Mark Weichel

Mark Weichel, EdD, is assistant superintendent for teaching and learning at Westside Community Schools in Omaha, Nebraska. The district has received local and national attention for its commitment to collaboration, innovation, technology integration, and personalized learning.

Greg Betts

Seven Norms for Collaborative Teams

During our first year working in the district office, we had monthly district grade-level meetings led by teachers who set agendas, provided oversight to the meetings, and facilitated conversations.  

The teacher leadership role was assigned to a grade-level teacher facilitator. Elementary principals provided oversight in each grade level, but they were not overly active in the meetings. Their role was generally to be present and put out fires. Always in search of a time for principals to work and grow together, we thought this would be an excellent time for principals to collaborate amongst themselves. So, principal meetings were set to take place during grade-level meetings.

Early on, many of the principals shared with us concerns that the arrangement would not work because the teacher leaders needed the principals in the room. We thought, “you don’t need the title to lead; they can do this, they’ll be fine.”

A need for collaborative leadership

Within the first few meetings, however, we could see the principals were right. After the grade-level meetings, reports would surface about how poorly some of the meetings went. As we sought to understand more, it became clear to us that although we talked about shared autonomy and the need for collaborative leadership, many of our assigned teacher facilitators did not feel empowered to make decisions, and in many cases, shared they did not know exactly how to run a meeting. We realized we were more top-down than we thought we were.  

It was not only in collaborative grade-level meetings where teachers struggled, but also in meetings throughout the district. School is dismissed early once a week for collaborative team time to take place, and every teacher in our district serves on a collaborative team meeting at least weekly. We realized we were at risk of having a tremendous amount of time reserved for teachers to collaborate and not providing the resources to help them be as successful as they could be.  

Changing the culture and kick-starting leaders

Although collaborative teams had made their own norms, we found more direction was needed. We realized we had choices: we could stop having teachers work together, ensure an administrator was at every meeting, or, we could change our mindset and prepare all members of our organization to lead and interact with each other. Since the first two were not really an option, we chose to focus on changing our culture and assisting everyone in the organization to become a leader.  

Our first step was to have conversations with formal and informal leaders across the district about collaborative leadership. We found those in positional authority could learn more about the topic as well. The main focus of these conversations was the how: how you lead, how you conduct meetings, and how you regularly interact with others.

The Seven Norms of Collaboration

The curriculum focus we used was Garmstom and Wellman’s Seven Norms of Collaboration (2016), which includes:  

  • Pausing: Allowing time for people to think before responding
  • Paraphrasing: Providing an overview of what the speaker shared to ensure understanding
  • Posing questions: Asking questions of others' ideas before advocating for your own
  • Putting ideas on the table: Sharing alternative solutions with the intent for honest feedback
  • Providing data: Planning for data and facts to drive the conversations
  • Paying attention to self and others: Looking for body-language and reactions or others to ensure positive results
  • Presuming positive intentions: Believing comments/intentions are being done in the positive

Many benefits exist in making collaborative norms come to life in a team, school or district. To us, there were two key significant changes that occurred:   First, the collaborative norms challenged all of us to be better listeners. If you are truly practicing the seven norms and taking the time to do it right, you have no choice but to be a really good listener. How can you paraphrase what someone else has said if you aren’t listening? You can’t.   Second, the norms allowed us to create a culture of treating each other with respect. Once established, most team members follow them closely because it is an agreed upon set of practices. And, when one person acts in a way that is not congruent with the norms, it is not uncommon for other members of the group to recognize that this isn’t the way to act and correct each other. When team members do this for themselves early and often, conflicts are resolved before they occur.  

To help each other, know each other

Think of the impact such a practice could have on a collaborative team where you are a member. Even if your team is well-versed in the three big ideas and four critical questions of a Professional Learning Community at Work, regularly analyzing data and using that information to support learners and grow as an educator, it would not be meeting its full potential without knowing how to best interact with one another.  

Making the seven norms of collaboration a regular part of every interaction takes collaboration time to a different level. Take a minute to think of past negative experiences on teams you have worked on in the past. Would these norms have prevented any conflicts? When we ask this question to adults from around the country, the resounding answer is yes, being proactive with this type of thinking would have changed the end result for a better outcome.  

Our call to you, as a reader of this blog, is to take these seven norms back to your collaborative teams, school, or district. While it would be great to have an entire organization, like ours, take this on as a major goal, it is not necessary. You can be the early adopter by following a few recommended steps.  

First, get familiar with the seven norms yourself. Commit them to memory. Practice using them. Recognize how it makes you a better listener, and how really listening impacts those around you. Next, use the seven norms in your classroom. Many of the same ideas that work with adults work with students. It turns out students like to be listened to as much as adults. Using these ideas with students is a safe place to practice.  

Make ‘norms’ the new normal

Finally, help others on your team become familiar with the norms and use them regularly when you collaborate. Have a one-page guide sitting out on your desk or table to keep them at the top of your mind. Regularly use the terminology until it becomes an unforced part of regular conversations.  

We have seen high-performing teams challenge themselves to use each collaborative team meeting to focus on one norm each week. While it might seem a little forced to have everyone focus on intentional pauses one week, the end result of continual learning and practicing will be more efficient meetings.  

To-do lists and suggestions for where to spend our time with others is not in short supply. However, intentionally, deliberately, and proactively focusing on how your team members interact with one another in a way valuing everyone’s thoughts, ideas, and opinions is energy well-spent.  

We hope you enjoyed this blog and feel free to reach out with thoughts and ideas about what you read to us on Twitter at @westsideweichel and @bettsgregory.

No responses yet.