One of the challenges we face at my school is that our teachers crossover grade levels and teach multiple preps. I personally enjoy teaching two grade levels because I get to see children at different developmental levels. Sometimes, I am able to teach kids two years in a row, which allows me to develop great long-term relationships with my students. So, while teaching this way is personally rewarding, it can make it difficult to lead a “team”.
Currently, we have 23 teachers who teach seventh grade. That becomes an unwieldy number when trying to plan and work together. It is no surprise that we seemed to have many obstacles to creating a team approach, but with careful planning, it wasn’t impossible. Here are a few things I learned in developing a team without an actual team:
- Using the word “team”. We tell our students that words have power. It is no different for adults. One of the biggest obstacles to creating a team was overcoming the inertia of teacher autonomy. Many teachers become teachers because they really enjoy working with kids, not necessarily adults. When I first started working in an independent school, teachers often bragged about their degree of autonomy. By using the term “team”, we created an environment where faculty feel as if they are all in the same boat, and we entered into a more collegial relationship with one another.
- Do what you can. This may seem obvious, but when we first began implementing a “team” approach, we couldn’t start too big. The first thing that we could do was create a time and space for faculty to be together. Since our schedule couldn’t be adjusted to accommodate shared planning, we had to make the time. A core group of teachers committed to meeting after school one day a week in the beginning. Our focus was always on how we could improve our teaching for our students. We evaluated what we could and could not do with the time we had, within our current curricular standards, and with the busy schedule of our students. We started with the simplest tasks first such as just sharing what we were doing in our classes. Eventually, we were able to create a daily schedule that allowed us to meet during the school day.
- Set goals and expectations. We set two goals right away in our work: 1. Create a student community, 2. Generate themes that can be woven into all of our curricula. By setting goals early on, we were able to always have a focus when designing curriculum. Often, we focused primarily on core content first–math, English, social studies, and science. Whenever we had a new idea, we used those two goals as our “litmus” tests. If it didn’t fall under those criteria, we were able to make a quick decision to either table the idea, or expand our goals.
These simple ideas are not all that different from what teachers do in a traditional team setting. However, we had to take these baby steps in order to create a more team-like approach with such a large team. Every year it gets a little bit easier.