The Two Pillars of a Productive School Team

June 28, 2021

In determining the productivity of a team, we need to consider both its degree of success and whether its members are improving.

How do you define “team”? When you picture a team, do you envision a group of athletes in uniform competing against others? Or maybe a group of students from the same school collaborating to solve a problem? Or perhaps you imagine a group of medical professionals working together to save a patient with a heart transplant?

While their situations and goals might vary, just like the permanence of membership and attire, each of these are examples of viable teams. Each group is composed of people working together toward a common goal.

So, in its most basic form, every school’s staff is a team. However, the school’s leadership is what determines if that team is productive or dysfunctional. Good leaders help their teams become productive, and if a team is already productive when a leader arrives on scene, the leader can help it become even more productive.

Team Productivity: Two Fundamental Elements

In determining the productivity of a team, we need to consider both its degree of success and whether its members are improving. In schools, we ask 1) Are students learning? and 2) Are staff members growing? Students should learn more than the 3 R’s (reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic). Sure, we want to know how all students are performing academically—but what about student subgroups? Are struggling students making progress? What about the high-flyers? And do students learn in each of their multiple intelligences? Are we preparing students to succeed in life, not just to do well in school? In a strong team, educators support one another in many ways, including valuing all students and all aspects of student growth.

The second criterion—Are staff members growing?—is often overlooked because it’s easy to focus only on student outcomes. After all, that’s why we have schools! But every educator should consciously set and pursue goals that will result in their professional improvement. They will acquire new knowledge, try new strategies, and then monitor their progress. Of course, our efforts to improve will benefit students (and us!).

Paving the Way

To support staff in achieving these objectives (both student and personal growth), school leaders have to establish a sense of trust. If real growth is to occur, staff members need to trust the administration so they feel safe taking risks and making mistakes. We want our staff to comfortably share their progress and missteps, knowing that they will be understood and supported along the way.

Trust is precarious. It can be difficult to achieve and fragile once established. But when leaders are transparent and consistent in their focus and messages, trust builds. An important element in developing trust is propinquity—defined as being around someone enough to develop a positive relationship. To be frank, this element can be difficult for principals.

I led schools for 37 years and I remember how fragmented my days were, how rarely I had more than 10 minutes to talk to a staff member and get to know them. Looking back, I should have spent more time in the teachers’ lounge.

I experienced (and unfortunately participated in) a similar hands-off culture in higher ed: Throughout my grad school teaching—then and now—I noticed that my students (typically teachers working on a master’s degree) always scooted in just before class began and left immediately after it ended. I knew my students as students, but I never really knew them as people. We learned together but we were not a team.

Covid-19 changed that; rather, using Zoom changed that. For the past year-and-a-half, I required a 1:1 20-minute Zoom meeting with each student. These conversations allowed us to get to know one another in a far richer way. Because these talks were virtual, they could be held at a mutually convenient time, early in the morning or later at night—and I often spoke to a student with an infant in her lap. I learned about their careers, goals, families, and how I could help them be successful in my course.

Summers are a time for relaxing and rejuvenating, but they can also be a time to build your school team. I suggest that principals have a 1:1 Zoom conversation with each staff member before the school year begins. You can chat from home, a cabin, or a far-away hotel. Ask icebreakers like, “What do you do for fun?”, “Can you tell me about your family?”, “How did you get into education?”, and “How can I help you grow professionally?” This brief meeting can set the tone for a positive return to school and help build your team by establishing and affirming the trust that teachers need to take risks and grow. Consider the time you spend Zooming this summer as an investment in the next school year.

This article was written by Tom for the ASCD In Service blog.  The original post can be seen here.


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