How to Strengthen Your School’s Team By Using Professional Development

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Many leadership writers make links between workplace teams and high performance sports teams. The comparison is particularly useful in the school setting as it reminds teachers, who often work in isolation, of the value and skills of teamwork in education.

Let’s consider this a little more. The successful sporting team works together toward a common goal. Each player brings his/her individual expertise and experience, and understands their place in the team. The coach identifies the key elements that are to be mastered for individual and team success, and trains them accordingly. How can we do this in schools?

Start with a vision of learning

All teams must start with a goal. Great school leaders and great school communities will not consider ‘business as usual’ to be a satisfactory long-term approach. They will craft a vision that leads them to develop a learning environment, which engages and inspires their community to be lifelong learners. Great leaders will also remember that their ‘community’ is not just the students, but also the staff, parents and other stakeholders.

Analysing the team

Once the goal has been defined, you will need to take the time to analyse the dynamic of your team. There are many ways in which to do this. One that I have found most useful is that of identifying the different strengths of individuals and ensuring that the team is making the most of these.

The movement towards analysing strengths has grown out of the positive psychology movement over the past two decades. It was particularly pioneered by the Gallup Organisation, whose thirty year research project found – against popular belief – that top leaders were not all-round performers. Instead these leaders invested in developing their own strengths and built up teams around them who filled the gaps. The researchers also identified four domains of effective leadership – executing, influencing, relationship building, and strategic thinking. They found that teams who were strong in all these domains were the most successful.

Are there gaps in your team?

This is where professional development is essential. Within your team you may have identified a gap in one or more of the domains. If the team strengths are greater in relationship building and strategic thinking, but light on executing, then there will be a lot of planning and relating, but very little will get done. Similarly, the ability to execute is of little value if the wrong goals are being pursued.

Working as a team

To use the sport analogy again, you wouldn’t invest in training a bowler to become a batsman, nor hone the goal shooting of a defence player in a netball team. Therefore, following the philosophy of strengths-based leadership, you would seek to have individual team members excel in their area of strength and ensure that the team works well as a cohesive whole. It’s the coach’s job to bring together the right mix of skills and strengths to increase the effectiveness of the team.

Can professional learning be in-sourced?

When deciding on training, it’s important to remember that it’s extremely empowering for you to identify an individual team member’s potential and provide opportunities for them to deliver professional development to their colleagues. The mutual sharing of expert knowledge in your team also provides ongoing opportunities for you to provide coaching.

Coaching versus mentoring

Coaching and mentoring each play an important role in the development of team members, and it’s important to be aware of the difference between them. Coaching identifies a particular skill or behaviour that needs some intensive work and sets out a specified time period for mastery to occur.

It may be general in approach, such as leadership, or more specific – building a cohesive team. Mentoring, on the other hand, is a longer term, often more open-ended, approach to growth and development. The main similarity between coaching and mentoring is relationship – it needs to be high quality, mutually respectful and honest.

A team win

Professional development will improve the expertise of team members. But when the direction and decisions are focussed on the strengths of the team, the effectiveness of this program will increase and the team will win. The last step is to define exactly what a ‘win’ looks like for the team. Make sure that you identify the behaviours, activities and outcomes that show your vision is on track.

Conclusion

Remember the old saying – a champion team will always beat a team of champions! And take the time to build your team through your next professional learning program.

Three ways to build strong teams in your school:

1. Analyse the strengths of your individual team members and your team as whole

2. Target professional learning programs at helping individuals excel in specific areas of strength

3. Define what a ‘team win’ looks like in order to keep everyone working towards a common goal 

This article originally featured in CSM, November 2011 Edition. It was written by Anne Knock and published by CIRCLE.