Jason Williams is a coordinator for teaching and learning at North Shore School District 112 in Illinois. In his role, he leads professional learning for the K–8 staff to support best teaching practices in all content areas.

Walking the Walk (Even When You Stumble)

“I swear we just said goodbye to our students in June just last week!”

It’s probably because the polar vortex added extra days to the end of last year, but this summer seems like I sneezed in June, and now it’s August!”

“Why am I feeling like I’m already starting behind? Did we decide to take on too much this year as a department? As a system?”

It was about two weeks before school was starting up again that these questions, and many others like them, were being played on loop in my head. Going into my third year as the Coordinator for Teaching and Learning, I thought I had a pretty good grasp on what we needed to have accomplished in order to start the year off strong. My color-coded list was in full display on the whiteboard behind my desk, complete with the many amendments and additional information necessary for me to finally complete an item and be rewarded with the gratifying sensation of crossing it out with my black Expo marker.  

Addressing the anxiety

I must admit, I was doing a pretty solid job of chipping away at my list, but I still couldn’t shake the anxiety that we weren’t going to be ready. I checked my calendar numerous times to make sure that I would have enough time to update the website with the new pacing guides, communicate the first rounds of professional learning that were going to be scheduled, and that the other 2,063 promises I made to principals and teachers would be fulfilled. I was on track, but why didn’t I feel like we were going to make it? Why did the emails requesting clarifications, missing materials, or troubleshooting of digital accounts that were typical for this time of year feel like death by a thousand paper cuts? It wasn’t until our Teaching and Learning department meeting later that week that I started to figure it out.  

Our meeting started out like it typically does. At 9 a.m., we all convene at the conference table in our office and one of us displays the agenda. This being our last department meeting before students returned, we had a pretty packed agenda, mostly due to figuring out who would be taking point on several projects due to our department being one person less going into this school year. Our meeting was scheduled until noon, but it was already 11:15 a.m., and we had barely made a dent in our agenda due to three phone calls, four drop-in visitors, and the occasional random email that would derail the conversation. It was in this moment I was able to identify why the beginning of this school year was feeling so off:   We had strayed away from our collective commitments as a collaborative team.   Not intentionally. Not immediately. But slowly over time, we began to not keep our meeting time with each other sacred and focused. We began to divide the labor of our department to the point of not being aware of the work in which other team members were engaging. Our norms became less clear and more implied. Our team became a group. A department. A collection of neighboring educators who happened to share a budget. We were collegial, but not collaborative.  

Calling all collaborators

It is easy for teams to stray from their collective commitments as my team did if norms and expectations are not revisited regularly. This can be especially true for teams of administrators. Administrators on teams can sometimes find it hard to keep meetings sacred. The phone seldom stops buzzing, unread emails seem to multiply exponentially if you look away for even a moment, and at any given time there are multiple places that need your attention all at once. With all the other responsibilities requiring time and attention in an educator’s day, it becomes crucial that team meetings are meaningful, efficient, and productive.

The irony is that if team members attempt to multi-task, take care of other issues quickly during team meetings, or deviate from the norms, the team sacrifices its meaningfulness, efficiency, and productivity, potentially causing members to feel even more behind, overwhelmed, or possibly that the team meeting was not necessary at all. Establishing clear ways that we will behave and interact around this work ensures a transparent degree of accountability within the team to function as its members intend.   In order to get back on track, our team decided to engage in the following efforts:  

  • Re-establishing team norms and revisiting them on a monthly basis
  • Holding the meeting time sacred (closed door, no phone calls, no email, no interruptions unless its an emergency)
  • Constructing our agenda to directly align with the Three Big Ideas and Four Critical Questions; if an item doesn’t align to one of these components, it can probably be addressed in an email.
  • Developing a way to keep each other updated on projects through celebrations at the start of each meeting. While each of us takes the point on different areas, being in the loop on the progress helps to truly collaborate around the work

While we may have tripped out of the gate to start the year as a collaborative team, the important growth opportunity of redefining our 9 a.m.-to-noon meeting as a recommitment to functioning as a truly collaborative team could not be missed. As leaders in our organization, we need to walk the walk of a being a Professional Learning Community. And if we sometimes stumble along the way, we must dust off our knees and continue the journey—together.

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