The Basics of Developing Effective Teams

By: Dawn Michelle Williams, Leah Kahn, Claudia Whitley


The life of a middle level teacher is one of continuous challenges. Teachers are charged with curriculum development, lesson planning, data analysis, problem solving, response-to-intervention, and other student concerns. A well-functioning interdisciplinary team provides needed support for teachers struggling to meet the demands of the middle level classroom.

In his book As I See It, John Lounsbury asserts, "No single educational idea has come to characterize the middle school concept as certainly as interdisciplinary teaming." While a successful team works together to provide a quality educational environment that meets the needs of the middle level student, effective teamwork does not happen without hard work. We offer here some practical advice for teacher teams struggling to work together effectively.

Stages of Team Development

Effective teams take time and effort to develop, and they are ever-changing, but the rewards are great as the team supports students and teachers.
A group of four or five teachers does not immediately function as a team; rather, they develop as a team in stages. Administrators must support this process by providing guidance, offering opportunities for team building, sponsoring professional development activities, and allowing time for team meetings. Along these lines, educational psychologist Bruce Tuckman proposed a widely accepted four-stage process through which teams develop: forming, storming, norming, and performing.

Forming. In this first stage, members must get to know each other and sort out their respective roles as team members. It can be an exciting yet uncertain time in the life of a team. It is important that the team work together to establish a purpose, agree on norms or ground rules, and set future goals. Some tasks during this stage include:

  • Establishing the team's identity, and getting to know each other.
  • Enabling what is arguably the most important team norm: communicating and establishing how communication will take place.
  • Decide how often, where, and when the team will meet.
  • Determine means of collaboration via online tools.

Storming. As the team members get to know each other, they will become more comfortable sharing ideas and frustrations. As a result, disagreements may arise—and the storming stage begins. However, if handled properly, the storming stage can lead to positive outcomes for the team. To manage conflict in the storming stage, teams should:

  • Continually revisit their vision, mission, and goals.
  • Promote relationships within the team and with administration, counselors, and parents. These relationships should always be considered works in progress. Strong relationships are the foundation for real progress and later successes.
  • Determine what kinds of professional development goals are needed to continually grow and develop.

Norming. When team members learn to work together and begin to accomplish goals and solve problems effectively, loyalty develops among the members. Teams in this stage make progress toward improving instruction, solving problems, and supporting students. In this stage, teachers may want to consider:

  • Planning and implementing integrated units of instruction.
  • Evaluating and enhancing community connections through service learning projects.
  • Reevaluating and updating the team mission, vision, and goals as teachers become more confident in their decision-making and communication skills.

Performing. A team in the performing stage is able to accomplish whatever tasks or challenges may arise and has a high level of trust and commitment among its members. Often at this stage, it seems all team members pull their weight, and a leader is not needed. However, it is important to have a designated leader who pushes the team and maintains focus on team goals. A performing interdisciplinary team is likely to:

  • Expand the use of integrated instruction by integrating critical curriculum components into all content areas.
  • Make more community connections and ensure that parents are partners in the learning process.
  • Ensure that student support is consistent across the board. Students know when a team is functioning well and will respond in positive ways.

It is important to keep in mind that over time, some members may leave a team and new members will be added. As a result, the team may need to go back to a previous stage of team formation. For example, a team may go back to norming as members become acquainted and learn to work with new members.

Team Decision Making

One of the biggest challenges facing a teaching team is reaching consensus on important team decisions. Teams should consider these three important things when making decisions:

  1. All members must feel that they have been heard and understood. This can be a challenge if the team includes members who are overly extroverted or overly introverted. For this reason, team discussions should be carefully managed to deal with those who might monopolize the conversation and to draw out those who are reticent to contribute.
  2. All members must be able to "live with" the team's decision over the course of a specified period of time. By making this clear, members who might be uncomfortable with the decision, will be more likely to offer their support.
  3. All members must be willing to commit to carrying out the plan. Agreeing to a course of action is not the same as actually participating to help carry it out.

With these considerations in mind, one important detail remains: how to develop a strategy for reaching consensus. After a thorough discussion of a proposal, each member signals with a thumbs up (completely agree), thumbs down (cannot live with it), or a thumb to side (I can live with it). If all members do not signal to the side or up, the discussion continues until consensus is reached. This process may take more time than voting, but the result is an energized team with a common goal.

Achieving More

Effective teams do not just happen; they develop over time as team members work through the stages of forming, storming, norming, and performing. Successful teams collaborate, reach consensus to make decisions, and work together to achieve common goals. Working together as a team is hard work, but the rewards are great as the team successfully supports students and teachers.


Dawn Michelle Williams a former teacher and middle school principal, is an associate professor and coordinator of the Middle Level Grades Online Program at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas.
williamdm@sfasu.edu

Leah Kahn, a former middle school science teacher, is an assistant professor at Stephen F. Austin State University.
llkahn@sfasu.edu

Claudia Whitley, a former middle school teacher and principal, is an associate professor and coordinator of the Middle Level Grades Program at Stephen F. Austin State University.
whitleyc@sfasu.edu

Published in AMLE Magazine, August 2016.

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