Becoming a Team

Creating and nurturing an effective team takes time—and it's well worth the effort

By: Jack Berckemeyer


Just as trapeze artists must trust the workers who man the equipment and set up the nets, so team members must learn to trust each other. One of the main issues and concerns for teams is how to remain consistent and create unity among the teachers and students. Teaming is all about the importance of a group of people coming together for a common mission or cause. It is about developing the ability to trust one another and work together toward a common purpose.

For all those of us in the middle school, a common goal is to not let students carry out a hostile takeover! Let’s be honest here; at any given time we are just 40 seconds away from having our class turn into a scene from Lord of the Flies.

Time to Get to Know Each Other

Once a team is created, they need time together. Great teams will meet in the summer prior to school. They might meet at a team member’s house or a local establishment. The purpose is simple: to get to know each other.

It is critical to make sure you find time to talk about issues not related to school. Later, there will be plenty of opportunities to worry about progress reports, team celebrations, and who needs to bring doughnuts to the next team meeting.

Here are some ideas on what to do for the first meeting:

  • Spend time talking about your teaching background.
  • Talk about some of your teaching strategies.
  • Share your pet peeves.
  • Talk about family and why you became a teacher.
  • List things you expect from your teammates.
  • Share a great past team experience.
  • Create a list of non-negotiables for you and for your team.
  • Conduct a fun survey. Cosmo magazine always has a survey, although you might not want to know if your team member is a good kisser.
  • Keep the first meeting lighthearted and have plenty of food. Remember my motto: Eating makes a meeting!
  • Share a photo of yourself as a middle school student.

In his book, The Personal Trainer for Academic Teams, Randy Thompson emphasizes how critical it is for a team to work toward building an identity. This identity relates not only to students, but also to teachers. Randy suggests creating team banners, team resumes, and a team wall with information about the students and teachers.

Some teams list their degrees and accomplishments in their team area of the building. We should be proud of the hard work we have done and proud of the many hours we spend outside the classroom increasing our knowledge.

Getting Acquainted

Doing some fun things to get acquainted is a good way to start the process of team bonding. One great way to begin is to have all team members complete a slightly wacky multiple-choice questionnaire. Include questions such as:

  1. On my iPod I do NOT have the following: a) Barry Manilow; b) Adele; c) Respighi; d) I don’t own one.
  2. If I weren’t a teacher, I would be: a) a rodeo clown; b) a travel agent; c) a therapist; d) in therapy.
  3. For fun, I: a) engage in athletic things like running, volleyball, weightlifting; b) read; c) I don’t do fun! Fun is the devil’s playground; d) yell at kids.
  4. I work best with others when: a) they pretend to be cheerful; b) they do as I say; c) they leave me alone; d) they bring food to the meetings.

Give each team member a copy. After questionnaires are completed, shuffle the pages
and redistribute them so that no one has his or
her own paper.

Each team member reads a questionnaire and guesses whose answers they are. A teacher writes his or her guess on the page and passes it on. When the guessing spots are filled (I suggest five guesses), keep passing papers until each one comes back around to the original writer.

Each member can share responses to his or her questionnaire. Or the team leader can read a completed paper and everyone can guess. Or team members can comment on one or two of their answers.

Here’s how you can use another questionnaire:

Develop a questionnaire that asks the question, "Which one of your teammates is most likely to…" then list 15–20 activities, such as:

  1. Run, play volleyball, etc., in his or her own time?
  2. Drive a sports car if s/he could afford it?
  3. Enjoy dressing up to go out?
  4. Travel to exotic places for vacation?
  5. Call his/her mom every day?
  6. Own a circular saw?

Give each team member a copy. Each member completes one, writing ideas about which other member might fit each item.

As a group, members can share their ideas or responses to each item. It is fun to hear reasoning behind their choices. Then individuals can talk about why others were right in guesses about them, or why they were not.

To wrap up, have each team member state one thing learned about every other team member.

Sample questionnaires are available in Taming of the Team: How Great Teams Work Together, available from AMLE at www.amle.org/store.

Building Some Baseline Information

In addition to having some fun and getting to know one another, it is critical that teams take some time to build baseline data about their team’s structure and their effective use of time.

During the first few weeks of school, the team should work together to complete a survey, "Where Are We?" This allows the team to gather information about the current state of various policies and practices of the team. Team members list their team expectations, such as, "Is there a written team vision or mission?" "Are team roles and expectations established?" "Is there a set team meeting agenda?" and "Has the team set consistent policies and procedures?" and designate for each item whether the team needs to create, discuss, or review the item, or whether it is completed.

The responses will indicate areas for team discussion. If as a team you discover areas of weakness or identify missing strategies, create
some goals.

I encourage teams to take this informal survey at least four times a year. It will be interesting for team members to see how well the team is functioning at the beginning of the year versus the end of the year. Keep track of the data.

Administrators can also use this to keep track of the practices teams are implementing. This is not a checklist of things that every team must do. Present this to teams as a list of ideas that many great teams are implementing across the country.

Creating a Team Vision

At the beginning of the year take a few minutes to develop a team vision or mission that reflects your team characteristics and expectations. Don’t forget to make sure that the mission is grade-level appropriate.

Make sure that your vision focuses on what will happen for the students. You can use the schoolwide mission statement as a starting point.

Great schools use the team mission or vision statements to help create a unified vision for the school. This is why it is imperative for teams to focus on quality statements. Remember to keep the statements simple, such as "Our team is committed to the academic success of each student and we will do what it takes to see that each one achieves. To that end, during the 2013–2014 academic year, we will…."

Sharing Your Team Mission

Once the team has created a mission or vision statement, share it.

  • Create a three-fold brochure for open house and share it with the parents on your team.
  • Post the statement on the team website.
  • Record your statement at the end of your voice mail.
  • Post the statement in every classroom.
  • Make a t-shirt with the mission statement on it. Teachers adore the matching t-shirts.
  • Make sure the statement is posted on the bulletin boards in your hallway.
  • See if the statement can be printed on grade sheets or progress reports.
  • Have students put the team’s mission in their student planner or agenda books.

Making sure you have a common vision allows the teachers, students, and parents to know that this team has a goal in mind. It reminds everyone that there is purpose to this team and that the team is trying to accomplish great things.

Norms for Team Meetings

To keep a team on task and focused, you will need to establish some team expectations and norms for team members to follow at team meetings. Be realistic and honest about issues that may arise. It is truly okay to say that at no time during the team meeting is it acceptable to work on your tax return.

You can negotiate these norms without hurting team members’ feelings. Stick to the topics and stay on point. Work together to answer the question, "What are the acceptable actions during a team meeting?"

Great teams review their team norms quarterly. This reminds everyone of the expectations and enables teams to make reasoned adjustments. Teams also make sure the lists of norms are posted in the team room, team notebook, or conference area.

Examples of team norms:

  • Be on time for the meeting.
  • Never grade papers during a team meeting.
  • Let the person talking finish his or her statement or thought.
  • Bring any materials that you will need. Yes, that includes a pen and paper. Don’t be an unprepared student!
  • When the meeting is over it is over, don’t talk about it with others. Teaming is like Las Vegas—what happens in team meetings stays in team meetings.
  • Maintain all student communication logs and parent contacts.
  • Respond to team and parent emails within 24 hours.
  • Share teaching ideas and student data with others.
  • Bring your homework dates and lesson plans.
  • Set team time and locations.

It’s relatively easy to create norms. What is difficult is to hold each other to those norms. So great teams not only create team norms, they create protocols on how to hold each other accountable.

The Truth About Teaming

Over the years, educators have referred to teaming as professional study groups, professional learning communities, data teams, and learning teams. There are vertical teams, horizontal teams, elective teams, exploratory teams, academic teams, and leadership teams.

Yet, no matter what you call teaming, it is really just about a group of people coming together. It is not about the name, it is about the purpose of coming together. That purpose is to improve all facets of the school experience, including academic performance, for all students.


Jack Berckemeyer is a presenter, author, and humorist. He began his career as a middle grades teacher in Denver, Colorado.

This article is adapted from Taming of the Team by Jack Berckemeyer, published by Incentive Publications, ©World Book, Inc. 233 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago IL 60601. By permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.


Published in AMLE Magazine, August 2013.

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