Building Team Cohesion: Opportunity Culture Fellows Share Strategies

by | October 30, 2019

By Margaret High, October 30, 2019 

Public Impact held its Opportunity Culture Fellows Convening in September; this series of blog posts highlights some of the convening topics and sessions.

How can multi-classroom leaders (MCLs) build the cohesion of their teaching teams? A panel of five Opportunity Culture Fellows tackled this question—a hot topic among MCLs­—with suggestions that focused on the joy of team leadership as well as how to address challenges with team members.

“My two things are genuinely caring about the people as individuals and as teachers. …And then really not being a know-it-all,” one panelist said. “I’m not coming into the classroom to make you into me. I’m coming in here to make you a better version of you.”

From left to right: Troy Smith (moderator), Assistant Principal Jessica Smith, MCL Jacqueline Smith, MCL Casey Jackson, MCL Tonya Reaves, and MCL Steven Kennedy.

The panelists—Casey Jackson, a Vance County Schools MCL; Steven Kennedy, Tonya Reaves, and Jacqueline Smith, all MCLs from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools; and Jessica Smith, a former MCL and now assistant principal from Indianapolis Public Schools—offered specific examples of ways they address the four areas of building team cohesion as defined in our Instructional Leadership and Excellence resource: building relationships, collaborating, celebrating success, and addressing challenges.

Building relationships and collaborating are paramount to strong leadership, panelists said.

They highlighted the difference between their roles and traditional coaches or facilitators, whose roles usually spread them too thin and do not hold them formally accountable for student results. To build trust, an MCL should take advantage of the ability to provide in-depth, highly visible support.

“I was distrusting when I had a facilitator,” one panelist said. “I was like, what are you doing all day? What do you mean you can’t come into my classroom?”

To build team trust, panelists told the MCLs in the room:

  • Be transparent with your daily schedule—let your teaching team know where you are each day to trust your dedication and accountability to the team.
  • Be a servant leader—support the team with tasks large and small (within reason).
  • Emphasize “we” and “us” in conversations to maintain the perspective that everyone is accountable for results.
  • Be consistent—follow through on your promises.
  • Know and lean on your leadership strengths at first, rather than trying to be the best at everything.
  • Set norms on how to hold one another accountable.
  • Genuinely care about both the teacher and the person—do the small things, such as asking about what’s going on in their lives outside the classroom.

Panelists agreed that both public and private praise are important for building team cohesion, suggesting using daily team emails to highlight individual successes and leaving a note on a teacher’s desk. Remember, they said, that the praise must be intentional and genuine.

The panelists addressed the difficulties of coaching resistant team members—both new and veteran teachers. Use celebrations to help build the relationship, and then use data to address challenges, they said. The data show the “why” behind the co-teaching and modeling that MCLs do; then MCLs need to follow up on action steps coming out of the coaching.

One panelist used those strategies successfully with most of the team, but a veteran teacher remained resistant, and eventually left the school—which underscored to the MCL the importance of creating and expecting a growth mindset among the team.

How else did panelists find success in addressing team challenges?

  • By starting with small adjustments that lead to bigger steps in the right direction.
  • By being flexible and listening. One panelist noted her experience of being new to a school and trying to jump into team leadership that would shift the school’s culture. She needed to learn the culture first, which she realized when a colleague sat her down for a crucial conversation about how the team was feeling.
  • By reflecting deeply at the end of the year on successes and challenges, to adjust for the next year.
  • By listening—and then leading conversations to solutions. One MCL helped a team teacher get back on track after listening to the teacher’s struggles—both in the classroom and personal—then planning action steps together on how to overcome those challenges.

How, one principal asked, could principals make MCLs feel supported? Principals need a strong, clearly communicated vision, and schoolwide implementation of Opportunity Culture roles, to avoid limiting support to certain departments or grades, panelists said. And they must ensure that responsibilities match the roles.

We extend thanks to all the panelists for sharing their experiences at the convening, and to panel facilitators Shonaka Ellison and Troy Smith of Public Impact.

For more on this topic, scroll down on this page to see video clips of MCLs and principals on their keys to success, training sessions, and study guides for MCLs and principals to use with their teams.

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