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Is Your Whole School Greater than the Sum of Its Parts?


Your brain is made up of tons of tiny neurons. None of these neurons have conscious thought, yet all together, they result in the works of Shakespeare, the compositions of Mozart, and the creation of the internet. How?

This is the concept of emergence: when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts (Axelrod & Cohen, 2000; Shoup & Studer, 2010). And this is one of the things that makes great schools great: the individuals work together so seamlessly that even if one of those individuals comes or goes, the spirit, teamwork, and success live on. Of course, this raises the question: how do you foster emergence in your school?

There are four main conditions that enable emergence (Grumadaite, 2020), and the good news is that you’re probably already doing some or all of them.

Condition #1: You need actors (staff) who are capable of starting and sustaining relationships.

What exactly does this mean? It means that when you hire, you need to be on the lookout not just for talented teachers, but talented teachers who can and want to be a part of a team. Lone wolf teaching had its heyday in previous decades, but with the new challenges facing education and young people today, a superstar teacher who doesn’t play nicely with others may actually cause an overall negative impact. You know these teachers: they get great results. Maybe students and parents even love them. But they either refuse to show up for professional development or disparage it the whole time they’re there. They talk trash about the administration and undermine decisions. They skip team planning meetings or complain of having “better things to do.” When these teachers stay in your schools, they’re sending a clear message to all the other teachers that says: You’re on your own and you’re a chump if you try to collaborate.

Condition #2: You need to foster interactions between these actors.

This one first comes down to organizational management. Have you planned specific times for various groups of educators to collaborate? Have you ensured that schedules line up in a way that all or almost all of the teachers in a department or grade level have common planning? Do you wisely use before or after school times for productive collaboration?

The organizational management isn’t enough, however, If you have teachers who are used to working in silos, you may need to facilitate their interactions to start. This is where meeting protocols and roles such as discussion leaders, timekeepers, and notetakers can also help. You’re probably going to have to model what this looks like, maybe even leading the first few meetings, and build in a gradual release as teachers become more comfortable with the process.

Even that’s not enough. Once the collaborative meetings take off, they can have a tendency to start strong and then taper off. People get busy. What gets monitored gets measured. That doesn’t mean that you collect notes and ding people on evaluations for not having them; it means that you check in with teams, either by appointment or randomly. You organize whole group meetings where groups who don’t normally get to meet (such as horizontal-teaming at the elementary level, or inter-departmental at the secondary level) have a chance to discuss what they’re doing, how they’re growing, and lessons they’ve learned.

Condition #3: You need to make sure that teams have the resources they need.

Time to work together is definitely one of those resources, and we already discussed that. But ensuring that teams have resources means going further. It may mean reaching out to other members of your district or trainers who can help members develop the skills they need.

For instance, if members continually complain that they don’t know when meetings are scheduled or times are changed, then it may be time for some staff professional development on shared online calendars. If you have a department that’s mostly new teachers and is struggling, you may need to bring in a curriculum expert to help them better understand the concepts and pedagogies.

Oh, and providing snacks and work-appropriate beverages at staff meetings never hurts, either.

Condition #4: You need a value system that supports collaboration and professionalism.

Do your teachers know your school mission statement? Can they recite it? Do they actively use it when planning and choosing among alternatives for their students? Or do you have one of those long, “everything and the kitchen sink” mission statements that nobody can ever remember because you’ve added so many current buzzwords that it’s almost impossible to memorize?

Of course, a mission statement isn’t enough. It comes down to the climate and culture. Do they truly understand that “we are all of us smarter than any one of us?” Do they care about one another, at least in a collegial way, and support each other if someone is sick or going through a tough time? Do they truly believe that all students can and will learn at high levels?

But don’t forget that professionalism piece. Do your teachers trust the administration to support them in teaching and learning…while also knowing that the administration has high expectations? Professionalism also means that you can trust your teachers to do what is in the best interest of the school and the young people who attend it. This two-way trust is crucial to develop the academic optimism that is necessary for schools to succeed.

In summary…

So, where do you start? The first thing to do is engage in an honest assessment of the above conditions and how well you and your school meet them. This can be done individually or collectively as an administrative team or school leadership team. The next thing, believe it or not, is to engage with your larger staff and see how well they think the school meets these conditions. Don’t just ask them…listen to them. Marinate on what they say, even if it stings. Even if you think they’re wrong, their perspectives will influence how they feel and interact within the school.  It may, in some cases, mean helping those who prefer to remain lone wolves find another place where they can close their doors and never talk to another staff member if they so desire.

And remember that this two-way trust takes time and patience to develop. But it’s so worth it, when the sum of your whole school is greater than the sum of its parts, where everyone believes in their abilities to accomplish almost any goals, as long as they work together.

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