Creating High-Functioning Teams

Some of the foundational work of creating a professional learning community is to ensure each team is functioning at an exemplary level. So what does that mean? How do we define exemplary-level teams? Once you’ve established the time for teams to meet, and teams have established their norms and identified their roles – then what? How do teams move to high-functioning teams that are producing results?

Collective Responsibility
Each member of the team takes on collective responsibility of all students (DuFour et al., 2016). This seems simple on paper, but in reality, it’s a challenge for many schools. What this means is that every teacher in a team feels responsible for the success of all students – and yes, that means special education students. The norm in most public schools is that special education teachers spend time on their own, in isolation, figuring out what to do with the students in their classes. When you visit your collaborative team meetings, look for how special education teachers are treated in their team meetings, but more importantly, what discussions are being held about special education students.
I’ll never forget when I saw one of our teachers who predominantly taught advanced students say to a special education teacher, “Why don’t you bring your special education students into my advanced class? Let’s see how they do. We’ll team teach that class.” From that one “experiment,” the advanced teacher and the special education teacher asked me if they could co-teach the following year because the special education students did so well in the advanced class. It is difficult for teachers to think about all students and not just the students on their roster. For so many generations, that’s what teachers focused on – their particular students who were assigned to them. However, in a high-functioning team, teachers innately care about all the students that the teachers on their team teach, and are willing to do whatever it takes to ensure high levels of learning for each and every one of them.

I find that sometimes a lot of teams focus on completing a checklist. They want to ensure they talk about all the stuff that their principal wants them to talk about. Teacher teams need to focus on just one thing: how to improve student achievement. Too many times, teacher teams do things just to please the principal. They create colorful data charts in red, yellow, and green demonstrating which students are struggling and which students are not – but the problem is that teachers never change their instruction. Despite the data and the wonderful color data charts that are created, teachers still go back and do what they’ve always done. Remember: the purpose of discussing data is to diagnose the problem – and then do something about it!
Through working with various schools, I’ve observed many team meetings where the bulk of the conversation is about comparing the data or discussing how many students failed, but not much quality discussion about what the team is going to do about the students who failed. An example of a high-functioning team is one who discusses strategies for students who did not learn, based on teacher strengths. For instance, a math teacher states: “I love teaching fractions.” So any student who is still struggling with that concept should be sent to this teacher.
In other words, teachers on high-functioning teams spend time on self-reflecting and acknowledging that the issue is not with the student, but perhaps with how it was taught, and to change something about the instruction. The focus of high-functioning teams is on problem solving – how can we teach this differently to the students who did not learn it?

The Jobs
Establishing roles is a critical step. However, sometimes teams establish roles without really defining what exactly the role entails. So first brainstorm all the roles that are needed in your school (examples include facilitator, recorder, data analyst, instructional specialist, time keeper, etc.). Then take it a step further by creating a job description for each so when teachers take on a role, they know and understand what is expected. The roles should be at least for the entire year. In other words, these roles should not be rotated on and off every week – it is difficult to fulfill a job description if you do the job every now and then because you’re on a rotating schedule with someone else. The administrative team should facilitate job-alike meetings throughout the school year so all the facilitators meet, all the recorders meet, all the data analysts meet, and so on. During these job-alike meetings, refine the job descriptions and most importantly, share and ensure consistency in these roles to ensure all teams are functioning at high levels.

Take time to assess teams periodically throughout the year. Otherwise, teams fall into the trap of continuing to do what they’ve done, and it may not necessarily produce results. For example, I worked with a few teams where when they identified students who were failing. They scheduled them to re-test – without any re-teaching or working on what they can do differently to ensure student success the second time. Then I worked with some teams who never realized they were all grading differently and couldn’t understand why one teacher always had high failures. These and many other issues are identified when teams take time to assess themselves. There are plenty of rubrics and checklists made available, especially in Learning by Doing, that can be used for this purpose. Remember the goal is to continually improve – continuously work on getting better. Self-assessing is an important piece to ensure teams are working towards that exemplary level.


DuFour, R., DuFour R., Eaker, R., Many, T., & Mattos, M. (2016). Learning by Doing, Third Edition. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

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