How could we make teaching teams purpose-laden and a ton of fun? Perhaps a book from the 1980s can help.
Tracy Kidder’s The Soul of a New Machine (1981) is unlikely to be on your recommended professional development reading list this summer. First of all, it is not new. (Actually, it’s less new than my existence is.) Second, it’s not about teaching. (It’s actually about a team of people making a computer, back before computers were normal.) And third, it’s not got much to do with the twenty-first century. (Wait… computers didn't used to be normal? How did society exist?) 
But nonetheless, Kidder’s book has much to teach us, particularly when it comes to the conditions that make great teams great. Consider how much fun it would be — how professionally developing, how long-term-flourishing-centric — to be on a team where all of the following were true:
- The group was challenged with a difficult task.
- The task was framed around a clear and compelling goal.
- Every team member was given personal responsibility for making significant contributions to the overall effort.
- Every team member was given individual freedom in pursuit of the work.
I've found these four traits to be rare in school-based teams. Let’s use a hypothetical example from my own school to illustrate these four conditions.
First, challenge them with a difficult task. In our high school, we do not have a systematic way for measuring and improving the transition from eighth to ninth grade. We know the transition matters (here's one of many studies), but like nearly every other high school in the United States, we’re tasked with doing a million things that “matter,” ranging from communicating about prom tickets to meeting school improvement targets to fielding good athletic teams to… well, you get the idea.
Here would be a challenging task: How do we measure and improve the strength of the transition to high school for all kids, as simply (i.e., without increasing staffing) as possible?
Then, frame the task with a clear and compelling goal. The eighth to ninth grade transition is highly predictive of long-term flourishing outcomes. We want to A) figure out how to measure it in a way that would be useful for both analysis and action, and then B) once we've done that, research and experiment with ways to improve transition-to-high-school results over time.
Then, give all teachers on the team personal responsibility for making significant contributions to the overall effort. I’m not talking about charging people with contributing a slide every quarter to the quarterly school improvement update at the Board of Ed meeting. I’m talking about:
- Teacher A, you’re in charge of figuring out how to measure engagement or motivation. Basically, we need a way to qualitatively measure how kids are experiencing ninth grade in our school, course by course. The simpler the better. Let’s collect only the data that makes sense for analysis and action.
- Teacher B, we need you to find the easiest way to measure connection to school. We know that we want kids to get “plugged in” and have a community. What would be the simplest way to collect this data? Also, what would the “dark side” of this data be? (E.g., mental health referrals?)
- Teacher C, you’re in charge of thinking about how to think about ninth graders outside of the four core classes of math, science, English, and social studies. We know that all ninth grade courses matter — not just the four “cores.” But these mixed-grade-level courses are tricky. How can we support colleagues in these courses?
- Teacher D, you’re our best practice collector. We’d love for you to be in charge of collecting what we do that works to help kids succeed academically and socially in high school, both in eighth grade and ninth grade. You'll need to coordinate with and perhaps visit the middle school while it's in session to do this.
- Teacher E, you want to be an administrator someday. Awesome. That’s going to require navigating conflicting pressures on your time and leading people who also have to do this navigation work. Let’s get you good at leading meetings. You’ll be in charge of planning and conducting our meetings, and I want you to specifically keep track of how many minutes are spent in meetings. Start by reading Death by Meeting by Patrick Lencioni. Let's use his three meetings framework.
Finally, give each member individual freedom in the pursuit of one’s work. Since we’re working with teachers, a large part of this freedom will come from reminding the team of the things that they need not focus on this year. Participation on this team should mean non-participation on others. Otherwise, team participation feels like just one more thing. There's no signal that this team is important if we don't declutter their path a bit.
I think those four conditions, which exist for the protagonist team in Kidder's true tale, are fascinating to think about for our schools and our classrooms. What connections do you see?
Or, here's a related question: What might be the unintended consequences of forming teams like this in a school?
- Thank you to Jim Collins for pointing me to Kidder's book in his free article, “The Classics.”