Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Team Building in Schools: A Collaborative Vision of Education


I noticed the back of a principal's business card. Dr. Nicole Evans of City Garden public Montessori in St. Louis had shared her contact with me, between seminars:

If you want to go fast, go alone. 
If you want to go far, go together.
African Proverb

Dr. Evans, this spoke to me, too. What if we, as schools, could favor being interdependent over being independent? In our story, we can choose now to see the great strength in depending on each other. We can make this choice deliberately. Inter-dependency makes us better able to help those in need among us. We, as educators, have chosen to be part of an interdependent story. What will your chapter be like? What will you contribute?

Our Great Lesson

To unite a campus, here is a key suggestion. We need to unite around our story. Everyone who works in the institution should learn the story of the founding. In Montessori, we share the Great Lessons with drama and reverence, even with a bit of ritual magic. We can share the story of our founding as our Great Lesson, to unite around the Great Story of where we come from. As we struggle with the conversation of how to integrate people into our organizations, we know that people need to know something deeper than where is the copier, what are the dress code rules. We know they need to know our inspirational stories.

Like a Great Lesson, you need to hear it again and again, but you also need to hear it in your bones. Psychologically, we crave to know our origins. We can also tell the children the origin story of our school every year, to invite them to be part of who we are. They also have to feel it in their bones. Whose dream and passion and work became this school?

The Stages of Team-building

Every school is a team and has teams within it. Teaming and collaboration are buzzwords, and they are common phrases in our conversations. When considering if we really know what it means, we have to consider that teams go through stages. Some of the stages will be more helpful than others. In becoming a team,

  • The first stage is the forming stage. This is our honeymoon stage. We explore what we dream, explore each other, and it is relatively easy compared with what happens next. 
  •  When the team gets more comfortable with each other, we enter the storming stage. It can lead to confrontations about vision and personality. Things become more difficult to handle and deal with, like an external threat. Politeness fades. There may be jockeying for dominance. There can be unclear roles or places within the group, as well as unclear objectives. 
  • To move past the storming stage, we can call it the norming stage. This team refocuses on task, mission, and purpose. There is a focus on a more clear vision and work together. 
  • Next, the group can move to the stage of performing. It is a steady state of progress when the team reaches and maintains the optimal level of performance. In a mature way, the family works to resolve disagreements. 


Developing the Foundation 

However, this is not a linear process. Different setbacks and challenges will keep us flowing between different aspects of team-building along the way. As team members, we have a few tasks which will underlay all of our other work:

1.       We have to work to build and maintain solid relationships, in respect, empathy, and trust.

2.       We have to work to communicate, to speak up, clarify, and listen to each other.

3.       We have to work on efforts to support our colleagues and not leave individual s out of conversations. 

For creating a unified school community, look intentionally for the good in your school. Invite everyone in your community to do the same. We discussed the old story of the bricklayer—

One bricklayer complained to the traveler, “This work is toil. Every day, I lay another brick. I will never end my work. It makes me weary.” Then, the traveler went on and found another bricklayer. She was singing.

“Why are you so happy, bricklayer?” the traveler asked.

“We are making a cathedral,” she smiled, laying one more brick. 

When we inspire people to see the larger vision of what we are creating together, the work of laying another brick, or correcting another comma, or carrying another stack of books is no toil. We must stay rooted in the vision together, to make our work light and joyful—so that we can sing.

Recommendation: A gratitude book. Every year, we can take the time to share our stories of light and gratitude. We can create a small book each year of the beauty in our joined vision. Invite submissions from the community, from staff, parents, and students. This is a commemoration of the act of making community together.


Conflict and Peace Agreements

Conflict can be understood as the juncture of opportunity and danger. There will always be stress in our schools, and conflict is a natural result of the stress in our work.

Storming and conflict are not going to go away in our schools. The first step to resolving it is going to be naming it. The trick is to do it without blaming or isolating the problem. The next step is going to be an engaged conversation in talking about the concern. We have to acknowledge the challenges without letting it pull us apart. 

Recommendation: A peace agreement. Make a peace agreement of a unifying peace vision between members of our community. We can make this agreement together. It can be based on words from note cards of words that motivate our vision, as a group activity. Then, we lead staff through this process to support a vision, which will then be printed at the top of agendas and read it. As a sample-- Know that it has to be customized for each group. This is our vision, and it comes from our ideals.



We will have EMPATHY for each other and be open to seeing and CELEBRATING other’s unique and different perspectives, including cultural ones.

We will GIVE each other the benefit of the doubt.

We know that everyone who is involved in education joins this effort because it is our passion. Adding Montessori means there will be a magnified degree of calling, due to the extra efforts we have invested in being able to guide students in the non-traditional way we do. We will feel conflict, too, when there is a stress in something we care deeply about. It will be a universal part of education. Yet, united around our vision, the labor is easy.

These reflections followed a talk by Jack Jose, head of a Montessori high school in Cincinnati, and Krista Taylor, winner of Cincinnati Teacher of the Year at the American Montessori Society Conference in San Diego, "Montessori without Borders". We have been discussing creating collaborative partnerships with communities: collegiate relationships, volunteer piloting, team building, collaborative staff contracting, and mentoring programs.