The Fuel of Teams: Collaborate – 3 Easy Steps

Updated: Apr 16, 2020

The Fuel of Teams: Collaborate – 3 Easy Steps

Collaborate – 3 Easy Steps for Team Transformation

Focus Area: Innovative Change

An Introduction and Diagnostic

by David Horton, Ed.D.

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An Introduction and Diagnostic –

Collaboration Depends on the Common Conversation

Coming together is the beginning. Keeping together is progress.

Working together is success.” – Henry Ford

Where does sustained improvement come from?

Consider your experiences in schools and districts. What has been your practical experience and common-sense reaction to how initiatives gain the most traction, have the greatest impact, and actually improve classroom practice and student learning? And further, add this layer to your thinking – how have you seen entire schools improve (let alone a district)?

Have you ever seen an entire school improve because one single teacher suddenly became a superstar teacher? Meaning, in her class you observe her skill and mastery of climate, intervention, teaching, assessment, etc. to be ‘off-the-charts’ excellent. She does no wrong. Students are well-cared for and are taken to depths of owned-learning that rivals anyone in the profession. But, as good as she is, did it move the needle for the whole school?

Sadly, our experience tells us that isolated pockets of extreme excellence, while fantastic for the students in that class, does not carry over into broad success for the whole school.

The ‘What’ and The ‘How’

Well, this certainly isn’t to make the case that leadership doesn’t matter. Quite the contrary. Indeed, leadership functions at its best when leaders up and down the system have a common frame and performance target expectation. In other words, leaders should describe and provide the support for the direction the organization is travelling – THE WHAT.

The “what” of the organization always travels from the top down. But, the way the target is reached and the variables that individuals may take to accomplish the task and reach the target can be quite personal – THE HOW. The “how” of the organization is how each individual heads toward the target and stays within the frame provided by the leader.

So, the answer to riddle of how a school improves must lie somewhere in the middle. It isn’t by having one amazing teacher and it isn’t by a ‘top down’ initiative alone. It happens in between the two extremes.

It’s About Teams

Simply put – we’re better together than we are apart.

Teams are the increment of success and sustainability. Teams lie between the “top down” and the one lone excellent teacher. Teams allow everyone to come along together. DuFour and Eaker (1998) recognized and found in their work with Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) that dedicated effort to the processes of teacher teams are essential to sustained improvement of the organization. Indeed, this work centered on the importance of creating a frame and target from leaders but the real power came when teams had a focus and commitment to their focus.

Teams are nimble enough to pivot and respond quickly to immediate student needs in both learning and climate. Teams also have the experience and stability to take a direction and create a “how” to reach the target. Teams also provide collective stability and a sense of belonging for the members.

The Fuel of Teams – The Purpose of the Blog Series

This blog series is designed to assist district leaders, principals, team facilitators, and teachers in hosting the key conversations most needed to support, build and sustain the major initiatives in a school system. Indeed, this work is of crucial importance in building a learning network at all levels of the system and providing a fertile foundation for teams to thrive and do the work that leads toward the ultimate end of student-owned learning.

Daly (2010) notes the importance of taking the time to deliberately attend to the social network that exists in and among members of the school system and that by leveraging, sustaining, and building a strong social network we significantly improve student learning. This attention to building strong social bonds where team members care for one another and the work they do can further multiply the rate of student learning by building collective efficacy on teacher teams and in schools. Collective teacher efficacy, when present, increases the rate of student learning to four years of learning in one calendar year (Hattie, 2015).

The Answer Lies in Knowing How Teams are Built

To get Collective Teacher Efficacy we have to have well-functioning teams. Collective teacher efficacy is built when teams of teachers and the staff as a whole believe that the efforts they are working on for students will work (Goddard, Hoy & Hoy, 2000). This strength in collaboration is a key factor in developing Collective Efficacy (Brinson and Steiner, 2007). And, indeed, the impact of Collective Efficacy results in quadrupling the rate of learning for students (Hattie, 2012).

So, how do teams function and function well? Teams, in simple terms, are functional units basically comprised of 3 ingredients. The ingredients are the Learning Network, Structures and Process (Bloomberg & Pitchford, 2017).

Component 1 – The Learning Network

The learning network in simple terms are the things and behaviors that keep a team functioning and learning together as a team. The things most associated with a healthy learning network are: Relational Trust, Communication, and a Common Purpose (Bloomberg & Pitchford, 2017).

The building and maintenance of relational trust is done via communication (dialogue). A very important aspect of the dialogue is the importance of “how” we dialogue not just “what” we dialogue about. Indeed, Daly (2018) notes that vulnerability is a crucial precursor of building trust through dialogue. The ability for teams to have sustained, escalating, reciprocal, and personal self-disclosing discussions allows for bonding through vulnerability and this vulnerability is the incubator of trust (Daly, 2018). Indeed, relational trust is built on, anchored by and fed by purposeful dialogue (Horton, 2017). Teams become teams with deep trust when they talk, share and build common dialogue around professional concepts that matter (Horton, 2017).

Vulnerability and trust are interesting companions. Common sense says that we stand on solid ground, build trust, and then leap into the unknown (Daly, citing Coyle, 2018). Research seems to show that we may have it backwards. Leaping into the unknown when done alongside others causes the solid ground of trust to materialize under our feet (Daly, citing Coyle, 2018). This means that if we dare to take on worthy processes and get started even if we have a less than perfect path for execution but, and most importantly, we do it as a team that is together, we build more trust, and a stronger team. Not to mention, as efficacy improves, so too will the process initiative the team is focused on.

Consider the implications of this thought for teams. Having a bond and relationship, even if in its infancy form, provides the needed ingredients for a team to engage in challenging work if done together. As they leap together into the unknown and uncertainty of their road ahead knowing that by maintaining a network and bond they will get stronger together and weather any storm that comes. This, when done consistently builds both trust and the network simultaneously.

Component 2 - Structures

The Structures of the team are the physical elements that organize a team. Things such as having agendas, having team roles for members (all members if needed), having a designated team facilitator, having group norms of behavior, having a cloud storage solution, and a sharing system for documents, templates, and resources to name a few (Bloomberg and Pitchford, 2017). These concrete items build consistency and strong anchor points for teams. Having structures prevents “aimless drift” and “winging it.”

Component 3 - Process

Finally, the Process of the team is the reason why the Learning Network and Structures have to be attended to. In other words, teams don’t act like a team and get organized like a team without a higher purpose. The higher purpose we seek is deep student ownership of learning. Student ownership of learning is done best with collaborative teams supporting its members with understanding, focus, resources, ideas, and discussion. These actions do not work well in the absence of a learning network and structures. Also, collaborative expertise multiplies the rate and depth of learning for students. Meaning, you may go faster working alone but you go farther working together (Horton, 2017, Bloomberg & Pitchford, 2017).

The preferred system for a team to build a process is Leading Impact Teams by Bloomberg & Pitchford. In their book, Bloomberg and Pitchford (2017) lay out a simple 3-step mechanism for teams to use as a way anchor their focus on students, their professional learning, and their effect on student capacity and ownership. The 3-step process is: Evidence, Analysis and Action (EAA). Though simple in its design, the EAA process allows teams to go as deep as they are prepared to go in creating amazing experiences for students and their own professional capacity.

The tools in this blog series are framed in the same Leading Impact Teams EAA format as an easy insert for teams that are engaged in Impact Team work. In fact, it is a suggestion that teams not yet using the EAA Leading Impact Team process begin studying and using this team process to unify all of their team efforts. The Impact Team EAA format allows teams to insert the tools in this book as one of their protocols for team study and growth. To that end, the tools in this book are framed in the EAA format and chunked to allow Impact Teams the seamless mechanism to study the contents of this book as part of their collaborative growth.

Teams must have an operating foundation grounded in team-driven dialogue upon which collaboration and innovation may blossom. Many times, as initiatives are rolled out for implementation a key factor in seeing productive collaboration spring up results from the foundational readiness and understanding of the participants. Meaning, the “what” of directional initiative travels from top to down whereas the “how” of an initiative has to be driven from the bottom back up. So, teams at each step have to achieve clarity and understanding in the initiative in their own way.


As teams learn new initiatives to implement in their classrooms or across the school they must have time to collaboratively build an understanding and support structure. This understanding and support structure is the foundation for lasting results and innovation to develop. As understanding of the initiative improves and as teams share via dialogue they grow even greater abilities to find creative methods to serve their students, go deeper, make connections and use existing resources more efficiently. Indeed, dialogue is a powerful and supportive vehicle upon which learning and collaboration are built and sustained. Teams, when able to operate with a functional and supportive Learning Network (with Relational Trust), Structures and a Process, can build and have exponential effects on student learning.

A Call to Action

Take the Diagnostics: To wrap up the Introduction to this blog series, and to get the most out of the dialogues to build relational trust and understanding, complete the Diagnostics (Appendices A1 and A2). The results of the Diagnostics will be further explored in Parts 1-3 (the 3 easy steps) of Collaborate – Focus Area: Innovative Change. The entire blog and resources can be found at

Group Read: It is encouraged to use this Blog Series with teams and teammates. If you work through the material this way, the “Thought Questions” are designed to be periodic “stops” and mini-dialogues with teams. Simply facilitate each Thought Questions by doing a quick whip-around with team and asking quick responses to the posed questions. It is not recommended to spend more than 10-15 seconds per person to respond. These are anticipatory questions and are typically handled in the next section.

© Copyright 2020 – David Horton Consulting Inc. and Lead Team Learn

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