This week I’ve had the chance to work with teams a little more than usual - it’s one of my favourite contexts to coach in. There is something special about the process of finding common ground among a group of educators who each have a different class of students with their own interests and learning needs. It takes your coaching skill set and asks you to supercharge it, listening to multiple voices, acknowledging and connecting sometimes diverse ideas and values and elevating that sense of togetherness that is so powerful in schools. But it is a challenge, and there are lots of moving parts that can send it awry. So what makes the difference between striking team gold - that harmonious, time-honouring sense of achievement that has everyone feeling accomplished and ready for their next steps - and a frustrating, stuck-in-the-mud meeting?
A clear, well-articulated purpose. It’s our promise to each other as to why we are here, what we will achieve, and how we will achieve it. Write it up somewhere visible to all. If you see the conversation drifting away from it, have a tool (such as a Parking Lot) that acknowledges ideas and thoughts that fall outside the purpose and have a team member responsible for the tool. Touch the purpose (really!) and redirect: “That sounds important to you so let’s record it for your next meeting. Earlier we were discussing [something pertaining to the purpose]. What other thoughts might we have about this?” or something similar will bring everyone back in a respectful way.
Recognise members’ capacity to engage in the conversation, and take action if needed. How to negotiate this really comes down to rapport and trust with team members, but it is where paying attention before the meeting officially starts is key - what’s the vibe with people? It might be necessary to check-in - gently, respectfully, but in the interest of the purpose of the meeting and those present. Are we all in the right space for the meeting? This isn’t always possible, but I’d like to pose that not every meeting (or indeed every decision) requires all members to be present, especially if their input might be adversely affected by a state of mind. Can their input be added at a later date? Are they comfortable if remaining team members make decisions for the group? A less confronting option might be a focusing starter for a meeting (especially after school): maybe a little self-reflection as to the mindset we are bringing with us, so that we can make better decisions about how we participate. Whatever the tool, we wouldn’t ask children to make decisions when their resources are low, so we should be mindful of this with adults, too.
To protocol or not to protocol? Some love a protocol, and others find it is restricting. Either way, I’d argue that we don’t need to advertise every protocol we use as being such. This week I’ve been called in by teams at a point where decisions need to be made - I wasn’t there to make them but rather to help teachers bring their ideas together, alleviating the frustration caused by being stuck. They are an act in drawing commonalities - usually through word choice - kind of like a group paraphrase. There are many protocols that I could name and use in these circumstances, but with well-established teams I can leverage the trust they have for each other and elements of protocols I know work well to support their purpose. The team is not bogged-down by an articulated process, but trust that I will ensure all voices are heard and they can get on with thinking and engaging with each other. That said, there are many times when a protocol is queen - with new teams, when learning a protocol might improve future collective performance, on issues which have become contentious and difficult, or where teams are so in-sync that they need to be challenged. What matters when choosing whether to publicly use a protocol is purpose and people. What fits best?
Know when to pull the plug. We sometimes get caught up in the clock (“The meeting is scheduled until 4, so we will slug it out until then”) or a problem (“We still want different things” or “It’s still not quite right”). If at all possible, offer to close the meeting early with the commitment from team members (and yourself) to record some thinking between now and the next scheduled meeting time on a shared document. Sometimes space to think further on our own is all we need to find ideas and connections that we couldn’t find in the meeting. It happened to me twice this week on the walk from the meeting back to my office!
I know I didn’t do all of these in my team meetings this week, which is actually why I’m writing this post. If I was to go back again I’d have opened meetings with a solo mindset check-in, because I saw the signs that something was needed, but ploughed on anyway. We had positive outcomes but I think my job as a coach is more than that - it is about helping educators to be their best, and getting there can only start with a keen sense of self. In future I’d like to think about ways I can elevate the responsibility we have to ourselves and to others when we work in teams, so that our time together is about more than just “getting things done”. It might also be about growing awareness of our power as a team, so that it is not just that we believe that together we can make a difference for students, but we know how we make a difference, too.