To what extent is teaching a team game?
Is the teachers’ room filled with individuals?
When and how does this group of individuals become a team?
These questions, among others, came up in a recent talk given by Loraine Kennedy to the London Directors of Studies Association (Londosa). I found them interesting questions because I like to see myself as a team player, and when recruiting for teachers, I tend to look for team players. But why?
When it comes down to it, teachers in a school don’t necessarily operate as a team. The DOS allocates them a class or two and off they go, on their own…to teach. Their primary company function is inherently individual – the classroom door is closed, and for the the next hour or two, what happens is between them and their students (the employee working alone with their customers), and so long as the students leave happy, there is very little impact on anyone else.
So why were we all there at the LONDOSA meeting, 25 directors of studies, focused on gaining new insights into team work and managing teams?
Well, it is because when we are able to build a sense of teamwork, to mould our group of individual teachers into a teaching team, then we – the school, the teachers, and the DoS – can all start to achieve something greater than we could otherwise:
- greater standards of excellence in the classroom
- greater learner experience
- greater individual and organisational development and learning
- greater adaptability to change
- greater ability to innovate
- greater sense of harmony and morale
Is that all true? Maybe. Some teams win the Champions League, others fail and fall to the bottom of the league.
So how do we shape our group of teachers into a successful all-achieving team?
Simply put, you need to give them cause to work together.
Loraine used an analogy in her session which made me smile (because this happened to me once): “A group of people gets into a lift. A team occurs when the lift gets stuck.” A team is more than a group. They have a common goal.
One simple way to give teachers a common goal is to timetable classes with co-teachers. In other words, a three hour class is split into two sessions with teacher A and teacher B. This will inevitably lead to discussions between the co-teachers about their learners’ strengths and weaknesses, about material and task type preferences, and involve them in problem solving. You may need to prompt or facilitate this kind of liaising between co-teachers, but a co-taught class provides such a classic information gap between colleagues that they are more likely to discuss the class than not. We have always done it this way in my school, and I think it is fairly common practice – but if not, perhaps explore ways to tweak your timetable to allow for co-teachers. It is great way for new teachers to get to know new colleagues, and gradually over time it helps teachers develop a strong sense of trust – and this is a vital component of a great team.
Providing opportunities for teachers to collaborate on projects and developmental initiatives is another way of getting the team working together. The Food Issues Month in October (promoted by the IATEFL Global Issues SIG) was a perfect chance to set up a project for the team to explore a common theme, and share ideas with each other – outlined in this blog here. It resulted in two pairs of teachers team-teaching; shared resources and ideas; a video conference lesson between one of our classes in London and a class in Russia; and a good degree of experimentation and reflection.
And making this kind of project part of a common goal, part of a grander vision – to foster a culture of learning and of continuous improvement – helps raise the interaction to a higher level. Peer observations and mentoring, for example, then become more than an activity between two individuals working together but part of the team drive to keep learning and to keep improving standards.
A shared vision is important for a team and you need to be transparent about it. State it as an explicit goal in appraisals, for both you and your teachers, and then make continual reference to it in meetings and in communication face to face or by email. And then get buy-in from your team – by leading by example, by sharing successes, and by giving recognition to those who put the vision into action.
Challenging, stressful situations may test the spirit of a team, but can also be used to strengthen a team bond. Preparing for an inspection is a good example of this. Look together at what the last inspection report said, debate whether you agree, which comments are true, and which comments miss the mark; highlight what the reality is; discuss how you are going to respond, and what action you can take. The inspection becomes a team challenge – ‘we’re in this together’ – and the pride of achieving success can be something you all share in.
Finally, a great team has different characters and personalities. You have to get to know your teachers, and identify their team roles. Who are the captains in your team, who are the ones who keep morale up, and who will go that extra mile to help and support others? And, how do you fit into the team? The DOS is the leader – all teams need one – and you play the key role in setting the tone for the team. Practice what you preach. Be demanding but fair, transparent and flexible, listen, and know the capabilities of your team. And if the tone you set is right, then there will be a sense of belonging, people will want to be part of the team, and the individuals performing the individual function of teaching can become and can achieve something greater.