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Virtual collaboration: Time for Impact

Updated: Sep 6, 2022

Virtual collaboration: Time for impact

By Elisa B. MacDonald

The COVID-19 crisis presents severe challenges and frightening unknowns. School leaders are faced with previously unencountered dilemmas, and teachers are thrust into sudden learning curves as they navigate the remote learning world. Due to school closures across the globe, teacher teams have had to make do with meeting virtually, but if we are ready to see it, could this crisis also bring with it an unexpected opportunity? The gift of collaborative time.

Think of the moments you wished you had more time to collaborate, but had to hurry to the next class. Think of the people you wished you could meet with, but schedules conflicted. Think of the times you and your colleagues wondered, “How did these kids come to me without knowing how to…?” Now you can meet with people across contents, grade levels and even schools, for the length of time you need, and work on problems that matter. Without question it would be better if we were not in the middle of a serious pandemic, however, if there is a silver lining, perhaps it’s the untapped potential of virtual meetings.

In my book, The Skillful Team Leader, I explain that teams, whether they meet in-person or by computer, fall into one of four quadrants. (See figure below.)

The teams we strive to lead, high functioning high impact teams, are made up of people who not only get along and get things done, but what they get done has a measurable impact on student learning. Regardless of how many years you have led teams, you will encounter hurdles and virtual teams are no exception. Skillful team leaders (STLs) are intentional. They make deliberate choices. “They think and act with purpose and mental commitment, always moving the work of teams toward desirable learning outcomes. STLs have a reason behind each thing they do and it’s what makes them effective.” (Intentional Moves: What Skillful Team Leaders Do and How They Do It. Corwin, Forthcoming 2021)

I have the privilege of working with team leaders who have made the shift to virtual team meetings. I present solutions to common function challenges such as overcoming tech troubles, in Ed Week’s Virtual Teams Can Work, and here I highlight intentional moves STLs are making to maximize the impact of their virtual teacher teams.

Set and communicate direction so that you have a shared purpose and plan.

Typically, one of the biggest challenges for teacher teams is finding purpose - choosing an inquiry question that makes sense to pursue, a goal that everyone can agree upon. In a crisis, this is less of an issue. Priorities become clear and people unite. The first few times you meet virtually is a good time to reset and focus.

Focus beyond teaching. It’s necessary for teachers to use collaborative time to generate on-line content for students. This is new for everyone and teachers need support. But as one teacher put it recently, “What good is posting great enrichment if kids don’t do it? Our goal isn’t finding a million resources, it’s getting kids to engage with what we provide.” He and his colleagues currently use their collaboration time to design learning opportunities, track engagement, and implement methods to reach students with whom they struggle to connect.

Target essential skills. Districts across the country are equity-conscious, aware that some students cannot access online materials. Current guidelines disallow teachers to post new learning, however you can re-engage students in content previously taught. Identify with your team specific previously taught skills that students need to beef-up, collaborate with the grade-level team above you to learn what essential skills those teachers say students should enter with, then design remote learning to target those skills.

Collaborate about the student experience. When your team designs remote learning, take-on the student perspective. Meet with teachers across your grade level to manage the load given to students. Collaboratively design slide shows to help organize a student’s day or week, particularly helpful to kids (and parents) with executive functioning challenges. Remember to design for social and emotional skills as much as academic - yoga links, exercise breaks, tasks where kids interview family members, or text challenges for teens, (e.g., Text your friends 3 things you remember about vertebrates. You’d be surprised, some will actually do it.)

Facilitate rigorous discourse so that you transform learning and practice.

Right now people need to connect personally, learn to manage technology, and work through their own family-work from home-and possible health difficulties. It might be too soon for team leaders to think about elevating the level of discourse on their teams, but your teams will soon enough be ready again to explore real teaching and learning issues that matter. These conversations usually involve looking at student work, critically examining instruction, and teachers engaged in their own productive learning struggles.

Model vulnerability. Virtually meeting makes the technical part of collaboration easy (screen sharing a lesson plan, for instance), but the vulnerability part hard. Talking through a screen can feel impersonal. If a team already had lack of trust this can be exacerbated by the temptation to send someone a private chat or text message with an eye roll or complaint. Model vulnerability by asking for feedback on your own teaching and student work. This will set the tone that you are going to do more than have people share feelings in these meetings.

Release control. It’s proven that equitable air-time is not just a feel good thing, but actually produces better learning outcomes for teams. Meeting virtually can stifle participation when the leader controls the flow of participation by muting and unmuting others, asking people to signal that they want to talk, calling on one person at a time, controlling screen sharing, and eating up air time with directions. Give your team time to find their rhythm. Prolong your wait time even if it feels awkward. Give people time to think. Ask follow-up probing prompts such as, “Tell us more.” Break out into small group sessions if your team is large and encourage dialogue where your colleagues volley the ball to each other, not ping-pong it to you.

Nurture yourself and your colleagues through community.

Build community. One of the toughest things about virtually meeting is feeling connected through a screen. It's not just hard on kids, it's hard for teachers who are used to being with others all the time. As an STL, make time for people to personally connect. Recently, I led a meeting where we each took a minute to share how this difficult time has given us an "unexpected gift". (I shared how I have saved money not heading to Starbucks regularly.) A few friends of mine have started the "Silver Linings Club" where we can support one another beyond talking "shop" to share the blessings we have at this time as well as laugh through tough moments and support one another. Find ways to stay connected. I've heard some teacher teams start up a recipe swap while others have a FitBit challenge. Whatever works. Embrace it.

Virtual collaborating during a time of crisis allows us to creatively meet in ways we had not done before, target areas we couldn’t address before, and impact learning in ways that we only hoped to do before.

Bio: Elisa B. MacDonald is a consultant and the author of The Skillful Team Leader: A Resource for Overcoming Hurdles to Professional Learning for Student Achievement. Her new book, Intentional Moves: What Skillful Team Leaders Do and How They Do It comes out in 2021. Go to or follow her on twitter @elisaBmacdonald

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