Hello, I hope this finds you well. If there is your first issue of The Coaching Letter, welcome. You can find all previous issues here. I am currently in Seattle, where it is pleasantly cool—but it wasn’t earlier in the week, when it was in high 90s and low 100s. That wasn’t the plan when I booked the flights. So I’ve been participating in the third iteration of the Acceleration Workshop from the very beautiful back garden of the house where I’m staying, chasing the shade and trying not to be distracted by the hummingbirds. It’s been tough.

The work the Center is doing on Acceleration continues to push our thinking, as we respond to questions people have about implications for leadership, coaching, RtI/MTSS (the topic of my session this morning) and so on. We (the Center staff) had a long discussion yesterday afternoon about some of these topics, so I came away with some tasks for the next level of work. One of them is to define our position on the role of collaborative teams of educators in implementing Acceleration as a strategy (and its component practices).

This is a little complicated, not least because not all collaborative teams are created equal. I know it drives my colleague Richard batty when people say “we do PLCs,” as if being part of a professional learning community is a performance. (You wouldn’t say you “do” church; you would say you “belong” to a church—just to make the point.) My friend Ann, with whom I’m staying at the moment, and with whom I’ve been having conversations about education for 30+ years, tells the story of a principal she was coaching in a Texas school district; when asked about collaborative teams in her school, she replied: “We sent people to that PLC training. It didn’t take.” I had a high school principal say to me a dozen years ago, “The thing about PLC training is that something gets lost in translation.” And I can show you school improvement plans and district strategic plans that treat PLCs/data teams as though they are made of red tape: the agenda has to be submitted to the principal two days in advance, the instructional coach will attend all the meetings, the minutes will be posted in the appropriate Google folder…

So I’ve been thinking about the difference between PLCs as an exercise in compliance, versus PLCs as groups of educators engaged in action research around a shared problem of practice connected to the enactment of their district’s definition of high quality instruction.

There’s a really useful Dylan Wiliam article in Ed Leadership, “Changing Classroom Practice.” It has a summary of classroom formative assessment, and then a summary of how teachers can work together to change practice. And there is no magic to it. But as Wiliam points out: “The last 30 years have shown conclusively that you can change teachers’ thinking about something without changing what those teachers do in classrooms… Knowing what to do is the easy part. Actually doing it is what’s hard. If we want to change what teachers do in classrooms, then we need to focus on those actions directly. As Millard Fuller, founder of Habitat for Humanity, has said, ‘It is generally easier to get people to act their way into a new way of thinking than it is to get them to think their way into a new way of acting.’ ” (By the way, if you subscribe to the Marshall Memo, there is a summary of this and about a dozen other Dylan Wiliam resources in the archives.)

I was asked recently for resources for developing a team theory of action, which sent me down yet another rabbit hole, and rather than just responding to that client, I thought I would share what I put together, because it’s relevant here. In Wageman, R., Nunes, D. A., Burruss, J. A., & Hackman, J. R. (2008). Senior leadership teams: What it takes to make them great. Harvard Business Review Press, the authors lay out three essential features of a team:

  1. A team has to be a real team. In other words, a group of people working together not because they’ve been told to, or because it says so in the school improvement plan, but because the team can accomplish something that no one individual in the team could do on their own.
  2. A team has to have a purpose. This is separate from, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say in addition to, the mission and vision of the organization. The purpose of the team can be consultative, decision-making, design, product, or any work that could be done by an individual but, in this particular situation, is better done by a team. But the members of the team should be clear on what their role is, what is expected of them, and what exactly their power is and what they can and cannot do.
  3. The right people are on the team. And we know from the research that diverse teams are most effective—gender, experience, role, expertise. This, by the way, is why “blue ribbon panels” are frequently underwhelming; you’d think that senior people in a room together would be very effective, but they may be missing insight that their junior colleagues might bring, and they may be unwilling to ask naïve questions or challenge assumptions because they don’t wish to be seen as not knowing something, or because they are all operating from the same mental model that someone with different experience would be willing to poke at. There’s also a whole slew of research on why companies who have women on their boards tend to be more successful (women are socialized to take fewer risks and be more financially conservative).

At the Center, we work in teams all the time. Our teams tend to be project-based, not fixed, and membership is determined by who is available, who is interested, how big the project is, and what expertise is needed. The Re-Opening Workshop late last spring took all of us to put together, but the Acceleration Workshop is a design team of four, including writing content, creating marketing and registration materials, and tech support. Our teams are most definitely real teams, and it makes a big difference to the enjoyment and reward of doing the work.

Team theory of action cuts across all three of the essential features of a team, but is most closely related to the purpose. A theory of action is a simple if… then… statement. If I get up half an hour earlier then I will have time to go to the gym; if I weigh myself every morning then I will lose weight; if I dye my hair then I will look more attractive. As these three examples show, there is nothing magic about a theory of action. It may be a starting point, but its existence, in itself, does not actually mean anything. This is a repeat of what I wrote in CL #140: Whatever your theory of action is when you start out, it is definitely incomplete and may be totally wrong. For more on this, see the books Learning to Improve and Instructional Rounds (especially chapter 2) and The Strategy PlaybookYou have to spend time unpacking the assumptions that are built into your theory—but because it’s yours, you are unlikely to see all its flaws, so show it to the people who are closest to, or most affected by, its enactment; they are the ones who will tell you what could go wrong.

Having said all that, we are all operating under theories of action ALL THE TIME, for even the most banal actions, and so it can be worth the time to create a good one. There are good resources for developing a theory of action: this blog post from Elena Aguilar; and Creating a Theory of Action Tool from the Center for Educational Leadership.

And… my favorite way to get at team purpose and team theory of action is actually to create a team charter. I first saw this facilitated by Richard when I first joined the Center for a group of assistant superintendents. It struck me at the time as a very smart approach. Then my SEL guru Annaliese showed me how to adapt the process of creating a RULER classroom charter to creating a team charter, and this turns out to be even smarter—and is easy to do online as well as in person. The process I use varies depending mostly on size of team and how clear the purpose of the team is to begin with. But a protocol for establishing a team charter might look something like this.

1. How do you want to feel as part of this team?
a. Give people time individually to answer this question;
b. Then put them in small groups/breakouts to share what they wrote;
c. Ask them to share with the whole group/type their answers into a Google Doc.

Typically, the language used includes words like: proud, impactful, effective, inspired, valued, respected, which then leads nicely into this question:

2. What would this team need to accomplish in order for you to feel this way?
a. Give people time individually to answer this question;
b. Then put them in small groups/breakouts (I like to keep them in the same ones, but they can be mixed up) to share what they wrote;
c. Ask them to share with the whole group/type their answers into a Google Doc.

This gives you information about what is important to the team, e.g. reach agreement on what the coaches should be focused on; get the 7th grade language arts curriculum finished by May; plan kindergarten intake. Sometimes, the work of the team may be more process-oriented, and that’s fine too: learn how to implement classroom formative assessment; create a process for involving all teachers in planning professional development; design a routine for implementing our strategy. If there is more than is manageable, go through a process of prioritizing—lots of ways to do that, from placing dots to writing in Zoom chat.

3. What do we need from each other?
a. Give people time individually to answer this question;
b. Then put them in small groups/breakouts to share what they wrote;
c. Ask them to share with the whole group/type their answers into a Google Doc.

This gets at the idea of group norms, or community agreements, but I like it because it’s tied more closely to the work and to what people value.

Where you go from here depends on the variation in the answers. It may be simple to synthesize at this point, and say, “it seems to me that there’s consensus that we want to feel like we’ve created something useful for teachers and supportive of kids’ learning by writing a teacher-friendly, culturally responsive curriculum, and we want to get the curriculum drafted by May so that it can be in place by the beginning of the next school year. And it’s important to us that the process be open and inclusive, so that people feel heard and different points of view are respected. Did I get that right?”

Or you may have to go through another round of clarification. But you will end up with a team theory of action, you’ve just gone about it in a slightly different way; and it may not be framed as an if… then… statement, but all the same ingredients are there, plus some clarification about motivation and values.

All this may not get you completely away from pro forma collaborative teams, but it’s a good place to start. Because frequently the teachers who are “required” to collaborate have no idea why they are collaborating.

It’s a fabulous evening here in Seattle so I’m going to go enjoy what’s left of it. For those of you joining us for session four of the Acceleration Workshop, I’ll see you tomorrow! And if there is anything else I can help with, please let me know. Best, Isobel

Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
Connecticut Center for School Change
CCSC Services to Districts
Author of The Coaching Letter

Author with Jennie Weiner of The Strategy Playbook for Educational Leaders: Principles and Practices Routledge


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