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Maximize Team Impact

Published in Middle Ground Magazine Nov. 2011. Based on excerpt from bestselling book, The Skillful Team Leader prior to publishing.

Grouping people together and calling them a team does not necessarily result in collaboration that transforms a school. Just about any book on the subject of educator collaboration speaks of the importance of high-functioning teams, and just about any episode of reality TV where individual competitors are obliged to collaborate on a team project, quickly reveals the challenges of actually acting as one. While school teams may not function as poorly as a team on an episode of Donald Trump’s* The Apprentice, they can have their fair share of functioning hurdles to face. Likely a team leader, be it one person holding the role for the year or a group who rotates the role, will resolve these issues in ways like establishing group agreements, preparing agendas to keep the team on task and facilitating protocols to structure conversation. Achieving a high-functioning team where members get along and are productive is desirable, but is it enough? The skillful team leader not only gauges her team’s collaboration by how well the team functions, but also by the impact they have on student learning.

Consider the following snapshot of an eighth grade ELA team.

Carmen’s eighth-grade English team starts every meeting on time, keeping to the day’s agenda and reviewing group agreements. Charged with improving readers’ response notebook grades, the team discovers that only 60% of students are completing the required three entries per week, causing them to lose points. They aim to increase the student rate of completion to 90% in six weeks. They craft a rubric that measures number of entries completed. They determine low motivation is causing low turnout and create an incentive program. Within four weeks they see a 10% increase in completion. Motivated by the gain, teachers want to tweak the program. They volunteer to work through their lunch so they can begin implementing right away. Carmen is inspired by their commitment, yet is concerned that although more students are completing more entries, the quality is poor. Students are not meeting the ELA common core standard RL.8.1 “Cite the textual evidence that most strongly supports an analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.” When she suggests that the team hold off on modifying the incentive program and instead reflect on how the team’s work is improving students’ ability to respond with evidence to text, teachers object, saying, “We don’t need to reflect; we’re working great as a team.”

Another teacher adds, “We’ve been looking at the responses and using the rubric and kids are starting to get higher grades. Let’s keep working on the incentive program; we’re getting so much done.”

A look at the Team Function, Impact matrix**, a tool that helps teams assess their collaboration, places Carmen’s team in Quadrant II, high functioning, low impact. They are adept at working together, use teaming tools to be highly productive and yet they have little to no impact on student learning. The learning challenges students had when the team began remain. Represented in the Team Function, Impact matrix by a symbol of a gerbil wheel, the high functioning, low impact team appears to be advancing, but in matters of student learning, it gets nowhere.

Because this type of team works so well as a group and the focus is related to instruction, they are often not aware that the team’s collaboration is not transforming teaching and learning. Members in high-functioning, low-impact teams are typically deeply invested in the work of the team and enjoy meeting. This leaves a team leader like Carmen wondering how to shift to collaboration that will yield greater student-learning results without breaking the spirit and momentum of the team. She must first uncover potential reasons for being high functioning, low impact and then skillfully respond in a way that will maximize impact.

Explore Possible Causes

While there may be many reasons for the team’s low impact Carmen must consider several before deciding how to respond. Some include:

The Low-impact “What.” DuFour and Eaker in their book Professional Learning Communities at Work (1998) recommend schools assess their teams not by asking the question, “Are we collaborating?” but instead by asking, “What are we collaborating about?” The most obvious “what” that teams must put in check is collaborating on operational tasks such as field trips, open house planning, book-rotation schedules, and the like. It’s not that this type of collaboration is not real, in fact, Hargreaves (1994) points out that collabora­tion is valuable so long as it achieves its purpose. Different teams collaborate for different purposes. If a team sets out to plan a book rotation and accom­plishes it, then they have collaborated effectively; however, teams that strive to make gains for students must collaborate about things that will impact learning.

For teams like Carmen’s who are beyond planning field trips or the next bake sale and are actually collaborating about student achievement, the team’s What problem is more nuanced - they are talking around instruction. Rather than address the literacy skills students struggle with and closely examine and revise their teaching, the team stays focuses on a low-stakes, low-impact goal of increasing students’ completion of entries through an incentive system. Even if they accomplish this What (which is likely since they are so high functioning), it is unlikely to impact how teachers’ teach or what and how much students are learning.

Seemingly SMART goal. Most teams are aware of the benefits of having a SMART goal, one that Conzemius and O’Neill define as specific, measurable, attainable, results-driven and timebound. The skillful team leader, however, is wise to a Seemingly SMART goal, one that is technically SMART, but the decision making behind one or more of the criterion is poorly informed or underdeveloped. The goal looks good on paper but doesn’t impact student learning. A Seemingly SMART goal is

· Specific but specifies an activity, not a student-learning outcome;

· Measurable, but the measures don’t give a team the information it needs when it needs it;

· Attainable but only with unsustainable strategies;

· Results oriented, but results are resources or plans, not learning out­comes; and

· Time-bound, but bound by constraints.

Carmen’s goal has two indicators that it is seemingly SMART. It is specific – the team wants a 30% increase in completion of reader’s response notebook entries, but it does not specify the desired learning outcome, the specific knowledge or skills should students be able to demonstrate in their responses. Carmen’s goal is also technically measurable, meeting the “M” criterion. In fact they create a rubric to measure students’ rate of completion, however, the rubric doesn’t provide teachers with information about how students are performing on skills and knowledge needed to master the standard.

High impact, high risk. Collaborating for high impact on student learning requires each team member to dive deep into their individual effectiveness as a teacher. For some team members, this is a risk they don’t want to take with their colleagues. Developing a points system for students, such as the one designed by Carmen’s team, does not require anyone to engage in rigorous dis­course about their instruction. Fear of discovering (or being discovered) that their instruction is ineffective and needs to change or having concern that sharing one’s struggles might not be kept in confidence may be a cause for the team to remain low impact.


After careful analysis of possible contributing factors to the team’s low impact, the skillful team leader thoughtfully considers her options for response. She not only decides which responses to use but also when to use them. She makes use of three types of responses: Proactive, In-the-moment, Follow-up response.

Proactive response. To prevent a team from being high functioning, low impact a team leader can…

SMARTen up. The skillful team leader starts with a goal that specifies and measures a student learning outcome. Going back to the data can be a first step. Carmen might ask, “What skills do we expect students to demonstrate in a high quality notebook response? As we look at student notebook responses which skills are students grasping? Which are they not? Let’s craft goals for students based on the skills they need to master and select an assessment that will show us how students are performing at this skill.”

Norm for impact. Although Carmen’s team has group agreements about function, they lack agreement on behaviors that will ensure impact on student learning. Teams need to both norm for function and norm for impact. Examples might include: We agree to: collaborate on student learning needs; gain and implement strategies for improved instruction; use meeting times to engage in collaborative inquiry; invite others to question our assumptions, beliefs, and actions.

In-the-moment response: If a team is high functioning, low impact, a team leader can…

Set high-impact desired outcomes. The skillful team leader works with her team to craft agenda outcomes for meetings that have the potential for high-impact on student learning. For instance, in this meeting Carmen might say, “We are in agreement that we want to leave today with an incentive system for stu­dents to complete their notebook entries. This will likely help some students who know how to do the work, but are underperforming because of low motivation. Now what do we need to leave with today that will help students who don’t know how to do the work—those who might not be completing entries not because of low motivation, but because they aren’t able to write with evidence from the text yet?”

Measure up. When a seemingly SMART goal is set the skillful team leader looks to see if what the team is measuring will give them the information they need. In this snapshot, Carmen might say, “Currently, we are determining student success by a rubric that measures students’ rate of completion. Is it possible for students to show improvement on our rubric, yet not improve on learning standard RL.9-10.1? We can continue to monitor completion, but we must also determine how to measure improvement of students’ ability to respond to text with evidence. What assessment could we use to monitor students’ improvement in this skill?”

Craft a team vision. Just like a school crafts a vision for what success will look like, the skillful team leader guides her team to craft a vision of itself as a high-impact team. Carmen might ask teachers, “If in three weeks we are a high-impact team, what would a video capture us saying and doing in a meet­ing? What would it not show us saying or doing?”

Engage in inquiry. Teams who are not seeing the impact on student learn­ing that they expect is likely in need of doing an evidence-based inquiry cycle (see figure 2). Carmen’s team might use inquiry to investigate why the increase in students’ written responses is not yielding better evidence-based writing.

Follow-up response: To sustain a high-functioning, high-impact team, a team leader can do the following:

Assess impact. The skillful team leader aids the group in assessing the impact of its collaboration on student learning. The book, The Skillful Team Leader: A Resource for

Overcoming Hurdles to Professional Learning for Student Achievement provides snapshots of sample teams in different quadrants of the Team Function, Impact Matrix and offers indicators to help a team identify what quadrant they are currently in and how to become higher impact.

Consider School Culture.

Teams striving to be high functioning, high impact have an additional hurdle to overcome when there is a gap between what a school values as collaboration and what is actually practiced. When a school culture of alone together exists, educators are physically teamed together, they may even be collegial, but remain guarded in their collaboration. Instead of building collective strength to continuously improve learn­ing for both adults and children, individuals in this school culture hold on to assumptions that dictate who, when, about what, and why peo­ple would collaborate. These assumptions can limit the learning poten­tial of teams. On the surface Carmen’s team seems unaffected by this culture. They work well together. But a closer look reveals that teachers remain isolated in their quest to improve as instructional leaders, avoiding collaboration that would expose their current shortcomings.

The culture of alone together can be responsible for challenges facing teams in other quadrants of the matrix as well, in particular quadrant IV, the low-functioning, high-impact team. Unlike Carmen’s team, this group is not cohesive, and yet makes gains in student learning. They accomplish a lot, but work in isolation, often with a few lone superheroes carrying high-impact results for the team. When the super­heroes leave, so do the results. Any attempt to foster interdependence where team members learn from and rely on one another often results in conflict, gossip, or withdrawal. Members in low-functioning, high-impact teams who single-handedly take on the goals of the team can feel resentful or can burn out quickly, while others who depend on them can feel helpless. When these feelings are not constructively expressed, tension can rise in the group, further dividing the team. Although the team achieves impact on student learning, results are likely not replicable because no one learns from one another (and members likely don’t want to work together again).

To make the shift from a culture of alone together to a collaborative culture is a challenging, ongoing effort. When a school culture is collab­orative, collective learning and results are valued. Being a learner is not viewed as a weakness but instead as something that is essential for the growth of every educator regardless of experience. Everyone is a learner and a leader of others’ learning. Like an ensemble in a successful theater production, each person is unique and important to the whole, but it is the performance as a group that gets the standing ovation.

Maximizing Impact

Regardless of where a team stands in the Team Function, Impact Matrix, they must keep in mind three things: 1. Levels of collaboration may vary over time. For instance, a team may be high functioning, high impact in one inquiry cycle and high functioning, low impact during another. 2. Although the categories are labeled “high” and “low” teams often fall along a continuum on either axis. 3. A team’s placement in the matrix is not fixed. With skillful team leader­ship, every team has the ability to evolve into a high-functioning, high-impact team.

*Editor's note: Donald Trump held no political office at the time this was published.

**Editor's note: For an image of the STL Team Function Impact Matrix see bestselling books, The Skillful Team Leader page 31 or Intentional Moves page 18.


Conzemius, A., & O’Neill, J. (2002). The handbook for SMART school teams. Bloomington, IN: National Educational Service.

DuFour, R., Eaker, R. (1998). Professional learning communities at work: Best practice for enhancing student achievement. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Hargreaves, A. (1994). Changing teachers, changing times: Teacher’s work and culture in the post-modern age. New York, NY: Teacher’s College Press.

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