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Saturday, June 09, 2018

Developing Strong Teams: Raising the Collective Genius and Serving Students Better

This photo illustrates the success of one big project that multiple educators in our extended fifth grade team contributed too. The efforts of so many invested educators, students, family members, community members, and administrators made this a successful project. 
For the past three years, I've worked in a shared teaching model. Three classroom teachers work together to teach all the fifth graders at our school. Together we design a program that meets system and state-wide standards and expectations. We work to create and promote a quality program that's holistic, culturally proficient, rigorous, engaging, and inclusive. We aim to teach every child well.

Our program has many different structures including the following:
  • Rotations for specific subject areas, projects, and topics
  • Team days when the whole grade level is focused on a similar learning objective
  • Response to Intervention (RTI) times when students are separated into lots of different short-term, flexible groups based on needs, interests, and abilities .
  • Field studies and special events.
The three classrooms are located next to each other so there is an easy flow of students and teachers from one classroom to another. We typically house materials related to specific disciplines and projects in each classroom so every classroom has a bit different feel to it, and all students get to experience all three classrooms and teachers.

Overall our many informal and formal assessments point to success with this model. Standardized test scores have been good. Family response has been positive. Students have been happy. 

As a team, we've been discussing how we might build our team out to better include special educators, specialists, EL teachers, therapists, reading specialists, math coaches, teaching assistants, and administrators. We are fortunate to have substantial supports for students from many educators. The challenge with this is scheduling, time-on-task support, and targeted goals. 

As I think about the goal of building a more successful sense of team with the broader teaching team related to this approach, I've come up with the following possible strategies:

Better Scheduling
Our team has worked with the building schedulers to create a good base schedule in the past few years. This has been a successful approach and we have generally had a very good base schedule that works well. We've spent less good time on the the scheduling of special educators, therapists, EL teachers, and other specialists. There is little time put aside for this at the start of the year, and to do better means we are going to have to make time for this and prioritize the efforts. As we think ahead to better scheduling, I've come up with the following ideas:
  • Schedule most supports in the morning when students do their best learning.
  • Scheduling IEP meetings and other events that pull services away from students at the end of the day which is a less rich teaching time.
  • As much as possible combine IEP meetings with regular parent conferences so that we can use the before- and after-school time set aside for this rather than teaching time.
  • Advocate for substitutes for specialists who are pulled for meetings or who are absent so students don't miss out on their services.
  • Study IEPs and other service delivery documents to make sure students are getting the time and services they need. Chart the times and keep a list of those times.
  • Advocate for early scheduling and start of services--at times some services have not started until mid-October which means students have missed out on six weeks of services at the start of the year. I don't believe this has to happen.
  • Set aside a day w/few services and use that day for field studies and special events. Try to match the time with a time when a building space is available for those special events.
  • Start scheduling by mapping the services for the most challenged learners who have the most services and work up to the students who have the least extra services. 
  • Schedule services as a team with the whole team. At a friend's school they would schedule all services with all teachers present in the library to come up with a good schedule of service delivery for all. 
  • Schedule less cognitive intense tasks during the later day and more intense cognitive tasks in the morning. 
  • Schedule services less often for longer blocks to meet the needs of project based learning and field studies too. 
Fidelity to Service Delivery Maps and Services
It can happen that some services are not delivered with fidelity. There are multiple reasons why this happens, and when it happens all students miss out. There are ways that we can avoid this by doing the following:
  • Try not to plan special events and field studies on days when there are important services planned, or ensure that specialists attend those field studies and special events with you and continue their service delivery then. 
  • Perhaps assign specialists who are serving multiple grades to one grade per day which will enable those specialists to attend and support grade level special events and field studies. Similarly assign coaches and specialists who serve multiple schools to same schools at same times each week so people can rely on their services at regular intervals.
  • Try not to plan parent meetings and other meetings when these special services are planned.
  • Make the time to create a dynamic service delivery and classroom schedule, and then stay faithful to that schedule as much as possible.
  • Be realistic about times, places, and programs--plan for what is really needed and what truly happens. 
  • Try not to pull teaching assistants who work in classrooms from the classroom program. If assistants are assigned to a classroom it's typically for an important instructional reason. Again staying faithful to program supports matters when it comes to teaching well. 
Targeted Goals
Often with service delivery, goals are not clear and do not match up. It's essential to prioritize the goals for the service delivery and classroom programs early in the year. For example, if we have an EL student with multiple IEP goals that child may be receiving multiple services throughout the week. It's important to talk carefully about the child and his/her goals at the start of the year and both prioritize and check-in on the efforts towards meeting those goals with good, honest informal and formal data regularly. Sometimes when a child receives multiple services, there is confusion about the goals and there is less focused attention to how to integrate the services amongst all educators to meet the child's needs and interests in targeted, successful ways. When goals are clear for educators and students, there generally is better buy-in, support, and a sense of accomplishment when goals are achieved. Good goal setting supports optimal learning. 

Fortunately our system has many practices in place to help with that including the following:
  • Transition meetings where teachers from one year share information and strategies with the teachers for the next year.
  • Weekly student service delivery meetings that help us meet the needs of students with all teachers, specialists, therapists, guidance, assistants, and other involved with the child.
  • Time set aside for parent conferences and IEP meetings.
  • Email communication.
  • Weekly professional learning community (PLCs) meetings
  • Clear curriculum standards and programs
  • Time and money for professional learning efforts
  • A good foundation of teaching/learning materials and resources
  • Consistency of staffing--it's much easier to develop good teaming when staffing is consistent
I think we can do a better job with this in the following ways:
  • Shortlisting and prioritizing the goals for students who receive multiple services
  • Taking time to create a learning path towards those goals including who will do what, when.
  • Assessing those goals regularly with formal and informal assessments
  • Sharing and discussing the data and revising and enriching the goal path as needed
  • Learning together about what works and why; sharing best practice, resources, and research to lift all instruction and students up.
  • Realistically understanding the differences with teaching in a whole class environment versus one-to-one and small group instruction. There's been a lot of recent research related to the impact of intense one-to-one tutoring during the school day as well as the obvious impact that noise and crowd control has on focused learning. Similarly there's been research on the detrimental affects of too much isolation and pull-out services too. Hence, there's a right balance to be had here. 
  • Finding ways to make goals that include IEP goals and standards--there is some distance between these two documents and the distance needs to be discussed and bridged to teach children well
  • Looking for ways to create a strong sense of team amongst all team members in ways that engage and empower all educators and students
  • Discussing communication strategies and efforts. In today's world there are countless ways to communicate and it's essential that teams figure out best strategies for this up front in the year. Our grade-level team mostly relies on a shared Google doc for planning and communication amongst ourselves and a website including a weekly newsletter for communication to all stakeholders. The broader team uses a PLC shared Google document and email. All of us have significant face-to-face time as noted above. I think that more focused attention on communication at the start of the year will also help to build stronger teams. 
  • Reviewing the program with all educators involved and mapping out the year's meetings and efforts to include greater strategic planning, support, and time-on-task with students for big and meaningful projects so that every child is involved in these big learning events and every child reaches success with the learning goals involved in these big projects. 
  • Developing our process and strategies at meetings so that those meetings result in better effort. Many people in the greater organizational sphere are looking at this issue and we see research related to hosting conversationsraising the collective genius of an organization, and other methods of positive collaborative work that focuses on mastery, autonomy, and purpose for individual members of a team as well as the collaborative group. 
As mentioned above, our team has been working to build a good collaborative model at fifth grade. I believe that we all feel we've done a great job with this initial goal and now it's time to positively focus our attention on building that model out to better what we can do as a team of educators, specialists, assistants, therapists, guidance, administrators, coaches, and others to teach every child well. I welcome your feedback, thoughts, and references as I continue to develop this work on my own and with others. There is great satisfaction, progress, and results related to positive teaming. We acknowledge this on our team website with this header: