Potential: Revealed

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Teamwork at work

Teamwork, and probably more importantly, how teams work is an enduring and important topic. Much of how things get done in business, families and other societal groups, and life in general is through teams. 

There is an interesting recent blog on Forbes, by Inder Sidhu who is a Senior VP of Planning and Strategy at Cisco, on the results of a study done on a charter school in Minnesota. The Avalon School has many characteristics that set it apart from other public schools: it has no principal, no full-time administrators and no director. They do not answer to a superintendant or district supervisors, rather the school’s educators make all decisions regarding budgeting, hiring, curricula and more.

In terms of individual team member satisfaction, evidence indicates working in this environment produces teachers that are more satisfied than peers at other schools. This is consistent with studies of other similarly run charter schools. This is a possibly important finding — the job satisfaction of teachers would logically have some impact on their performance in the classroom and possibly extend to the performance of students in their classrooms. This effect on students though had not been studied or shown until the Avalon School study.

The research was done by Claremont Graduate University professor Charles Taylor Kerchner. The study compared academic achievement of Avalon to other schools in its area. It found that Avalon was producing high performing students and also multidisciplined teachers. The evidence included outperforming other schools on federal Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) requirements, in reading proficiency, and graduating a very high percentage of its students – 87% – with many going on to attend top tier universities such as Northwestern and the University of Michigan. There is much more but I’ll leave it to you to read the study (link above) if you wish.

There seems to be much that can be learned about the team working environment at Avalon. In a typical school a teacher’s job is clearly defined and their activities and routines are often overly prescribed. At Avalon, teachers are largely unrestricted and develop new skills in budgeting, hiring, marketing, recruiting, conflict resolution, and project management. Having to rely upon each other for goal setting, decision making and problem resolution rather than job and work rules and a central education authority and bureaucracy, the Avalon education team finds it easier to develop a common vision, set of objectives and hold themselves collectively accountable. In a charter school, lack of performance as a team can lead to the revocation of the charter and the school — and team — returning to the standard public school approach and work environment.

The teamwork atmosphere extends to the students. Seemingly taking the business management concept of “self managed teams” into a school setting, Avalon students discipline themselves. If an Avalon student gets into trouble, they are sent to a council of their peers — who have received training in peer mediation — for a hearing. Additionally, the students at Avalon determine most of the rules for the school. For self directed teams to work effectively, they must have this combination of lattitude in rule setting and governance, and accountability for group performance to the rules and standards.

It would be my belief that beyond the improved education the students at Avalon are getting, a powerful additional benefit is their learning about and experiencing a positive team working environment that will serve them well into their life and careers beyond Avalon.

Recently I had the privilege of teaching some classes at Emory University in the business school. I did a lot of preparation and reading about teaching in the university setting and particularly using the case method. One approach I read about and then adopted was to maximize the students’ participation by “orchestrating” the class, rather than lecturing or using a firm agenda and prepared questions (and prescribed answers).

We set some goals for what we wanted to get from the case, what we thought were key issues to be discussed and deliverables to be generated. Then I turned really into a conductor or director whose job was to facilitate, to keep us moving toward the goals, but not otherwise dictate. I found that like the Avalon experience, and experience where I’ve seen teams perform at their highest, the class thrived on the freedom and self-direction and had strong, innate drive to work together toward the goals.

What do you think? Do you have similar or varying experience with teams and teamwork?

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