Leading a team: Design or default……how to create a culture.

PrintIt competition entry by Daniel Smith, named as best young Graphic designer.

For Eleanor, who will be a great team leader.

As I write I realise that the real test of what I am about to say would be for you to contact one of the teachers in my team and ask them about the gap between what I say and what I do.   Please let me know what the results of that test are, I would love to know.  I started musing about this when reading a book completely off topic and came across the assertion that a culture grows either by design or by default  The positive news contained in that statement is that it assumes the possibility of creating an intentional culture.  Like most things that we do I took it for granted that everyone would agree with this idea and would be operating with their teams in much the same way that I do with mine, a moment or two of serious consideration and the mental picture of some of the teams I have worked with suggests that this is not the case.   I have met some outstanding, young team leaders who are struggling to do the job well and to find ways to develop their team members.  All too often they bewail the qualities of their staff and complain about the difficulties they have in persuading them to change their game.  I have no magic answers but perhaps a few useful techniques.

If what I have been writing about education and design education in particular means anything it tells us that individuals work, act, think and feel in different ways.  The full significance of that remark for education and life in general will have to wait for another post but just for now it is worth remembering in the context of building a team for two reasons; the team leader will start with a perspectivs on what should happen and what a good team will look like, each member of the team will have their own expectations and understandings.  In some cases teachers find themselves left behind by developments in subject knowledge and pedagogy, this can lead to feelings of inadequacy and inability in the job which you have chosen as your career and in many cases by which you define yourself.  Such a threat to self hood can only lead to a fight or flight response, what a shame that teachers of all people pay this so little attention.

For what they are worth here are some thoughts.

A strong and functional team is a group of people who share a common set of goals, believe in their ability to achieve those goals and know that the other members of the team, and especially their leader, will support them to the hilt.  They know about the problems and limits imposed on the team and that everyone shares those.

  • Brag ‘em up!

Don’t ever imagine that anyone else will notice how good your team is or how much they are doing.  Make it your business to tell those who matter and those who don’t matter quite so much, at every opportunity.

  • Little thanks go a long way.

When a team member does something well, even if it is their job to do it, a little message of thanks does a lot of good.  For example after successful exam moderation an e mail to pass on the comments from the moderator with your thanks and cc the head and your line manager.

  • Know their strengths.

There is no one model of what a good teacher looks like, you have your own construct which is what drives you, your colleagues will have their ideas and they will all be slightly different.  You can build on the similarities and maximise the strengths.  There are things that everyone has to agree on and work with so that the team is mutually supportive.  There are also individual ways of working and relating with pupils that come from the fact that we are all individuals.  The child I might reach will not be the same child that you reach because of those individualities.

  • Be a coach.

Apparently the difference between a coach and a mentor is that the later leads and suggests while the former encourages and allows responsibility.   There will be times when you have to be the leader and know where the team is going and why.  When it comes to individuals in their professional practice tread with extreme caution.  We all like to succeed and we all judge ourselves against our own standards.  Tell someone they are failing and you have created an emotional dynamic from which your relationship may never recover, let someone tell you they are failing and you are able to respond with help and support.

  • Know your turf.

It is your job to know the big picture for the subjects under your remit, not just your own.  What are the new developments in teaching in those subjects, what are the concerns and problems?   What is the political debate about education and how does that affect your curriculum area?  What is your team response to those issues?

  • See the bigger picture.

You will be expected to fight your corner for time and budget, you will be much better at it if you demonstrate that you are aware of the whole school issues and the impact of what you are trying to do on other teams, not to mention pupils.

  • Fireproof your proposals.

There are times when you can engage in genuine thinking with colleagues, the sort of situation where you are mutually trying to solve a problem and ideas are the currency of the exchange.  “What would it be like if we…?”  Sometimes you and your team have worked out an idea which you want to happen and you need senior leaders to support you.  It might be a great idea but try the Do Bono hats technique, play the pessimist, the administrator and the accountant with your idea so that when you go to the head and he asks you questions you have the answers ready.

  • Model outstanding teaching.

Teaching and learning is benefitting from rapid advances in our understanding.  Stay on the leading edge of the curve with this.  Nothing makes it more convincing when you introduce something to your team than your recommendation and ability to talk about something because you have done it, believe in it and know it from the inside out.

  • Develop an open classroom culture.

Start with the premise that anyone can come and watch you teach or work with you at any time.  If they know what they are looking at they will see good teaching even on a bad day in your classroom and observing a lesson is a very instructive thing to do.  Get them used to the idea that you can be in their classroom and it isn’t an appraisal.  Find something good that they do and share it with the team or get them to share it.  The aim is to engender conversation about teaching and learning.

  • Be leaders in the school.

Develop expertise so that your team can lead school developments.  You might have to do the sharing but it’s easy to credit the team.

Well, there a re a few things to be going on with, if you want to explore an idea further, argue with me or tell me it works then leave a comment.

3 Responses to “Leading a team: Design or default……how to create a culture.”
  1. pradlfan says:

    I especially like your statement suggesting that I let someone tell me where they are failing, and then I can respond with help and support. I can imagine that these team suggestions work well for teams of students and teachers. That one in particular seems like a helpful way to build trust in a classroom.


    • Thanks for your comment, Gordon. We use what we call student voice a lot here to shape teaching and learning. The beauty of letting someone tell you where they are needing help is that you have an open dynamic rather than a closed one. Easy to say, harder to do.


  2. E Wheatley says:

    Thank you for a comprehensive analysis of the many and varied roles of a team leader. I loved the idea of sharing a common vision, and belief that this can be realised, but can this be established quickly or does it take time to build such consensus? I also liked the great tip about allowing team members to identify their own weaknesses. This would be the obvious place from which to organise professional development experiences relevant to the individuals within the team, but I can see that you’re right, it would require wisdom and restraint to always abide by this rule as a leader! Finally, I’ll remember to esteem my team members as a requirement of my role; I have felt supported when I’ve been on the receiving end of this myself in the past.
    Will re-read and re-read,
    Pure gold! Or pearls, perhaps…..

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