Turnaround Part Five: Collaboration, Continued

Building a Common Understanding of Collaboration

In my previous article on collaboration, I made the case that the success of a turnaround school is highly contingent upon the ability of the teachers to work together. I really can’t think of a turnaround school that has been successful without it. I also stated that it has been my experience that most teachers in turnaround schools want to work together.

However, many turnaround schools operate without giving teachers the tools they need to effectively do this: a common definition of what it means to collaborate and a set of protocols that can be refined by teams over time. This article will examine both of these and their implications for turnaround schools.

In The Wisdom of Teams, Katzenbach and Smith (2006) offer “six team basics” that can provide a framework for discussing team performance in a turnaround school.

  • Common purpose
  • Common goals
  • Common approach
  • Complementary skills
  • Mutual accountability
  • Small number of people

In this article, we will examine five of these basics as they apply to school teams.

Common Purpose

Over the years, I have asked thousands of team members why they meet. Frequent answers include the following responses.

  • “So we can help each other.”
  • “To share ideas and help one another solve problems.”
  • “Our principal requires it.”

While sharing, helping and problem solving are noble reasons, the answer I have found most indicative of a strong turnaround team can be condensed down to four words: Improve instruction. Increase achievement. I have found that when teams are deliberate about improving their instruction and relentBlog #5 pic 4less about increasing achievement, they do just that. Transformational leaders can assist teams in being more focused on the real purpose of collaboration by helping them understand the purpose of the team.

Common Goal: Increase Student Achievement

I have also asked thousands of teachers to tell me about their team goals. Often, I get answers centered on helping each other, sharing and the like. On occasion, I get ”To increase student achievement.” I can always tell when I come across a strong team when I hear a teacher say something like the following:

Our school goal in mathematics is to get all students to be proficient. Last year, as a school we had 62% of our students perform at that level. This year, we hope to get at least to 70%. Now, as a seventh grade team, our results tend to outperform the sixth grade team but lag behind the eighth grade team.

Our grade level goal is to get at least 72% of our students—or 251 out of 349 total seventh graders—to perform at a proficient level.

 Personally, the individual goal I have committed to for myself was to get at least 76%–or 100 out if 130— of the students in my classes to proficiency. Of course, we are trying to get all of our students to proficiency!

Notice the extreme detail that drives this team to achieve their goals? This is the specificity that separates average teams from strong teams. Leaders are responsible for helping team set and focus on student achievement—outcome—results.

Common Approach: Common Protocol

Consider the teacher above continuing her response with the following elaboration.

On the first three common unit assessments we have
 given this year, our results are 63%, 69% and 67% respectively, so we are consistently falling short of our minimum goal of 72% as a team.

However, we use a common, step-by-step approach to help us reflect on and identify the root causes of our problem and help us identify some future actions that we can put in place when we plan our next unit. We are pretty confident that, as a team, we can reach at least 72% on our next assessment.

By using a common protocol for both planning and reflecting, teams are more deliberate about the decisions they make and as a result, increase their chances of success. Unfortunately, more often than not, teams lack a common approach to planning and reflecting which frequently contributes to replicating—not improving—existing results

Complementary Skills: Instructional, Interpersonal, Problem-Solving and Decision-Making Skills

Each year, principals spend a great deal of time mixing and matching teachers looking for the right combination of skills that will hopefully lead to a group of people who can be productive and supportive of one another in the collaborative work necessary for school transformation. They wisely consider each team member’s instructional and interpersonal skills in hopes that strong teachers can influence their teammates to collaborate in a manner that will improve instruction and increase achievement.

However, the skills of problem-solving and decision-making should also be a major focus of team development. Sadly, these skills are often ignored or left undeveloped. Effective school leaders understand that problem-solving and decision-making skills are equally as important as pedagogy and interpersonal skills.

Mutual Accountability: No Blame and Shared Results

There are two components of mutual accountability that are critical to making a team strong. If the primary purpose of a team is to increase student achievement, the first is to assume responsibility for the results and not to lay blame on others. While we fully recognize many of the factors that influence achievement are not within the locus of control of the team, strong teams recognize that there are many factors that are within their control.

When teams accept the evidence that illustrates that better instruction leads to better achievement, strong teams hold themselves collectively accountable for improving the quality of instruction. “No blame!” is a powerful mantra for mutual accountability.

The second component of mutual accountability is recognizing that everyone shares the results as opposed to everyone only owning their own results. It is not uncommon for teams to jump directly to each member’s individual data thereby contributing only to individual accountability and not team accountability. To encourage mutual accountability, I always encourage teams to review their results as a whole first, and then after determining if the team goals have been met, looking at individual class or teacher data.

Create a Collaborative Environment

Far and away, most teachers want to work in a collaborative work environment. However, well-intentioned teachers without a clear, common understanding of the details of what a team is are often destined not to reach their full potential. When school leaders understand the critical details of what collaboration is they are in a better position to influence it in their schools.


Mark Rolewski has assisted schools and school districts in designing and implementing successful turnaround initiatives for over 19 years. Mark has assisted with school turnaround in many districts and schools including those in New York City, Hartford, New Orleans, Memphis, Kansas City and Los Angeles. He is widely sought after by schools and school districts to speak about and assist with turnaround initiatives. This is the fifth installment of an ongoing series that outlines many of the components of a turnaround initiative.

For additional information, please visit Mark’s webpage.
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