Schools are often referred to as a "circus", by those outside of schools but most often by those within them. For most of us, a circus conjures up images of comical animals, call-outs for peanuts and popcorn, perhaps risky rides that groan and creak, and loud crowds. In fact, if you search images for a "circus" on Google, you'll see such images. I've included a screenshot of my own image search here:
And if you've ever worked in a school, you probably have joked about your own circus-related experiences. Much of the time, a circus is accompanied by feelings of joy, laughter, and excitement. For some, it can bring about feelings of anxiety, treachery, or dread.
It's true. Schools absolutely can feel like a three-ring-circus at times with the hectic and flexible schedules, the overwhelm of endless to-do lists, the many meetings that overlap, the performances put on day in and day out, the drama that, at times, is as entertaining as a soap opera, and so on. But is this version of a circus really how we want our schools described?
What if a different kind of circus came to town?
What if, instead of the kind of circus we tend to assume, was actually more like Cirque Du Soleil. You see, this brings on a new image. An image of quiet crowds staring in awe, extremely well-choreographed and over-rehearsed acts, settings of remarkable creativity and beauty, and the feeling of being part of something uniquely beyond yourself.
There's a reason Cirque Du Soleil allows us to envision a circus in a completely new and different way. It is still, in fact, a circus. However, this circus is an orchestration. Here is the vision posted on the Cirque Du Soleil website:
We are more than a circus. We are rule breakers & moment makers. We create the most audacious reality.
Rule breakers! MOMENT MAKERS! How is this audacious reality made possible? Yes, by talented individuals, but also because these individuals work extremely intentionally as a team of teams. Every team is reliant upon its team members, of course, but every team is also reliant upon other teams in order to create an extraordinary experience. And it is imperative for each team to see itself as integral to other teams in order for the whole team, the whole organization, to succeed.
What if schools functioned in this way? What if we were able to envision our schools more like a Cirque du Soleil versus a Ringling Bros Circus? What if schools truly functioned more as a team of teams and less as individual groups with varied goals? Because in all reality, I believe most schools function as the latter. What evidence suggests this? In my experience, it seems that more schools than not:
What does it take?
What does it take, though, to become the "Cirque Du Soleil" of schools? What does it take for our schools to function as a "Team of Teams"? I believe there are six critical components of cohesive teams. There are three internal components, and three external components. In order for schools to function as a Team of Teams, both internal and external components need to be activated and present.
If your school can function as a Team of Teams with the internal components (self & social awareness, collaboration, and reflection) and the external components (conditions, models, and protocols), then you might see this evidence of success:
What kind of circus is your school?
So I leave you with this: how do you currently envision your school? Are you imagining a Ringling Bros Circus or a Cirque Du Soleil? Perhaps you're noticing both in different areas? What components could be missing in your circus? What components exist, but could use a bit of tweaking? What components are alive and well? Comment on this blogpost and share your thoughts!
Want someone to help your school become the "Cirque Du Soleil" of schools?
You’ve probably heard the term PLC (professional learning community) as referenced in many educational settings. Generally, professional learning communities are groups of educators who work together toward a common goal or solution. Author’s of Learning by Doing (2016), a Solution Tree “bible for PLCs”, explain PLCs as “educators who are committed to working collaboratively in ongoing processes of collective inquiry and action research to achieve better results for the students they serve.” But what are PLCs really all about?
PLCs are TRULY all about bringing cohesivity and clarity to an organization and the work an organization decides to do in an effort to build collective efficacy. In fact, it would be fair to say that professional learning communities in schools work to cast a vision for student learning and set goals. For, without a vision and goals, no one moves forward. To move students forward, most PLCs center their work around a common set of questions that take on a logical progression. The most frequently used questions come from the work of Richard DuFour, followed by work from Corwin authors Nancy Frey, Douglass Fisher, et. al, of PLC+: Better Decisions and Better Impact By Design.
If PLC questions are such a popular practice for teachers, meant to analyze student learning in order to maximize growth and achievement, couldn’t it also be that these questions could impact team growth and transformation? If we are not intentionally talking about the way we function as teams, individuals and organizations will remain stagnant and problems of practice will remain cyclical. In this article, I’m suggesting variations of the most commonly used questions in PLCs in order to analyze, transform, and inspire teams.
4 Questions, Plus 1
Regardless of your team’s current reality, these questions have the power to unlock potential that may not even be currently recognized. Even the most successful teams can benefit from exploring these questions together. On the flipside, even the most dysfunctional teams can benefit from this work. To be answered truthfully in a way that transforms teams, there must be a certain level of trust, vulnerability, and space for crucial conversations. That’s not to say you shouldn’t use the questions if those things are not evident, just know that the responses and the growth of your team will be vague or minimal until the process becomes familiar. Therefore, there will inevitably be models or protocols you decide to put in place before jumping into the questions with your teams.
These questions may be asked in one team session or across several. They can also be revisited and repeated frequently, although they do generally follow a consistent order. Some teams may use these questions to support their work together in general or when taking on a specific project or goal. Without further ado, here are the four mortar questions, plus one to support continued transformation:
Where are we going?
This is quite possibly the most important question. Simply put, a team cannot move forward if they do not know where they are headed. Too often, people ignore the vitality of vision casting because it is a broad, futuristic task that takes time to craft and hash out with team members. Sometimes, large assumptions are made about what teams are working toward or their understanding of the stated vision (if there even is one). But, vision casting is one of the most important things that should be done regularly in any organization. It is what helps us to think in steps, not programs. It also helps us to take those steps collaboratively as a team. Because schools function as a team of teams, each of the teams may have its own vision or mission that supports the overall vision of the organization.
When asking the question, “Where are we going?,” you should consider the vision of the organization as a whole and the team. This subset of questions can help guide the respondents:
Where are we now?
You may be familiar with the familiar phrase, “What are you pretending not to know?”. When teams are asked, “Where are we now?,” there is a high possibility that it will create discomfort. While the leaders and change agents of the world may accept that there is growth in discomfort, it’s not so easy for others. Because of that discomfort, a certain amount of denial may be uncovered. Team members may pretend not to know there are areas of their work together that require growth, or they may pretend not to know what could be causing the obstacles in the way of growth. It is also almost certain that assumptions will be made about the team- assumptions from each individual about how they function together, about strengths (that perhaps aren’t really strengths), or how people contribute. This is common, but it is not something we should settle for. Again, it will be important for the right conditions, models, and protocols to be in place to support the team’s movement toward transparency and vulnerability.
Here’s how you can encourage discussion around this question:
How do we move our team forward?
It’s one thing to have a vision, another to discuss where the team is now, and yet a completely other thing to actually determine steps to move the team forward. This question will require the team to compare where they are going with where the team is now. Like the previous question, it has the potential to strike a nerve in some team members. If you have set norms before beginning this questioning process, perhaps you have agreed as a team that you would leave the feeling of being personally attacked at the door. It will be important for team members to keep the vision at the forefront of their mind, a vision that is not about them as an individual, but is about the team and organization as a whole.
When asking, “How do we move our team forward?,” encourage celebrations of what currently exists that is working well before probing with other questions:
What did we find most useful today?
Several years ago, Michael Bungay Stanier, author and coaching thought leader, developed a set of seven essential questions that allow us to say less, ask more, and change the way we lead forever. The very last question he shares in his book, The Coaching Habit, is “What was most useful for you?”. It is perhaps the most powerful question one can ask at the culmination of a conversation. This question encourages individuals to leave the conversation considering its importance and usefulness to them. We are, after all, an egocentric people. We want to feel as though what we’ve engaged in is useful for us and that we have contributed in some way. This question allows for that exactly! AND, it should be asked at almost every team gathering. It can be easy to bypass this question, especially in a rush to come to a close. But in doing so, you risk the chance of team members leaving a collaborative discussion ruminating on their negative experiences, their lingering questions or concerns, or leaving ownership behind.
When you ask, “What did we find most useful today?,” you can help your team reflect on their analyses by probing with:
Plus 1: Who benefitted or who did not benefit?
And then there is the “Plus 1”: “Who benefitted or who did not benefit?” This question may not be logical to ask when the team meets to analyze their progress (as a whole or toward a project or goal). But it would be ideal to determine checkpoints along the way as you work toward a vision. This question may refer to individuals of the team that benefited, an outsider that was impacted, or how the team benefited or did not benefit as a whole. It can be easy to focus solely on who benefited, but asking who did not benefit will ensure that the team continuously is working toward something. If the team stopped at the first part of the question, one might wonder if this continued process is necessary. And we know that it absolutely is if we want teams and individuals to thrive in a cohesive environment. At follow-up meetings, discuss how the agreed upon next steps impacted the team:
Clarity and Cohesion
The questions outlined here are common in the instructional work that professional learning communities do together in schools. But they should become common among teams in regard to how they function, as well. Teams can use these questions to bring clarity and cohesion to their purpose, vision, and work. They can be used to propel a team forward, maintain the success of a team, or rally a dysfunctional team together. Clarity precedes competence, and surely we want our teams to be more than just competent. We want them to thrive. If teams are thriving, you know that you’ve created something that is worth being a part of: a cohesive team that’s going somewhere great!
In the world of work, regardless of your type of organization, we rely on collaborative efforts to make things possible. I'm certain we'd all like to believe that people generally collaborate well in our schools or teams. We'd like to believe that when teachers or leadership teams gather together, they have deep, meaningful conversations that ultimately impact student learning. But, the opportunities for true collaboration (ya know, the kind that makes a bigger difference and greater impact) are often killed.
Several months back, I joined forces with Valerie Ayers and Aimee Gilbert to dig into 4 MAJOR Killers of Collaboration and 3 Ways to Combat Them. In this blogpost, I'm jumping back on this topic. Whereas the previous blogpost on this topic was focused more on internal struggles of collaboration, this blogpost is focused on external struggles of collaboration. Without further ado, here are three ways to kill collaboration FAST:
1. Avoiding "time wasters"
While we may not hear this idea explicitly verbalized, many people believe that time spent on self and social awareness is unnecessary or unproductive. But, the opposite is actually true. According to General Stanley McChrystal (2015) these "time sinks" are what imbues teams with high-level adaptability and efficacy, allowing them to collaborate extremely well.
2. Making assumptions
We make assumptions ALL. THE. TIME., whether we recognize we're doing it or not. The assumption made about collaboration is that it is happening where two or more are gathered, and/ or it's happening of its own accord. It just simply isn't. What we might notice instead is often "faux collaboration". Our assumptions prevent true collaboration from being possible.
3. Collaborating without goals or plans
This one may sound like a no-brainer, but approaching collaboration without a goal, plan, or agenda will definitely result in "faux collaboration" or no collaboration at all. Unfortunately, this one happens consistently. Why? Because being the person that brings meaning and purpose to a collaborative opportunity takes courage!
You can, however, avoid these pitfalls that kill collaboration fast! In fact, you can instead find ways to build effective collaboration that supports collective efficacy.
3 Ways to Build Effective Collaboration
1. Dedicate time
Dedicate time, preferably at the beginning of the year, for team members to engage in self and social awareness reflections. The better individuals on a team know themselves and know one another, the more understanding and gracious they will be when expected to work together. In fact, spending time on this will more than double the productivity and impact of teams, leaving individuals feeling valued, empowered, and inspired.
2. Explicitly teach and model
The tendency is often to assume that where two or more are gathered, collaboration is happening. But steer clear of falling into the trap of faux collaboration. Instead, take opportunities to explicitly teach and model effective collaboration skills such as listening to learn, asking clarifying questions, recognizing and provoking others' geniuses, ensuring all have a voice at the table, and handling conflict productively.
3. Plan intentionally
Collaboration, even between two people, can be messy. In fact, "messy" is often where the great work happens. But there is a difference between "messy" and "sloppy". Sloppy work is the result of a lack of goals and plans. It lacks meaning and vision. True collaboration relies on intentionally set goals and intentionally created plans to work toward a collective vision, keeping in mind that plans can be adjusted accordingly along the way (because success can be messy).
It's high time we focus on building effective collaboration habits instead of killing collaboration. But this takes a great deal of self/ social awareness and intentionality. Partner with me as a coach and consultant and we can combat these collaboration killers together!
Welcome! I am Casey Watts- Collaborative Leader and Culture Changer!