When you join up in the middle grades, you become part of a passionate team. You cherish the middle level playbook because, as it's stated in This We Believe, you "value young adolescents and are prepared to teach them" (p. 14). In many ways, it's like signing up to play on a football team. It takes committed players. It takes dedicated coaches. And many days, you wish you wore a helmet.
There are definitely parallels between the middle grades team and a football team. And as you may know, February marked the end of the professional football season. Football helmets were put away. Team jerseys were hung in lockers and closets. Even socks and cleats were shelved. But not until one of the most popular, most athletic, and perhaps most theatrical sporting events in the world: the Super Bowl.
Vince Lombardi, legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers, not only brought five teams to the Super Bowl during his career, he also gave us a multitude of quotes that connect with best middle school practices—specifically, the gritty gridiron also known as the interdisciplinary team! Coach Lombardi had some sage words of advice for us all to consider as we team up for super student success.
1. "The price of success is hard work, dedication to the job at hand, and the determination that whether we win or lose, we have applied the best of ourselves to the task at hand."
The pronoun "we" is one of the most vital words in the teaming lexicon. It's important for a team working in the middle grades to remember that it is our collective effort that best serves students. In other words, you may be a dedicated, determined, and hard worker in your classroom, but on an interdisciplinary team, your solitary talents alone won't be enough—and young adolescents deserve more.
A successful team acknowledges that the magnificent middle grades "playbook" can only be executed with fidelity when everyone is working together with passion, commitment, and kids in mind/heart/spirit. In other words, "the team is the foundation for a strong learning community characterized by a sense of family" (p. 31); hence, it must first see itself as a collective family and maintain those familial bonds throughout the year.
How does your team define the characteristics of an effective disciplinary team?
Does your team have a written vision or philosophy statement that guides decisions and actions?
- How well does your team know its collective strengths and challenges?
2. "Individual commitment to a group effort—that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work."
And while the pronoun "we" is vital to the functionality of the team, it is the individual commitment that makes it truly move forward and soar. Without each person acting as a dedicated "I," the collective "we" won't happen. Therefore, it is critical that each interdisciplinary team member understands and acts upon his or her role in the "playbook." It is vital that each team member asks key questions about teaming throughout the school year—not just when the game begins. And that kind of inquiry benefits not only students, it benefits teachers, too.
As This We Believe reminds us, "teaming has a positive impact on the professional lives of teachers, expanding a collegial focus" (p. 31). The continual, positive evolution of a team mate and an ID team happens when each individual tackles questions and the subsequent answers.
What does it take to be an effective member of an interdisciplinary team?
Do you know your own strengths and challenges as a team member?
- How well do you know the strengths of your individual team members and how those strengths complement each other?
3. "It's not whether you get knocked down, it's whether you get up."
No one said that interdisciplinary teaming was easy. Like a strong football team, it's not enough as an interdisciplinary team to simply know the playbook and practice well. Effective interdisciplinary teams know how to work together, how to discuss and debate constructively, how to reach consensus, and how to remain focused on student success—even as they negotiate and churn through the shifting challenges of time, resources, relationships, and expectations.
Perhaps most importantly, members of an interdisciplinary team model resilience and grit by showing themselves and their students how to rise up together in the face of adversity. In other words, a strong team doesn't just show up—it stands up. And it does so for itself, for its school and for the students and families it serves because the team is "literally the heart of the school from which other desirable programs and experiences evolve" (p. 31).
If you are struggling as a team or a team member, what will help you continue to grow and support the team, as well?
What is your team's process or protocol for discussing difficult topics or dealing with challenging topics?
What data does your team collect to measure and talk about success?
4. "Coaches who can outline plays on a black board are a dime a dozen. The ones who win get inside their players and motivate."
Paperwork. Calendars. Documentation. Meeting agendas. Notes. There is a lot for which interdisciplinary team leaders are responsible and a lot that they asked to coordinate—in addition to fulfilling their own classroom responsibilities. However, none of those logistical tasks mean anything if the team leaders fail to motivate their fellow team members. Therefore, team leaders must not only plan a consistent meeting agenda, but also be able to read (and reach) their individual team members' agendas. The leaders must not only maintain proper documentation for the team, but also build and maintain team relationships throughout the year.
Like effective coaches, great interdisciplinary team leaders "represent their teams," know the playbook, and celebrate and motivate the players who make it all happen every day.
How are the logistical aspects of the team managed, and is it always the same person who does that—or does that role rotate on the team?
How does the team keep all its members motivated throughout the year?
- When is it time for a team member to move to a different team—in order to rekindle their passion?
5. "I don't think there's a punch-line scheduled, is there?"
If a team is going to thrive—and not just survive—it has to laugh and have fun. But if a team waits for someone else to schedule a team-building event or a relationship-bonding meeting, it's going to be a long wait. Thus, interdisciplinary team joy starts small with simple stories and celebrations. Indeed, one of the many perks of working with young adolescents is that we have the funniest stories to tell. Those prized narratives should be part of the team's everyday life because "the essence of a happy, healthy school is reflected in the talk one hears" (p. 33).
In addition, an effective and amazing team should also celebrate each other by honoring team members' birthdays, anniversaries, and other special occasions, so relationships can fill the pages of the middle grades playbook and make it brim over with genuine joy.
Are laughter and story-telling part of the team's agenda for every meeting?
What do you know about your teammates and how/when do you celebrate each other?
- How do you lift each other up and cultivate joy and optimism every day?
Ironically, the most valuable lesson that Vince Lombardi left for middle grades interdisciplinary teams was not in what he said; rather, it was by how he lived and coached. He was known for his honesty, his passion for the game, and, most importantly, his actions. Therefore, take Lombardi's quotes and my commentaries and rest assured that as words, they won't create change or grow great teams themselves. Only our individual and collective actions will make teams effective, amazing, and super.
Dru Tomlin is director of middle level services for AMLE.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, March 2016.