Recently I was asked by Tom Hierck (@thierck) to think about effective teams I have worked with and some of the elements that underpinned their success. After a little time to reflect, I can definitely say my most powerful experience with a team was in my first full-time teaching experience at Summerland Middle School.
In the fall of 1999 Summerland Middle School opened it doors and I was lucky enough to be hired and part of the Grade 7 team that included Scott Edwards, Cindy Russill, Nicole Podalski and Shirlene Peters. For all of us, it was our first time teaching Grade 7 and we were all in the first few years of our careers. We walked into the job with nothing – no experience, no resources and limited classroom experience. The concept of Middle School was relatively new to us as well, but we embraced the philosophy that teachers work as teams to support students. Looking back, it was one of the most powerful experiences of my career and was integral in my development as an educator.
Why were we so successful?
Because we had nothing we developed everything together. We did all of our lesson planning together, often in marathon after school sessions. None of us had kids, so working long hours was part of the fun. The result was we had a common curriculum for all the Grade 7’s in our school. Even the kids began to feel the power of the team…we could literally walk up to any student and begin talking about what they were studying in Social Studies, English etc. It opened our doors to other students and the sense of team began to transfer to the students. The power of common language was evident and was important in creating powerful relationships with students.
At the beginning, we were all in the same place. We shared a lack of experience and resources, but needed to be ready to face 30 teenagers every day. There was a certain motivation in that! If we weren’t ready we knew we were at the mercy of the kids, so we figured the best way to overcome our weaknesses was to rely on each other.
We embraced all embraced the philosophy of teaming, but we also had a belief that relationships had to come first. As a team we hit it off on a personal level and quickly developed excellent rapport with each other. This translated into our classrooms, where all felt that relationships with our students needed to be established before we be effective teachers.
Right from the start, we were very open with each other. We all came from a place of inexperience, so there was no ego or resident experts. We were all admitted neophytes and were on a level playing field, so we figured the best way to figure things out was together. We understood that our collective wisdom could overcome our inexperience. We shared ideas openly, embraced our imperfections and mistakes and continually sought each other out when things went awry – which they often did.
Based on the fact that we were so open with each other, we quickly gained trust within our team. We came to understand that we could share successes and failures without judgement. We came to rely on each other for support. There is a certain comfort and strength that comes from knowing you are not alone, but have a team behind you that will be there should you need it. It gave me a level of confidence that belied my experience and ultimately made me a much better teacher.
Because we were open with each other and developed trust, we shared everything and developed great relationships with each other. As a result we laughed all the time. We laughed with and each other and with our students on a daily basis. We had friendly rivalries and we were playful in front of the students. We could be ourselves with each other, and based on this comfort we could be ourselves in front of our students. It made it such a fun place to be and work. I think part of the reason we put in such long hours was because it was so fun to be at school. We weren’t the most efficient when it came to time management, but it didn’t really matter because we were just enjoying the experience.
The power of team cannot be understated, in fact they can be truly transformational – personally and professionally. I am still very close with Cindy and Scott. We have kids the same age and our families often spend time together. Nicole moved away, but I ran into her last weekend and it was great to connect again. Shirlene, sadly passed away last year, but she will always have a special place in our hearts.
I have worked with many outstanding educators and teams over the years, but my time at SMS was the most influential that I have had.