Five Important Roles for Successful Collaborative Teams

So here’s a simple truth:  On the highest functioning professional learning teams, there’s no real need for formal titles and roles. 

Teachers work seamlessly for and with one another through recurring cycles of inquiry around their practice.  They inherently acknowledge the strengths and weaknesses of one another, stepping forward to lead when necessary and willingly following when others have the skills necessary to tackle individual tasks.  As a result, their work is efficient, effective and incredibly rewarding.

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But here’s another simple truth:  Many teams wouldn’t describe their work as “efficient, effective and rewarding.

Sometimes, that’s because they have no clear sense for how to take ideas and turn them into realistic action.  Identifying the right person to fill the right role at the right time isn’t something that happens inherently — and the results can be frustrating.  Some members feel overwhelmed because they are being asked to tackle tasks that they aren’t personally or professionally prepared for.  Other members feel frustrated because work never seems to get done — or to get done well.

For those teams, formal roles that are assigned to individual members are a relief. 

By defining a set of roles that members will fill for one another, teams are developing transparency around just what the core work of a learning team really is.  By defining a set of roles that members will fill for one another, teams also create opportunities for members to identify places where they can contribute to the collective work of the group.

Those conversations — where members openly share their strengths and weaknesses while volunteering for or shying away from individual roles — are essential for building trust with one another and for sending the message that to do our core work, we have to rely on one another.

So what roles should a novice learning team have?

Check these five out:  Leaders, Encouragers, Challengers, Producers and Realists

I think that each of those roles are essential for the long term success of a learning team.  We SHOULD be challenging and producing and encouraging one another during every single meeting.  It’s impossible to collectively inquire around our practice together if those actions don’t become a regular part of our collective behavior — and those practices won’t become a part of the collective behavior of novice learning teams until we name them and define them and figure out who is best suited to bring them to each conversation.

A few tips on using team roles:

(1). Remember that people should fill roles based on their personalities.  That means roles won’t automatically rotate to every member on a team.  For example, I’m great at creating documents and materials on the fly — so I’m a terrific producer.  But I’m also a pessimist, so if you ask me to be the encourager, we are going to be one seriously miserable group!

(2). Remember that roles can be situational — particularly on experienced teams:  Take the role of the challenger for an example.  To fill that role, a member has to have strong professional knowledge about the work the team is trying to complete.  That means some members might be better suited for filling the challenger role about some topics and other members might be better suited for filling the same role about different topics.

Or think about the role of the encourager.  Our levels of enthusiasm vary depending on the topics that we are engaging with.  That means different people might bring encouragement to the team at different times depending on how motivated they are about the task that the team is trying to tackle.

That’s okay.  In fact, it’s better than okay because it allows individuals to step forward and lead at different times over the course of a team’s collective study together.

(3). Remember that the same roles teachers fill on their learning teams are essential for students to fill in the collaborative learning groups that we run in our classrooms:  So whatever roles you settle on for your team should ALSO be used with students.  That accomplishes two goals.

First, it provides constant reinforcement for team members about the importance of each role in a collaborative group.  When we are coaching student groups about the role of the realist, we are reminding ourselves about the need for realism in our own team meetings.

And second, it provides an easy hook for convincing skeptical teachers that roles are essential.  If you say, “Every team should have roles,” you will have some teachers who roll their eyes and think, “We are all adults here.  Why do we need to define the work we are going to do together?”

But every teacher knows that it is important to teach students about what good collaboration looks like — so start there.  Pitch the notion of defining roles as something that we need to do for STUDENTS — and then suggest that you use the same roles with your collaborative team.  Say something like, “Let’s use these roles ourselves.  It will help us better understand what we are asking our kids to do.”

Everyone will buy in.  And your work will be more structured and productive as a result.

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Related Radical Reads:

Lead Smarter:  Understand Teacher Approaches to Change

Note to Teams:  It’s Time to Complete Your Mid-Year Checkup Together

Is Your Team Flunking Unsuccessful Practices Together?

5 thoughts on “Five Important Roles for Successful Collaborative Teams

  1. Pingback: New #atplc Resource: Tasks Teams Tackle Document | THE TEMPERED RADICAL

  2. Bririttany Kirkner

    Hi Bill,

    I just found your blog, and I found this post quite relatable. I agree that teachers understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses. That understanding can be both spoken and unspoken. If you work on a team with someone, you probably talk to them as much as you talk to your own family; you get to know them quickly.

    I also think that your point about filling roles is crucial. Although as teachers, we roll our eyes sometimes when we are asked to practice a strategy ourselves (such as collaboration) that we would use in the classroom. Roles are definitely important, and having that conversation about who should fill what role can make collaboration more effective. For example, in team meetings, everyone knows that I will be doing the typing of the minutes because I am an efficient typer. It’s a strength that I have, and everyone knows that having me fill that role will help move our collaboration along more efficiently. Our team leader is excellent at planning meetings and events and communicating with everyone, so she functions perfectly within her role.

    Thank you for your ideas. I will look forward to reading more from you in the future.

    Reply
    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Hey Brittany,

      Glad that you found my content and that it resonated with you! I hope that continues moving forward, too.

      I think you pointed something out in your comment that I’ve had long arguments over: Switching roles on a PLC doesn’t make any sense to me. Instead, we need to find the right person to do the right job at the right time. That’s why you are the note taker by default. You are uniquely suited to fill that role.

      Many other collaborative coaches argue that roles should be rotated so that everyone gets the chance to experience all of the different responsibilities on a team. For me, that feels inefficient. If our goal was to develop individuals so that they could fill all of the roles on a team, that might make sense — but our primary goal for collaboration is to study our practice together in a systematic way. For me, that means keep it simple and put people in the best positions to make a contribution to the collective study of the group.

      Glad that made sense to you, too!

      Be well,
      Bill

      Reply
  3. Chris Jakicic

    Hi Bill, This post is so relevant to what I’m working on right now! Our new book is about coaching in a PLC and I’ve been working on an activity for coaches to use to define their role in the PLC process. One of things we’ve emphasized is that in most schools teams are at widely different places in the process because of experience, turnover, and even personality. Your post has affirmed some of my thinking but also has extended my thinking about this and how the roles teachers play on the team can influence how well it functions. Thanks for the thoughtful post…as usual, your insights are brilliant!

    Reply
    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Hey Chris,

      It always makes me smile to see you in this space, that’s for sure. I’m glad this resonated with you.

      And you are right: The role that coaches play in the work of a learning team is going to vary depending on the team itself, that’s for sure. Some teams are going to need a coach to play the role of the realist or the encourager or the producer. The key for the coach is to recognize the role that each team needs them to fill. And the key for the person HIRING coaches is to identify people who are capable of filling multiple different roles for the teams that they are supporting.

      The most frequent failures that I see in coaching efforts happen when individually talented people are hired and want to bring THEIR talents to the teams that they support. The coach sees themselves as an expert instead of a supporting cast member whose goal is to surface the talents already on the team.

      That’s a disaster.

      Anyway…always like thinking with you,
      Bill

      Reply

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