Thursday, November 1, 2007

Building Teamwork in Your School

Whether you're a teacher, student, principal, parent, or community member you can play a role in building community in your school. Here are a few suggestions to get you started.

If you are a teacher:
  • Start a Collaborative Learning Community: Share one of your lesson plans with a colleague and ask for advice on how to strengthen it. In the future this simple step can encourage her to do the same. Better yet, invite a few colleagues to review the lesson or visit your class and give you feedback. Your brave first move opens the door for them to try it too!
  • Share Resources: If you're in grad school or taking an interesting class, make copies of articles you find interesting and share them with your principal. You might even want to post them in the teachers' lounge. You don't have to find these sources in classes alone. As you browse the web or look through resource books you might stumble upon something good to share. It's more than likely that what grabs your interest might grab someone else's too and once the sharing starts you won't have to spend so much time looking for good information on your own.
  • Initiate a Skill Swap: There are things you know you do well with your students and there are things you know your peers do well. Consider orchestrating a skill swap! Ask one of your colleagues to model the skill you want to learn with your students and offer to do the same (modeling your skill) with theirs. (This might mean you have to combine your classes, or you could do it when one of you has a planning period.)

If you are a parent:

  • Think Beyond Your Child: When you visit the school it's logical that you focus on what your child needs to be successful - but in fact his or her success depends largely on the success of lots of other people in the building. The next time you meet with your child's teacher consider asking, "Is there anything you need?" This simple question could bring a range of requests, and hopefully some of them (i.e. copy paper, an overhead projector, a field trip fund, markers) will be things you can get the parent organization (or even just the parents in this class) to fill. If several parents are asking this question of different teachers you might even find that a theme emerges that could help the parent organization to create a group solution. If you don't have a parent organization, you can solicit local businesses to donate the supplies or resources your school needs.
  • Share the Good Things You See: If a particular teacher is doing something wonderful in his classroom, it's highly likely that you may be one of the first adults to notice it. Share the good news! Mention what you saw to the principal and other teachers. Sometimes parents have a broader view of the school (especially if they have students in multiple grades) than the teachers working there (who have to focus fully on their individual classes.)
  • Contribute Your Talents: Do you know how to ballroom dance? Do you like reading books out loud? Can you sing? Can you talk about your line of work? Chances are good that you have something great to share with your child's school, talk to a teacher, principal, program coordinator, or specialist teacher about volunteering!

If you are a student:

  • Start a Spirit Day: If you don't have one at your school already, talk to your teacher and the principal about starting a spirit day. Spirit days can be anything from days when everyone wears the school colors to days when the whole school does a service project. The purpose of these days is to create a sense of unity within the school and depending on your goals they can be very easy or very complex to arrange.
  • Create a Student Feedback Box: True teamwork requires the voices of all people on the team to be heard. In a school, that means people should be listening to students. Unfortunately, students are often not invited to staff meetings, parent meetings, or board meetings where the big decisions are made. You can still share your voice by setting up a "feedback box" in the main lobby of your school where students can drop their ideas or concerns. These notes can be typed up and shared with the school staff during meetings. You might also sugget creating a student liason position where a student from the school attends these meetings on behalf of the student body and shares the comments left in the box.
  • Be the Change: Model the behaviors that build teamwork by helping fellow students, and not just those in your grade. You can tutor younger students, start an after school club that's open to all grade levels, create intramural sports teams, etc.

If you are a principal:

  • Seek Input from your Staff: You work in a particularly alienating profession but you don't always have to feel so alone! Use surveys, staff meetings, individual conferences, and team meetings to solicit advice and input from your staff - particularly as it relates to improving student achievement. You will find that your teachers have great ideas you've never tried and they'll be more invested in the implementation process knowing you asked their opinion first.
  • Share Best Practices Research: One of the problems many principals face when trying to implement changes at their schools is that they fail to back up their requests with information explaining why they're being made. Teachers are smart and they like to be treated like they're smart. If you ask them to change the way they're teaching math they want to know why this approach will be better than what they've done before. You need to know this too! Share articles, bring in experts, and be open to their concerns and questions. These steps not only make the change more palatable - they also build trust!
  • Make Time for Teamwork: Teamwork isn't something you can do without time to meet with the team. That's why it's so hard to build in a school! If you can build collaborative planning time into your schedule it is much easier for teachers to meet. Being creative with after school time (offering compensation if possible, providing food, providing material resources) can also make planning together "off the clock" more appealing. At Inspired Teaching we've found biannual all-staff retreats to be incredible community builders. We recommend taking teachers away from the buiding, overnight is preferable. We've found it's actually not impossible to get small grants to cover all the costs of such an event, contact us if you want to brainstorm ways to make it happen!

If you are a community member:

  • Find Out what Your School Needs: Meet with the school's principal, a group of teachers, or parents to learn about the needs of the school. These may be primarily related to the physical building, but they may also be things like tutors, catered meals for meetings, typists, artists, etc. Find ways to use either your own or the community's resources to help meet those needs. You might even suggest a school-wide survey that students, parents, and staff take to identify needs. The data collected from the survey could be used to create a wish-list for the year.
  • Organize a Community Clean-Up Day: Find out the physical needs of your school and organize a Saturday when the community can come in to meet them. Get paint donated from a local hardware store, have neighbors bring garden tools, distribute lots of trash bags, buckets of water, and rags - and start cleaning! This is a great project to do right before school starts so students come into a fresh building as the year begins.
  • Tell Good Stories: You can do a lot for a school simply by talking it up. Find out what great things are happening at the school and talk about them with the community. Try to get a local paper interested, or see if neighborhood churches or businesses would like to recognize the school at their events. We hear so many bad things about our schools it's a wonder they have the courage to open their doors each day. A few more positive words can build the motivation to move towards higher and higher goals!

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