a part of teams, whether we are referring to grade-level, department, or school-based leadership teams. The first time I was asked to be a part of a leadership team I remember feeling very honored. I was a brand-new teacher, and they wanted me to be a part of the team. To quote Sally Fields, “You like me! You really, really like me!”

I didn’t realize at that point that no one else wanted to be on the team.

For full disclosure, I did not always understand why I was supposed to be a part of some of the teams I was on, including the very first one. I wasn’t always sure how to communicate effectively with those around the table because I was a young teacher and some of the members of the team were administrators. I certainly did not understand what I was supposed to contribute and lacked confidence in my ideas.

Over time, my level of confidence grew as I gained experience in the classroom, and I had a few leaders who were actively trying to help me elevate my voice as a teacher leader. This was before the term “teacher leader” was widely used. When I became a principal, I made sure that I paid it forward by developing a leadership team that focused on teacher voice, and we always tried to have a student focus in those meetings.

In the last eight years that I have been coaching leadership teams, I realized that I was not alone in my original insecurities about being on a team. In fact, a few years ago, I was on the East Coast coaching a leadership team, and after the principal left the room, a couple of people on the school leadership team confided that they had no idea why they were there. When I asked if they were new to the team, they told me they had been on the team for two years.

Sadly, this is neither an exaggeration for a blog post nor is it the only time I had heard such a thing from someone on a leadership team.

5 Skills Needed for Every School Team

In Collective Leader Efficacy: Strengthening Instructional Leadership Teams (Corwin Press/Learning Forward. 2021), I focused on how leadership teams can work effectively with a focus on student learning. I explored the issues of status and voice within the book and developed eight drivers to help a team function in a more impactful way.

Some of those drivers were based on preexisting research, while other drivers were ones that I developed on my own or with the help of John Hattie. One such driver that I developed in my own work with the help and guidance of Hattie is the skills to work in collectives. Hattie was focusing on it for student collective efficacy, and although I used the same phrasing, I went in a slightly different direction.

When looking at how to work in collectives, I broke it down to five essential skills. The five skills I believe are a necessity for each team are:

1. Emotional intelligence - is an understanding of how to reflect and evaluate our emotions and the emotions of others and then decide the best course of action for moving forward. Goleman and Boyatzis (2017) write that there are four domains to emotional intelligence: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management.

2. Communication – WOVE is an acronym often used when it comes to communication, and it stands for written, oral, visual, and electronic (Kress & van Leeuwen, 2001). I add nonverbal communication to this model, creating the acronym WOVEN.

  • Written Communication – These are the notes we take at our meetings about what we focused on together.
  • Oral Communication – How we talk with one another at the meeting.
  • Visual communication - How we send out visuals about the work our team is doing. Sometimes it is a sketchnote or a graphic organizer.
  • Electronic Communication – The emails we send to one another but also our school website.
  • Nonverbal communication – As a facilitator and coach, I pay special attention to the body language around the table. Sometimes we can misread body language, but most times it’s a handy barometer for how someone is feeling.

3. Social Sensitivity - Goleman and Boyatzis (2017) found that social sensitivity includes social awareness, and the competencies within that domain are empathy and organizational awareness.

4. Contribute to the Collective Responsibility – In the book, I cited Hargreaves and Shirley (2012, p. 176) because they write “that teachers and leaders need to have a collective responsibility for all students and the improvement of teaching, rather than individual autonomy from any interference or imposed accountability that eliminates professional discretion.”

5. The Ability to Contribute Ideas – When we put all of these together, it creates a psychologically safe space where people feel they can contribute their ideas and feel a sense of pride for being a part of a cohesive group.

In the End

In a recent 3-Minute Collaborative Leader video that I have on my YouTube channel and on Instagram, I explored the five skills in … you guessed it … three minutes. However, I had people ask if I could expand on the idea a bit more in this blog. I like that people care enough about their teams that they want to learn how to better engage with those around the table with them.

In education, we are so used to being a part of a team, but we don’t often think about the skills we need to be a highly functioning team. And what we know now is that our time is very precious, and life is far too short to spend that time on a team where we don’t feel valued.

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.


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