Monday, July 13, 2015

Dysfunctional Teams

Grade level teams have changed a lot since I began teaching twenty-two year ago.  Way back in the early 90s, being a team meant very little. My first year I barely spoke to the people on my team. We had a common prep time and occasionally I would stop by to ask questions, but collaboration was really out of the question. We didn't really share idea and we didn't discuss common formative assessments. We taught the same grade level, but there was very little going on in our classrooms that came from collaborative conversations about curriculum or data analysis.
As the years went along, I worked on teams with people I would consider friends. We worked well together, but looking back on it, I am sure we excluded the other members of our team because we were friends and they were just grade level colleagues. But, it didn't really matter because working on a team didn't mean what it means now. Being on a grade level team just didn't mean the same thing back then.  In some ways, it was nice because we all had the "I can close my door and just teach" mentality. We didn't have to think beyond our 4 walls and our 25+ students. And, it really didn't matter that I didn't like Mr. Sanchez and thought he was an idiot. Or, it didn't matter that Mrs. Iniguez didn't share her lesson on place value- I didn't expect her to. Those were the days of grade level teams without the expectation of working as a team.
Now, our expectations are very different. We are expected to "collaborate" and act as a professional learning community. Over the last several years, our version of a team has changed drastically. And, we have teachers who've been around a while who have seen the shift and aren't very keen on it. We have new teachers coming straight out of college that haven't worked on teams before and have no idea how it all works. There's a lot of interpersonal dynamics that go into functioning as a cohesive team.  And, last year happened to be the WORST team I've ever been a part of.
To begin, I have to give a little back story. I had been teaching kindergarten and was feeling it was time to move on. I had taught 3rd grade several times many years ago in my previous district and loved that age group. So, innocently, I went to my administration and asked them if they would consider placing me in 3rd grade. I explained my reasons and expressed willingness to deal with all the stressful, high stakes issues surrounding 3rd grade. They seemed willing and told me they would let me know in a few days.
Fast forward a little bit- unbeknownst to me, there was a student teacher who the rest of the grade level wanted for that position. Also, a former teammate of mine was spreading rumors to the current 3rd grade team about me (our previous team of which we were both a part had had issues that involved administration mediation, hurt feelings, misunderstandings and general dislike).  But, I didn't know any of that- had I known it, I probably would still be in Kindergarten.
So, I was given the 3rd grade position.  Before the school year even started I had a heart-to-heart with the one teacher who was really good friends with the one who was spreading rumors about me. She has heard the other teacher's side of our conflict and made judgments before hearing my side of the story- which I didn't really share because I didn't think it was any of her business.  I reminded her that there are three sides to the story- this teacher's version, my version, and somewhere in the middle was the truth. I really thought we had worked through the issues and we could work together.  Boy, was I wrong.
Needless to say, it was a difficult year. There were 5 of us. One, experienced "I've been teaching the same grade level for 15 years" teacher. She's the one that I had the heart-to-heart with- let's call her K. Then there were two young, second year teachers- B, who had student taught with K and was very close to her, and L, who taught 4th grade the year before and was new to the team like I was.  Then, there was another teacher, M, who was our team lead and data queen. Let's just say that mistakes were made by all and we were seriously dysfunctional. There was a trust issue. There was an issue with being responsible for getting assigned tasks done. There was an interpersonal issue with me and K. There was an interpersonal issue with M and K.  There was conflict and issues with M and B. B and L were really good friends because they were young and, sometimes it seemed like L was more interested in socializing than teaching. L thought she didn't have a voice in meetings. K was never prepared. We ate together as a team for about a month- then I stopped eating with them. Later, I joined them again, but B, L, and K stopped eating with us. I had to take over as team lead because of issues B, L and K had with M. Our team meetings were seriously dysfunctional- nothing got accomplished and it was frustrating every time we met together. And, to make it worse, everyone on the team was venting to their friends on different grade levels about how dysfunctional we were.  Serious mistakes were made by all parties and our administration sometimes helped and sometimes added fuel to the fire.
Fast forward to the end of the year- K is moving down to teach 2nd grade, L is moving to 1st grade, B is leaving teaching to go flip houses and M and I are left needing three new teammates. Honestly, we are beyond happy because those people moved on and we can interview and choose people that we feel would be a good fit.  We hire three amazing teachers and we've been planning together all summer.  I think it's going to be an amazing year- I am cautiously optimistic about the year.  So, when I heard this book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni referenced in a leadership meeting I knew I needed to read this book.
It is written as a parable about this imaginary company that's not doing well. This person is hired to come in and fix the team problems she sees. Through the story, which is an easy read and very relatable to education even though it's written from a business perspective, she explains the five dysfunctions of a team and how to mend those dysfunctions.
As I am reading this book, I see so many ways that this model completely matched our team this last year...
It's a pyramid model and the author says that even though there are five distinct areas that can be isolated, they usually are interrelated.
The bottom of the pyramid, and the first dysfunction of a team, is the ABSENCE OF TRUST. Team members are not open with each other about mistakes and weaknesses.
The next dysfunction is FEAR OF CONFLICT. Because team members don't have trust, the can't have meaningful conversations where people are hashing out the really important issues. Instead, they skirt around the important issues and worry about how their comments will be interpreted.
The third dysfunction of a team is LACK OF COMMITMENT. Because team members are afraid of conflict, they don't feel they can voice their opinions. Without their opinions being heard, they rarely buy in and commit to team decisions.
The fourth dysfunction of a team is AVOIDANCE OF ACCOUNTABILITY. Because of all the previous dysfunctions, team members don't feel they can call their peers out on actions and behaviors that are counterproductive to the team.
The last dysfunction of a team is INATTENTION TO RESULTS.  This is where team members put their individual needs above the collective goals of the team.

Wow, right? Have you ever been on a team like that? This past year was a perfect example of all these dysfunctions. The author goes on to put it in a positive way. Cohesive teams do these things-
1. They trust one another.
2. They engage in unfiltered conflict around ideas.
3. They commit to decisions and plans of action.
4. They hold one another accountable for delivering against those plans.
5. They focus on the achievement of collective results.

So, as I begin a new school year, with new team members, my hope is that we can avoid the dysfunctions and build our team around trust, constructive conflict, commitment, accountability and attention of the collective results.  And, when I start to see dysfunctions rear their ugly heads, I can be the kind of leader who steps in and holds people (including myself) accountable.  It's going to be a great year!

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