“No one person can do it alone…” This statement is especially accurate in a school. Donna Johnson, assistant principal, and I recognized this truth prior to beginning our tenure as Memorial School’s administrative team five years ago. The formulation of a dedicated group of teacher leaders set a tone and expectation for collaboration heading into our first year, and I firmly believe that this group, as a whole, has been the instrumental driving force for change within our school.
During the summer of 2008, I reached out to various members on each grade level team to see who would be interested in fulfilling the responsibilities of “team leader.” Each team had always had certain individuals who took the unofficial role as “leader” within their team, but we wanted to formalize the process a bit. At the time, I wasn’t even quite sure of everything that this position would entail. What I did know was that, given the incredible amount of communication I felt was going to be necessary for us to effectively work interdependently, we would need a number of staff members who shared in the ownership for our success right from the beginning. My hope was that this feeling of shared ownership would spread over time until all, or nearly all, of our staff had a vested interest in supporting and owning the work we would be undertaking together.
The first step we took together was to attend a Professional Learning Communities at Work conference with the DuFours in Boston. The information gleaned at this conference not only helped us articulate in our own minds precisely HOW we wanted to structure the processes we would put into place, but it also made very clear WHO would be responsible… Every single stakeholder within our school was going to be important to our success. This could have been quite overwhelming, but I left with a sense of clarity. The team leaders who had attended with me would be vital for our success moving forward. As we built capacity with more staff, our vision would become intrinsic within everything we did. But this would take time…
Our team leader group has evolved since that time five years ago, but there are many things that have stayed constant. Together, our team leaders have always gone through the same activities that we have asked each team to go through. For example, each summer, team leaders have developed norms to guide our work together throughout the year and have undergone the process of developing SMART goals for the school. I felt strongly that these were not “my goals,” but “our goals.” This allowed each team leader to better understand the process and to have some ownership in everything we were trying to do as a school. Each team leader became the expert when it came time for them to lead their team through these same processes, and they were able to speak to the “why” when it invariably came up at one of their team meetings. In essence, our team leaders became the tentacles that spread throughout the school as a whole. The work was initially done as one unit, but as each member went back to their teams, a consistent message was shared.
One of the major expectations (we have created a job description for our group based upon our needs) of our team leaders is two-way, high levels of communication. This is imperative for teachers and administrators. I have an idea of what some of the issues or concerns may be within the teams, and the teachers have a detailed understanding of the nuances of the decisions we discuss. I have had very clear discussions about the fact that at times, I will come to them for information to make a decision, and at other times, we will make a decision collaboratively as a team. This is always clarified prior to any discussion, and our team leaders have provided information that has helped me to make more informed decisions on a number of occasions.
We meet every two weeks prior to school. The purpose of these meetings is two-fold. We typically review any work that has recently been done or that we are currently working on, and we plan for future professional activities. We always tie our work into our school goals. For example, we are currently analyzing and assessing writing for every student in our school, K-5. This ties directly into our school-wide SMART goal related specifically to writing. It allows all of us, teachers and administrators, to see precisely where our colleagues at each grade level are in their instruction, and it allows all of us to see where each grade level’s students are relative to their peers across the nation. This continuous assessment of our goals also allows us to constantly keep these as priorities throughout the school year. This point cannot be reinforced enough, as we all know how quickly a school year can slip by.
Personally, I look forward to our half-hour bi-weekly team leader meetings with great enthusiasm and anticipation. Each meeting is undoubtedly the time in which I feel the lion’s share of curriculum, instruction and assessment work related to our school’s vision is accomplished. The team leaders who are sitting at the table are invested, honest, hard-working, and committed to children. I typically walk out of these meetings shaking my head (in a good way), because I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to work with a group of educators who continuously ask the tough questions that need to be asked, offer solutions which often require more work of themselves, treat each other respectfully, and carry forward our work to their teams to the best of their ability. It is truly gratifying to work on a team that has the best interests of students at heart, can make the difficult decisions to support these interests, and then go out and do their absolute best to follow through on what our team has collaboratively determined to be our course of action. I realize how fortunate I am to experience what can be accomplished when a group of like-minded educators work toward accomplishing the common goal of supporting all learners within a building.