Developing a Team Culture in Schools

The author Michaela Khatib is an original proposer and Executive Head of Cobham Free School, an all-through establishment, which opened in wave 2 of the government programme in 2012. The school has grown year on year but has yet to move to its permanent Cobham site, being currently split over four different locations.Pupils will sit the school’s first GCSEs in the summer 2019 and a new 6th Form will be opening in September 2019.

The importance of developing a collaborative culture in organisations is widely recognised and embedded within models of leadership. However, it could be argued that headteachers and senior leaders have a particular challenge in schools, where teachers often work in isolation within their classrooms, potentially having limited opportunity to engage with colleagues. In order to develop a shared culture, I believe it is essential that headteachers invest the time to research and implement ways to improve opportunities for staff to interact and build effective teams.

The benefits of teamwork are well-documented and can include improved decision-making through collective thinking, the sharing of expertise and strengthened channels of communication. Performing as a team can also be highly motivating within the workplace, with groups experiencing a sense of fulfillment and achievement from working collaboratively to find a solution to a difficult issue. Arguably, a team can be particularly effective during the most challenging times, such as an Ofsted inspection, when all members are focused on the same goal and a sense of ‘synergy’ is created.

Various theories have been proposed for building high functioning teams. Research by Belbin in the late 1960s demonstrated the most effective teams were not those with a membership demonstrating the highest IQs but those with an optimal combination of personality types, leading to member compatibility. My experience as a leader in a ‘start-up’ school, has involved building brand new teams, hence allowing an increased opportunity to tailor membership to suit the needs of the organisation.However, even in well-established schools, using methods to generate a team profile can be beneficial to understand the strengths and weaknesses within the group. Inset days provide a particular opportunity to conduct profiling using external consultants or through Myers Briggs type assessment tools to identify personality traits.

When considering how new teams can perform together, it is also worth recognising the stages of development that Tuckman identified during his research on group development. His study (Tuckman, 1965) suggested four stages, which included; ‘forming’, ‘storming’, ‘norming’ and ‘performing’; a fifth stage, ‘adjourning’ was later added as a result of further research (Jensen and Tuckman, 1977). While working as part of a team I have found it useful to be mindful of these stages, and particularly to recognise that conflict (‘storming’ stage) can be a normal and even healthy part of team development, as members work through issues and clarify their roles and responsibilities.

Numerous types of teams can be identified within a school setting, including: teachers, support staff, administrative personnel, governors, parent and pupil groups. However, at the heart of a school community there should always be a shared vision, with leaders striving to unite their organisations through developing staff teams, in order to achieve their goals. As a new, all-through establishment operating over four split-sites, seven miles apart, my own school has had particular challenges in this respect. Managing groups separated by such a distance has meant finding innovative ways to team build and embed the vision as the school has grown.

Some ideas which have been adopted include:

  • The implementation of a ‘one school’ vision project streamlining ways of working across the educational phases
  • Careful consideration of building design to have a shared staffroom and joint family dining to encourage informal discussions during the day
  • Joint inset days between the different phases, to explore aspects of the vision, and draw up plans for the growing school
  • Regular meetings between the leaders in the different parts of the school to devise development plans and discuss whole school issues
  • Activities to aid staff team building, such as: choirs and instrumental groups; book clubs; cross-phase participation in the Duke of Edinburgh Award
  • Training with a focus on team building to generate profiles and help staff understand the theory behind group working
  • Using a cloud-based IT platform so that staff can work collaboratively on the same document concurrently
  • Plenty of social activities, such as end of term whole school staff functions

The world of education is ever-changing and complex, and I would argue that upskilling teams to perform efficiently within schools has never been more important. Leaders should endeavour to consider how to develop their team resource to take advantage of the opportunities afforded through collective thinking and shared goals. Recognising and valuing individual contributions within non-hierarchical, consensus-based group models of leadership, encouraging innovation and creating a supportive environment, will not only empower staff in their own development but also benefit all within the school community.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of PTE or its employees.