How to Create High-Performing, Collaborative Teams of Staff in Schools: No Woman/Man is an Island

How to Create High-Performing, Collaborative Teams of Staff in Schools:

No Woman/Man is an Island

Dear Colleagues,


   Schools are necessarily complex and multi-layered organizations that too often are conceptualized and run in simplistic and sequential ways.

   Many think: “All we need are good teachers, sound curricula, essential resources, and motivated students, and we’ll be successful.”

   But that’s simply not true.

   It’s not true in business. . . not true in government. . . not true in the non-profit world. . . not true in medicine. . . and not true in education.

   Indeed a good hospital is not simply about having good doctors, nurses, and support staff.

   A good hospital results from effective planning, organization, staffing, training, teaming, implementation, and evaluation.

   And good schools. . . that maximize all students’ academic and social, emotional, and behavioral learning, mastery, and independence. . . have (need) the same attributes.

Getting Educators Off their Islands and On to Teams

   Too many educators work (or attempt to work) on an island in their schools.

   They spend a lot of time isolated in their offices or classrooms, completing solitary tasks. And when asked to change, they invest too much time defending “their” way of doing things.

   And this seems worse since the pandemic.

   Indeed, because some students are so far behind academically and socially—due to two-plus years of isolated Zoom-instruction in their homes and/or pod-dependent teaching in their schools—we have now asked our teachers to catch these students up—individually, student by student, and individually, teacher by teacher.

   Simultaneously, we have sacrificed professional development and instructional coaching, we have revisited unproductive systems of teacher observation and evaluation, and we have embraced computer-assisted learning and after-school tutoring. . . all as primary “closing-the-gap” fixes.

_ _ _ _ _

   What we really need to do is to engage every staff member—at the district and school levels—in a collaborative, shared leadership, team-driven transformation of the school and schooling process.

   This begins with an understanding of “what makes a good team.”

   It also begins with some essential tenets.

_ _ _ _ _

Tenet 1: It’s not your class.

   While we want every teacher to dedicate themselves to their students and instruction, they are not the “masters of their domain.”

   That is, they do not independently determine what to teach, how to teach, when to teach, and who to teach.

   This is determined by the District—guided by state standards, and Principals—guided by evidence-based practices and specific, scaffolded curricular scope and sequences (including those related to teaching students social skills).

   If district or school administrators allow teachers to function in wholly isolated and independent ways, this “abdication of collaboration” will not close our current academic and social-emotional student gaps and, in fact, they will increase them.

_ _ _ _ _

Tenet 2: All teachers teach in at least five areas: Literacy, Math, Oral Expression, Written Expression, and in their Content Area (if this differs from the four above).

   While this is most evident at the Elementary level, it is essential at the Secondary level.

   Stated simply: Teachers do not teach only in “their” subject areas.

   Virtually every subject (think especially about science) requires reading, oral expression, and written expression. And while there may be less math when teaching reading, reading should be taught in order that students understand, for example, the vocabulary and content in math.

   Similarly, music, art, physical education, coding and computer science (etc.) all require the “four core” academic areas above, as these four core areas determine students’ success in these “elective” areas.

   Parenthetically, secondary-level teachers are not employed to “deliver” courses, presentations, and content. They are responsible for educating their students.

   And if this means that a science teacher must teach his or her students math while reinforcing writing, then so be it.

   And if this means that an English Department must coordinating its writing program with the History or Math Departments, then so be it.

   Too many secondary educators are still “delivering” isolated courses with the belief that “if the students do not get it, the students are responsible to take the actions needed to get it.”

_ _ _ _ _

Tenet 3: To teach effectively and efficiently, teachers need to teach in transdisciplinary and cross-sectional ways.

   Given Tenet 2, teachers need to systematically coordinate their lateral literacy, math, oral expression, and written expression instruction across the different academic disciplines (and teachers) in a school. In addition, they need to coordinate their vertical instruction, in each respective academic area, with their colleagues from grade level to grade level.

   Relative to lateral instruction, this was what the Common Core established when specific standards emphasized the importance of teaching students (a) to be proficient readers of both fiction and non-fiction, as well as (b) to apply sound literacy strategies to content in other academic areas.

   Relative to vertical instruction, we need to recognize that “education is a tag-team marathon.”

   That is, at the beginning of each new school year, teachers in subject-specific areas (e.g., literacy, math, science, respectfully) need to continue instruction at the point where their students enter from the year before, and teach them so that they can successfully transition—at the end of the year—to the next year and/or course.

   To effectively address both of these transdisciplinary and cross-sectional goals, curricular and instructional coordination is essential.

   Functionally, this may involve—for example—the coordinated use of similar:

  • Literary organizers, rubrics, strategies, devices, and constructions;
  • Mathematical algorithms, graphing and representational approaches, calculation and/or problem-solving strategies, and measurement and statistical procedures; and
  • Writing preparation, drafting, editing/revision, and self- and rubric-driven evaluation procedures and strategies. . .
  • laterally—across academic subject areas, and vertically—from grade level to grade level.

_ _ _ _ _

Tenet 4: “Planning” comes before “Success” in the dictionary. . . and in education.

   As noted in Tenet 3, engaging all staff—at the district and school levels—in a collaborative, shared leadership, team-driven transformation of the school and schooling process—here, emphasizing curriculum and instruction—requires strategic planning and continuous attention to:

  • The academic and social, emotional, and behavioral goals and outcomes for students from preschool through high school;
  • How those goals will be progressively attained at each grade level, using scope and sequence-driven curriculum and instruction; and
  • How, once again, this will be accomplished with an explicit eye toward both vertical and lateral coordination and collaboration.

Getting Teams to Work Collaboratively

   Over the years, we have addressed the importance of collaborative, shared leadership (and committee-driven) approaches at the district and school levels.

   See, for example, the following previous Blog discussions:

June 25, 2022

In Order to Improve. . . Schools Need to Understand How to Improve. School Improvement Begins with Principles before Principals: Paying It Forward

[CLICK HERE to LINK to Blog]

_ _ _ _ _

June 26, 2021

Reconsidering or Rejecting Collective Teacher Efficacy and the Acceleration of Students Who are Academically Behind: Take the Bus, Get Off the Bandwagon

[CLICK HERE to LINK to Blog]

_ _ _ _ _

June 5, 2021

Maximizing Meeting Participation and Productivity: Is Everyone “Bringing It” to Your (Virtual or In-Person) Meeting? Why Be There if You’re Not There?

[CLICK HERE to LINK to Blog]

_ _ _ _ _

   Today, however, I would like to extend this conversation by briefly sharing Ron Friedman’s research, published in the Harvard Business Review (October 21, 2021) on “5 Things High-Performing Teams Do Differently.”

   Friedman noted:

(N)ew research suggests that the highest-performing teams have found subtle ways of leveraging social connections during the pandemic to fuel their success. The findings offer important clues on ways any organization can foster greater connectedness—even within a remote or hybrid work setting—to engineer higher-performing teams.

   Based on a survey of 1,106 U.S.-based office workers, Friedman separated the responses from those rating their work teams as high-performing versus low-performing, respectively, so that he could discern what high-performing teams do differently.

   The study revealed five key differences:

  • High-Performing Teams are not Afraid to Pick Up the Phone
  • High-Performing Teams are More Strategic with their Meetings
  • High-Performing Teams Invest Time Bonding over Non-Work Topics
  • High-Performing Teams Give and Receive Appreciation More Frequently
  • High-Performing Teams are More Authentic at Work

   Translating these keys into an educational context, we briefly emphasize the following relative to establishing and sustaining collaborative and effective school teams.

High-Performing Teams are not Afraid to Pick Up the Phone

   Unfortunately, many districts and schools have an overt or covert culture that discourages staff from admitting or acknowledging that they don’t know, understand, or have experience in specific skill or content areas.

   In contrast, we believe that staff should feel free and comfortable to admit that they have professional development or experiential gaps.

   Using “picking up the phone” euphemistically, then, we believe that (a) such gaps are best addressed through professional development, mentoring, and coaching; and that (b) “everyone in a school—at any level and in any position—is a potential professional development consultant or coach for someone else.”

   For example, bus drivers are often the first “educators” to see our students in the morning. Thus, they are important consultants to other school personnel wanting information on how specific students are coming from home to school.

   Secretaries, in a similar vein, often have more in-depth interactions with certain parents (e.g., on the telephone or in the Office) than some of our teachers. Thus, they may have important information regarding these families and children or adolescents.

   On a more professional level, many teachers often have hidden talents, professional experiences, and training that even their “best-friend” colleagues of many years do not know about. At times, these hidden talents may be the talents that become the key to a student’s success.

   The first “bottom line” here is that every school staff member needs to know and maximize the collegial resources that already exist within their own school.  

   The second “bottom line” is that staff should not feel pressured to “know everything,” or to implement strategies or interventions where they have skill or content gaps.

   Those in the Medical Profession consistently practice the adage: “When you don’t know, you get a consult.”

   That is, you “pick up the phone,” you acknowledge what you don’t know, and you ask for help.

   Schools and educators need to celebrate this adage and act. It is the essence of professional development and growth. And it is the path to effective instruction and student services, supports, interactions, and interventions.

High-Performing Teams are More Strategic with their Meetings

   No educator that I know was trained—at the undergraduate or graduate level—in how to run an effective meeting.

   And yet, to be effective, those leading school teams need learn and receive coaching and feedback on exactly this skill.

   Too often, I sit in school leadership or committee meetings where (a) there is no agenda, and people are coming in unprepared or unbriefed for what will occur; (b) no one taking the meeting minutes to document what was accomplished, who received tasks or responsibilities for the next meeting, and what discussions occurred but resulted in no decisions or consensus; and (c) administrative-only tasks are discussed solely by the Principal or Committee Chair, and no substantive educational discussions (or debates) transpired.

   No wonder why so many staff hate to go to go to meetings (including Faculty meetings)!

   Similarly, across many school leadership or committee meetings, the responsibilities of team members are often not discussed, processed, or evaluated. Moreover, when team members forget, avoid, or breach these responsibilities, some team leaders struggle to consistently hold the individuals accountable.

   All of this needs to be consciously addressed.

   Team leaders need training in how to run effective meetings. And, team members need to know the social norms and expectations of group participation.

   Effective Team members, for example:

  • Come to meeting on time
  • Listen to each other with interest
  • Keep side conversations to a minimum
  • Participate actively in discussions
  • Interact positively and productively with others
  • Treat everyone with respect and in a dignified manner
  • Keep the best interests of the students in mind

   Critically, team meetings are the first place where high-performing, collaborative teams are created. If team meetings are not used to teach, practice, and reinforce collaboration, why would anyone expect team members to work in collaborative ways outside of these meetings?

_ _ _ _ _

   Relative to Friedman’s result that high-performing teams have “strategic meetings,” it is important to recognize that this means that some scheduled meetings do not happen at all.

   We believe that (a) all school staff should be on at least one school-level committee (see below); (b) all school-level committees should meet on at least a monthly basis; (c) all school-level committees should publicly post their full-year schedule on a Master Calendar (e.g., on the school’s Google drive) at the beginning of each year; and (d) all committees should take and post meeting minutes, once again, on the school’s shared or Google drive so that everyone can track the activities, actions, goals, and progress of committees that they do not formally sit on.

   One of the implicit “mantras” here is: “It’s easier to cancel a meeting than organize and convene an unscheduled or “floating” (committee) meeting.”

   But. . . as alluded to above. . . if there are no potential benefits or outcomes expected from a scheduled meeting, the meeting should be strategically cancelled. There is no reason to have a meeting that, in essence, wastes people’s time.

_ _ _ _ _

   For more information about how to implement a shared leadership and effective school committee process in a school, please feel free to review our Monograph:

Shared Leadership through School-level Committees: Process, Preparation, and First-Year Implementation Action Plans

[CLICK HERE to Review this Monograph in the Project ACHIEVE Store]

High-Performing Teams Invest Time Bonding over Non-Work Topics

   According to Friedman and his study:

From a managerial standpoint, it's easy to frown upon workplace conversations that have nothing to do with work. After all, what good can come from employees spending valuable work time chatting about a major sporting event or blockbuster film?

However, research suggests that discussing non-work topics offers major advantages. That's because it's in personal conversations that we identify shared interests, which fosters deeper liking and authentic connections.

Within our study, we found that high-performing team members are significantly more likely to spend time at the office discussing non-work matters with their colleagues (25% more)—topics that may extend to sports, books, and family. They're also significantly more likely to have met their colleagues for coffee, tea, or an alcoholic beverage over the past six months.

In other words, the best teams aren't more effective because they work all the time. On the contrary: They invest time connecting in genuine ways, which yields closer friendships and better teamwork later on.

   Enough said.

High-Performing Teams Give and Receive Appreciation More Frequently. . . and the Pay-for-Play Trap

   High-performing and collaborative teams—whether they involve district or school committees, departmental or grade-level teams, multi-tiered or related services teams, or other school support teams—spend more time giving and receiving positive feedback, regard, and appreciation than ineffective or low-performing teams.

   While this may involve “planned” positive feedback and support, it also involves random, unsolicited, and/or unexpected feedback that is unconditional. . . and with no expectations of reciprocity.

_ _ _ _ _

   From a motivational perspective, we know that social and intrinsically-oriented person-centered feedback is often the most compelling and appreciated.

   And yet too often, I see districts and schools get into the “pay-for-play” trap where they. . . with all good intents. . . begin to pay their staff for committee work and (sometimes, union-influenced) “duties unassigned.”

   This trap often backfires relative to encouraging and attaining high-performing, collaborative teams and staff as they:

  • Become dependent—relative to both their commitment and their personal finances—on the additional pay;
  • Inaccurately connect team or meeting attendance—and not collaboration, productivity, and substantive outcomes—as the pay-for-play standard;
  • Adopt a more generalized expectation that all “additional or unassigned” duties should similarly be compensated; or
  • Decide that they do not want to participate, leaving some committees understaffed or staffed with an insufficient mix or representation of members, and some staff members—unproductively—on too many committees to “take up the slack.”

_ _ _ _ _

   As this situation backfires to the point where action is needed, district or school administrators often have to modify, recalibrate, or dismantle the system.

   This may result in a negative response from some or many staff (e.g., anger, disbelief, withdrawal, mistrust, deprivation, disenfranchisement) when:

  • The pay-for-play stipends are withheld, reallocated, or they are unfunded;
  • Committees and/or committee members are held accountable for outcomes and productivity, respectively; or
  • The system is unilaterally changed.

   All of this undermines the goals of establishing and sustaining high-performing and collaborative teams and staff. Moreover, an successful and contentious pay-for-play experience may create a long-term, negative history that makes a future shared leadership system virtually impossible in a district or school for a generation or more.

_ _ _ _ _

   The best way to avoid this trap is to not fall into it at all.

   This can occur when some of the possible negative outcomes noted above are anticipated, considered, and actively prevented.

   More specifically, this occurs when all staff—as an automatic part of their contractual responsibilities—are expected to be involved on one or more committees, and to engage in other shared services work within the school, district, or community.

   This, then, is overseen collaboratively by a school’s Leadership Team—which includes both administrators and a representative group of instructional and support staff. This Team designs, guides, evaluates, and fine-tunes the school’s shared leadership and committee participation expectations, responsibilities, roles, and contingencies. And, it collectively determines how to handle staff members who are not conforming to these expectations and, hence, are interfering with their colleagues’ high-performing collaboration.

High-Performing Teams are More Authentic at Work

   According to Friedman:

Within our study, members of high-performing teams were significantly more likely to express positive emotions with their colleagues. They reported being more likely to compliment, joke with, and tease their teammates. In emails, they were more likely to use exclamation points, emojis, and GIFs.
Interestingly, however, they were also more likely to express negative emotions at work. We found that they were more likely to curse, complain, and express sarcasm with their teammates.

   Members of high-performing and collaborative teams in school and educational settings understand the difference between “criticism” and “critique.” Moreover, they much more often communicate their concerns as critiques and not criticisms.

   Criticism represents an observation or evaluation that focuses more on a person and his/her characteristics, attributes, or motivations.

   A critique is an observation or evaluation that focuses more on what a person is saying, doing, or not doing, and its goal is to motivate analysis, reconsideration and, hopefully, a desired or expected change.

   The on-line Merriam-Webster’s dictionary notes:

There’s some overlap in meaning (between a criticism and a critique), but they’re not the same in every situation. Criticism is most often used broadly to refer to the act of negatively criticizing someone or something or a remark or comment that expresses disapproval, while critique is a more formal word for a carefully expressed judgment, opinion, or evaluation of both the good and bad qualities of something—for example, books or movies.

   _ _ _ _ _

   Beyond this, effective Team members also:

  • Ask questions for clarification when they don’t understand
  • Focus on issues and content, not personalities and personal agendas
  • Encourage different points of view
  • Are honest and open to the ideas of others
  • Are willing to compromise
  • Are creative when appropriate and fact/data-driven when needed
  • Check for consensus before finalizing decisions
  • Support decisions that are made by consensus
  • Follow through on agreements and action items
  • Help review the effectiveness of each meeting at its end

   In the end, members of high-performing, collaborative teams are more honest, forthcoming, fair, tempered, real, realistic, facilitative, and transparent. They do not spend a lot of time censoring themselves. At the same time, they recognize—with wisdom and humility—that they need to aware of their own biases and limitations when they interact with other team members and/or colleagues.


   This Blog focused on the importance and characteristics of high-performing, collaborative school teams and staff.

   We began by emphasizing that many educators and school leaders receive precious little training and coaching in this area. Hence, self-study and self-evaluation becomes essential.

   With this in mind, we shared four tenets to help educators “get off their islands” and on to collaborative teams. These tenets were:

  • Tenet 1: It’s not your class.
  • Tenet 2: All teachers teach in at least five areas: Literacy, Math, Oral Expression, Written Expression, and in their Content Area (if this differs from the four above).
  • Tenet 3: To teach effectively and efficiently, teachers need to teach in transdisciplinary and cross-sectional ways.
  • Tenet 4: “Planning” comes before “Success” in the dictionary. . . and in education.

   We then took the results of Ron Friedman’s research published in the Harvard Business Review (“Five Things High-Performing Teams Do Differently;” 2021) and applied them to district and school teams.

   Friedman’s Five High-Performing Team differences were:

  • High-Performing Teams are not Afraid to Pick Up the Phone
  • High-Performing Teams are More Strategic with their Meetings
  • High-Performing Teams Invest Time Bonding over Non-Work Topics
  • High-Performing Teams Give and Receive Appreciation More Frequently
  • High-Performing Teams are More Authentic at Work

   The resulting discussion provides both a “how-to” and an evaluative roadmap for districts and schools would want to (a) assess where their teams are in this high-performing context; and (b) what they need to do to go to the next level of sustained excellence and impact.

_ _ _ _ _

   As always, I appreciate everyone who reads this bi-monthly Blog and thinks about the issues or recommendations that we share.

   As we enter December, and begin to think about our students’ progress this past semester and their needed progress in the coming semester, know that we have a number of Project ACHIEVE resources that may facilitate this process (see our Website Store:, or by calling me for a free one-hour consultation conference call to clarify your needs and directions.

   If you would like a more “personal” approach, know that I am continually completing Needs Assessments and Resource Analyses for different school districts in the areas of (a) school improvement, (b) social-emotional learning/positive behavioral discipline and classroom management systems, and (c) multi-tiered (special education) services and supports.

   The results are a research-to-practice Action Plan and implementation blueprint that helps many districts to reach their student, staff, and school goals and outcomes for the next three to five years.

   Please feel free to reach out if you would like to begin this process.