Many districts across the country are creating teacher based teams (or professional learning teams) in their buildings. These teams are a great way for teachers to communicate with each other and work in a collaborative environment, something that is desperately needed in education. Districts and buildings create their teacher based teams in a variety of ways, but creating teams by content and/or grade level are the most prominent. Sometimes this leaves a certain group of teachers on the outside looking in. Sometimes these teams/classes are referred to as "The Specials."
As a former high school technology education teacher, I know the feeling of being on one of the "special" teams. Sometimes being on this team in a building can lead to feelings of isolation or, as football fans say with the cornerback on defense, "out on an island." The rise of teacher based teams has allowed the teams of "specials" (we refer to ours at NLHS as the "unified arts") to work together and with other content or grade level teams to make a difference in schools. It is important to remember that there are great educational minds on all of our teams that can help transform the building. Always remember the advantage that the unified arts classes have over the core content classes: students sign-up for unified arts classes (in most cases); they don't feel they are required to take the classes as they may with science, math, etc.
Effective teacher based teams have the same characteristics. It doesn't matter what content they teach in the classroom. Productive teacher based team meetings are separate from the classroom setting.
Each team needs effective and productive leadership. If you have a team that does not have good leadership, everyone (including the administrators, teachers, and students) will be fighting an uphill battle. As an administrator, it is my responsibility to put the best leaders on the building leadership team (or professional learning committee). The time that the teams take to meet is too precious to waste. As the building leader, if you are having a difficult time finding the right leader for each team, you may have to lead the team yourself. Its just the way it goes. The priority needs to be placed on maximizing the time and resources of your teams. Productive leadership is the base of effective teacher based teams.
All teacher based teams need goals for the school year. Working with a variety of different subjects is not an excuse for not having an achievable goal for the year. Gather teacher and student data to find out what is needed in your departments and within your teams. Speak with other content areas about where they are seeing positives and opportunities for growth. Create a constant vision for the "specials" just like they have in the core subjects.
3. Identifying problems & Creating solutions
Our teams create "probletunities", a term originated by David Langford. Our teams utilize team building tools such as Bubble Charts, Bone Diagrams, Code of Cooperation, Imagineering, and Surveys to find important topics they can tackle to help our building and their classes. The key is: find a problem, when worked on by the team, will have a solution that benefits the building as a whole. Utilizing brainstorming tools is a great way to find areas to focus on. Langford's "Tool Time for Education" is a great resource for these tools.
4. Work with other Teams
Our unified arts team focused on our students' difficulties completing problems that contain multiple steps. The team spoke with members of the core content teams and they found that the students had problems with those same areas in their classes. Finding solutions or opportunities for students to complete multi-step problems will help all of the teams in the building. Now the unified arts team isn't "on an island." They are in the trenches with the rest of the teams.
We allow our teams to work as cross-curricular teams too. The English department can work with the Math department and find probletunities that will help each department. Cross-curriculum work is the most effective way for students to learn and comprehend. We should allow our teachers to work in cross-curricular settings to do the same thing.
5. Share the Experience
We have our teams share their work. We have utilized our Building Leadership Team meetings to share how each team is working on their probletunities. It is a good way to get feedback from others and allows other team leaders to visualize incorporating some of the methods from other teams within their team. Teams could also share their work with other buildings in the district and with community stakeholders. It would be a great way to demonstrate how the time during meetings is utilized and get community input to help solve problems in and out of the building.
Teacher based teams are powerful. The key is to utilize the time and resources. Make sure all of teacher based teams in the building are clear on their vision, goals, and leadership. The rest is letting teachers do what they do best: lead their building, classrooms, and students to better places.