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Thursday, 19 July 2018
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Evolving Teacher Leadership

By Jason Hicks

04/13/2018

Evolving Teacher Leadership
We failed Cody.

The “we” was a middle school grade-level team. I remember Cody as a tall, gentle, and kind young man who struggled academically. Although some of us may have failed Cody by actually assigning him a grade of F, I believe we failed Cody in other ways too; we talked about him in the beginning of the year, in the middle of the year and in the end of the year, ineffectively revisiting the same topics, in the same way, over and over.

As I reflect on my development as a teacher leader, I now believe that we failed Cody not because our team lacked efficacy or consciousness, but because we did not understand, and I did not apply, practices related to effective teacher leadership. Effective leaders understand how to develop collaborative groups.

When Google set out to understand team effectiveness, they unearthed some powerful thoughts. Idealistic models of leadership are often built upon the charisma of a single person, a person with some mystical combination of knowledge, skills, savvy, and fearlessness which empowers them to lead any group anywhere. Although there are stories of successful teams built upon the backs of these leaders, Google’s research found that what really mattered was less about who is on the team, and more about how the team works together (Google 2017).

In complex human organizations like schools, developing the skills of the team, and its individual members, contributes to a greater possibility of success than finding a single “right” leader. Highly collaborative teams have many habits that enhance success. Groups balance conversations with the right amount of inquiry and advocacy, while they engage in pausing, paraphrasing, and posing questions.

Those who witness these effective conversations see many ideas, some similar and some contrary, being placed on the table for consideration. As these are generated, effective groups surface conflict over ideas, and avoid conflict over feelings. Participants seek to develop understanding collaboratively and come to a consensus through discussion. Group members value listening for understanding and inquire before advocating their ideas to the group.

Using a well-crafted agenda, teams are balancing three things: focusing on how their work impacts student learning, gauging their own development, and managing the tasks of “nuts and bolts.” By investing time early to build rapport, explore individual beliefs, and clarify purpose, effective teams resist slipping into common traps around problem admiration, serial dialogue, and the stagnation that characterized most of our conversations about Cody.

Groups that have not yet developed these habits (most often due to the fact that they have not discovered and deepened common beliefs) are hard pressed to see why time should be invested to “form and norm.” I have recently worked with several grade level team leaders seeking to shift the cultures of their teams. In that work, the idea that old habits die hard has been reaffirmed. While people initially bristled against the tightly facilitated process, by the end of the first session they found themselves talking about different things in different ways and, as a result, developing an understanding that clarified the group’s purpose. There is more work to be done, but a momentum generating shift has begun.

As groups focus on their work, skillful leaders pay attention to the unpacking of content through strategic use of processes. These leaders design meetings much as they might design a lesson plan, supporting the group with clear goals, estimated time frames, and agendas that prioritize student learning, while modeling strategies and protocols which enhance collaboration. Teams deepen their understanding, taking time to reflect on both individual and group proficiency because as the Adaptive Schools adage goes, groups that are too busy to reflect are too busy to learn. Groups I led gained new traction as I deepened and applied my understanding of the theory, skills, strategies, and moves related to Adaptive Schools (Garmston and Wellman, 2016) and utilized protocols from the National School Reform Faculty and School Reform Initiative. All of these resources would have empowered our team attempting to support Cody years ago.

Cody and I both left that school at end of the year. Due to a confluence of opportunities, I continued to develop my leadership identity with consistent habits of reading, observation, and reflection. This journey never ends. As a teacher, administrator, coach and consultant I feel fortunate to have deepened my understanding of organizational behavior over time, and I learn more each day through my practice. I do not know where Cody is, or what he is doing, but my wish for him is that, like me, his circumstances, interests, and passions swirled together in a way that continues to shape his sense of self as well.

References
Garmston, R. and B. Wellman. The Adaptive School. Rowman & Littlefield, 2016.
Re:Work-Guide: Understand Team Effectiveness (online).

Jason Hicks is a Teaching and Learning Coach at ASD.




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Comments

04/24/2018 - Karen
Yes, if we want to serve our learners, we need to deepen the conversation, and to do that, we need skillful facilitators as well as participants, who understand how it is done. And how high the stakes are.

Great piece!
04/16/2018 - Megan
What is discussed and highlighted here is so important - naming schools as complex human organizations is key. We need to see and understand the way in which our systems work. One of the quotes that struck me, was, "Google’s research found that what really mattered was less about who is on the team, and more about how the team works together" (Google 2017). I, too, hope I continue to develop my leadership identity in the ways you named. Great post, thanks for sharing your insights and leadership vision.

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