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.
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?
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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