• Kurt Stroh

Developing Rock Star Teams

Updated: Mar 12, 2018

How are you sparking innovation and building teams that know their IMPACT?


How many hours have you spent in team meetings?

Seriously, take a minute and estimate the amount of time you’ve spent with your ‘team’:

  • analyzing student work

  • planning your next unit

  • developing rubric-bound formative assessments

  • discussing high-impact strategies for learning

  • observing effective pedagogy


Given the time you’ve spent, how valuable has it been in improving your practice?

Here’s the reality. Most teachers spend less than 1 hour per week formally (scheduled time) collaborating with colleagues. Given the 40 hours a week we work in school (not counting the many hours outside of school we prepare, worry, plan, etc.) that’s about 2.5%. Even though this seems like a brief amount of time, we have precious little to waste. So what can teams do to make the time spent with colleagues so valuable that they can’t wait to get to their team meeting to share, to learn, to debate, to celebrate? What can teams do to make their time together not just productive but a powerful tool to improve teaching that actually has a significant impact on student learning? After all, isn’t that why we ‘collaborate’?

Before we go there, let’s briefly identify why ‘collaboration’ is a very big deal these days, and not just in education. Google recently conducted a three-year study on teaming called Project Aristotle, which showed that working effectively together can reap powerful results; depth and innovation come from interactive problem solving. Most businesses now work in teams. Isolation and seclusion are OUT - teaming and collaboration are IN! Simply put, ‘we’ is smarter than ‘me’.

What Makes Productive Teams?

We actually know exactly what makes teams productive (and what does not).

Gallimore & Ermeling et al (2009) cite 5 components:

  • Job-alike teams (common relevant focus)

  • Clear goals

  • Trained peer facilitator

  • Inquiry-based protocols

  • Stable settings (protected time, principal commits to the process over time)

In addition, a recent paper out of Harvard Graduate School of Education by Johnson, Reinhorn, and Simon (2016) examines how collaboration works best, listing five factors that contribute to a team’s success:

  1. Clear worthwhile purpose

  2. Sufficient regular time

  3. Administrative support and attention

  4. Trained teacher facilitators

  5. Integrated approach to teacher support

Beginning to see some consistencies?

5 Critical Components

And with thousands of hours in the field working with teams and from both research and evidence- based practices, we believe the following are critical components of “rock star” teams that engage, analyze, debate, and ultimately share and build knowledge that are the hallmarks of effective teaming.

Purpose – clear, common purpose and goals (to strengthen efficacy)

Safety – listening is a critical and shared skill, members feel safe to share, feel free to talk about the tough stuff, to have hard conversations to stimulate reflection, analysis, and deeper thinking

Support – administrators actively promoting and participating in team learning (walk the talk)

Trained Peer Facilitator – promoting inquiry-based protocols

Collective Action – it’s not just talk; collaboration results in thoughtful action

At the core of the work, these teams are learners…they are constantly and relentlessly reflecting on their practice, their strategies, their actions and asking, “What is our impact on student learning?” These teams make a difference. They are constantly learning in service to their students. And in the process, they are building efficacy, that is, the belief that they can and will make a difference in student learning.

As longtime educators who believe in the power of good teaching and even more, good teachers, our belief was validated when John Hattie (2014) identified collective teacher efficacy (CTE) as the highest educational influence found in the research literature to date, with a *1.57 effect size! This translates to more than quadrupling the rate of learning (.40 effect equals about a year’s growth in one year’s time.) The ‘collective’, that is, teachers working together to make a difference in students’ lives, have the potential to change kids’ lives. In fact, CTE can mitigate the effects poverty (Hoy, Sweetland & Smith, 2002). That’s what we all want out of our precious team time, collaboration so relentlessly effective that we can guarantee positive impact on ALL students.

Taking Collective Action

The following provides an explanation of each of the 5 key components, which are foundational for effective professional learning teams:

Purpose: We have determined that building a culture of efficacy is the ultimate goal (1.57 effect size). Strengthening the belief that everyone in the building can make a difference is at the CORE of the Impact Team Model. Leveraging professional learning teams to build professional capital in an effort to develop assessment capable learners is key to strengthening efficacy for students. We have not met a teacher that does not want students to take ownership of their learning. We use team time to strengthen student’s ability to:

  • Know where they are at in the learning.

  • Know where they are going.

  • Know their next learning step.

Safety: In the recent 3-year study on team effectiveness, Project Aristotle, Google, where almost all work is done in teams, found that lack of team trust was a common issue in the less effective teams. Psychological safety – conversational turn taking and empathy – matter! Be intentional and transparent about building trust. Sharing your mistakes and challenges is psychologically risky and requires a safe environment. Talk as a team about the importance of trust. Practice sharing something personal. Take a team trust survey (there are many free online versions) and see where your team stands on trusting one another. Have a plan about building trust and check back in every 3-4 months to see how you’re doing. Most importantly, do not underestimate the importance of trusting one another when doing this very important work.

Support: Protected time weekly – Effective professional learning teams need at least 3 hours a month of protected time. We advocate for 45-60 minutes weekly of protected time for Impact Team inquiry cycles.

Advocacy: There is an administrative commitment to protecting team time, and not usurping collaborative time for ‘other business’, ultimately promoting and participating in collaborative inquiry.

Peer Facilitation: Research and practice is clear, all teams need a trained facilitator that ensures the meeting is focused, efficient (roles and norms required here), and balanced (all voices heard). Not one second of time is spent on who’s taking notes, what to bring to the meeting, etc. and filibustering is not allowed. Facilitation can be shared, rotated, and/or a yearlong commitment. In our Model

Teams approach, we build facilitation skills naturally and always require an administrator plus a volunteer (or two) to learn the basics. Teams need to learn how to conduct a hassle-free efficient meeting. Think of this as developing a 21st century skill. With practice, teams learn effective ‘teaming’ by following set, published protocols based on the purpose of the meeting. The Impact Team model utilizes 8 purposeful protocols to guide collaborative inquiry in an effort to develop assessment capable learners and to strengthen efficacy.

Collective Action: Analyzing, dialoging, intense conversations are important, but without concomitant ACTION following the discussion, what’s the value to students? To be blunt…so what? Impact Teams are about thoughtful, strategic action to ensure high levels of student and teacher learning. Impact Teams are about building and sharing knowledge to take responsive, collective action in service to student learning.

Growing from Within

Schools don’t get better from the top down. They get better from learning and growing from within. And the core of the ‘within’ is teachers learning from one another to improve practice, to continuously learn from one another to be the best they can be in service to all students. We know how outrageously complicated teaching and learning is in today’s world. It’s simply not possible to teach well alone. We must work together purposefully, efficiently, and effectively to have a positive impact on all students. And in doing so, our schools become learning cultures that are models for:

  • Positive productive relationships

  • Rigorous and aligned expectations

  • Student and teacher efficacy – the belief that we will succeed

What are your next steps in expanding Impact Teams in your school or system?

By Paul J Bloomberg & Barb Pitchford

© 2016 by Paul J. Blooomberg. Designed by CADECollective.com