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Virtual Teams Can Work!

Updated: Sep 6, 2022

The coronavirus pandemic has caused schools to close their doors, and educators to open their laptops in an effort to sustain learning for students. While teachers have adopted a “can do” attitude by embracing new technology and creatively providing students with remote learning opportunities, it can feel like the Wild Wild West with everyone grasping at and posting resources. Now more than ever is the time for us to come together in teams to collaborate.

Skillful team leaders (STLs), whether they are facilitating a meeting from a classroom desk or kitchen table, lead teams through two lenses: Function and Impact. If your team is productive, efficient, and people enjoy working together, then you are likely a high-functioning team. If people leave meetings thinking differently about their practice and implementing change that brings about improved learning outcomes for students, then you are likely a high-impact team. STLs strive to be both high-functioning, high-impact teams.

Leading a team can be challenging under normal circumstances, (I share a skillful approach to overcoming hurdles in my book, The Skillful Team Leader), add video to the mix and a whole new slew of hurdles emerge. I’ve led and observed many virtual school team meetings and they can look something like this:

Team Leader: Hi everybody. Welcome to our first video teacher team meeting. Can everyone hear me?

Ms. A: Yes, hi.

Ms. B: I hear you but I can’t see you. Can you hear me?

Team Leader: Yes we can, Ms. B. Click on the video icon on the bottom of your screen.

Ms. B: (mumbling) I still can’t see anyone. (Shouting) Can you hear me? What’s wrong with this thing?

Team Leader: Ok. I’ll text message Ms. B to troubleshoot. In the meantime, let’s check-in. How’s everyone doing?

Mr. C: It’s been difficult to support my students who-

Ms. A: Sorry to interrupt, but can you tilt your screen? We’re looking into your nose.

Mr. C: Oh gosh. Ok how’s that?

Ms. A: No. Maybe sit lower in your chair.

Ms. D: Try propping your screen on top of books.

Team Leader: Mr. C, what were you saying about students? (No response.) Mr C? Okay, I think we lost his connection. Ms. E, you were doing a creative activity to keep connected to your students. Would you mind sharing?

Ms. E: Sure. I send my kids a morning message. Hold on. I’ll share my screen so you can see a sample.

Team Leader: Oh, um, Ms. E. Maybe just close your Candy Crush app. Thanks.

Ms. E: Oops. I wasn’t doing that during our meeting. It was from before.

Team Leader: Okay. (Breathes.) Let’s continue.

There’s a reason there are over 35,000 articles about why meeting in person is better than meeting virtually. Nevertheless, with a skillful intentional approach you can lead a high functioning, high impact virtual team.

Prepare school-wide structures to optimize conditions for collaborative learning.

Pick a platform.

Work with your district leaders to find out what video conferencing platform they recommend you use. At this time Zoom is offering their video conferencing to K-12schools for free. Google hangout is free to anyone with a gmail account. Google meet and Microsoft teams are paid platforms that many find easy to use. Check privacy settings before leading a meeting.

Schedule differently.

Now is an unusual time in which educators are not restricted by class schedules. Avoid scheduling that requires people to stare at screens for long periods of time. Schedule short frequent meetings that tackle fewer agenda items at one time. Set meetings 10 minutes apart so people can take a stretch break (beneficial to those in back-to-back meetings), virtually chat, and get tech in working order. Coordinate with school leaders so meeting times don’t conflict.

Design learning experiences so that people are engaged.

Plan for the screen.

- This is not the time to skip an agenda or use what you planned for an in-person meeting. Make use of virtual tools such as interactive polls and chat bars and take on the commentator role, “I’m noticing comments about… I see a different point of view raised by Ms. R…”

- Get small. Use break-out rooms if your platform supports it. Many allow the facilitator to drop-in to “rooms”.

Prepare the virtual space.

Backdrop. Look behind you before you turn your video camera on. Avoid clutter, laundry, or a space where people are moving behind you. Backdrops with a bookshelf, plant, or a colored wall are great because they won’t distract your colleagues. Windows are lovely, but not behind you because the light darkens your face. Experiment to find the best lighting.

Noise. Wear and encourage headphones so people can hear each other clearly. Mute when not speaking to cut-out background noise. (My husband’s makeshift work-from-home office happens to be in the room where we keep our kids’ guinea pigs. Nothing like being interrupted by loud squeaks for food.) Shortcut for Microsoft Teams: Press “Control D” to self-mute and unmute easily. Shortcut for Zoom: "Shift Command A"

Seating. Sit in a straight back chair, or stand to keep your energy up. I shouldn’t have to say this, although I have seen it… avoid video conferencing from your bed.

Prepare your computer.

- Close personal windows, tabs and documents. There was an awkward moment on the news recently where a senator shared his screen and let’s just say, the tab in full view at the top was not work appropriate.

- Turn off notifications. My friend recently had a colleague text something personal during the meeting and it showed up on her shared screen for everyone to read!

- Ready materials. Maximize meeting time by having documents, tabs and videos cued-up.

- Find the best angle. Lately, news channels are interviewing experts from their homes, and there’s been a lot of looking up nostrils and staring down at bald spots. In the grand scheme of things, how you look isn’t important, nevertheless situate your camera so that you look at it straight on.

- Test audio/video. Troubleshooting technology is the biggest time suck so test speakers, microphones and video in advance of meeting. (See the screen shots for Zoom below.) Do a practice run for people who need guidance.

Set and manage expectations so that people know how to work together.

People aren’t usually keen on norms, but if ever there is a time for them, video meetings are it. Don’t waste time collectively creating them, but do spend time reminding people to uphold them. E.g., “Before we begin, give a thumbs-up if you agree to our norm: Refrain from multi-tasking.”

Below are some valuable norms your virtual team should consider adopting: Tech:  Troubleshoot tech before meeting.  Charge your device.  Mute when not speaking. Prep:  Be camera ready.  Review readings/documents in advance and have sharing materials at the ready.

 Print agenda. Participate:  Fully engage. Refrain from multi-tasking and off-line texting.  Use names when addressing people on the team.  Invite others to talk.

There’s a learning curve involved with collaborating virtually. Expect to have the first meetings feel like a teenager learning to drive a stick shift. Try these recommendations to minimize function hurdles, then focus on what matters most – collaboration that impacts student learning, even if it is through a screen.

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