Eight Elements of Effective, High-performing Teams in School

This article explores the principles of winning teams in schools.

In our combined experience in both the independent and state school sectors, we have repeatedly seen that the key determinant of team culture is the quality of the school’s senior leadership. An engaged school is the responsibility of the governing board, heads and collective senior leadership team.

If a culture of trust and growth mind-set is prioritised, the school will likely flourish. Leave it to idle in the car park, however, and it will surely depart for new adventures – along with your higher-performing staff members. In a survey reported by Forbes, 65% of workers stated they would be happier to see their direct supervisor dismissed than receive a salary increase. School heads need to ponder their roles in this not-so-rosy picture.

Listless school cultures

Indeed, statistics about employee engagement are sobering. Fifty-two per cent of workers are not engaged at work and are ‘psychologically unattached’ to their organisation. We have all seen teachers who arrive at school each day but contribute the bare minimum. Having lost their passion for teaching or for the school, for a number of reasons, these individuals may present repetitive and listless lessons, going through the motions each day.

We are not blaming and shaming disengaged teachers – in fact, a listless teacher is a symptom of a poor-performing culture, not the cause of one. But we are placing responsibility for these teachers into the hands of the leaders, and we are saying that they can take specific steps to avoid being ‘named, shamed and blamed’ as the cause of low-performance and low engagement. These principles are the path to leading winning teams.

Let’s create energetic teams

Our contention is that winning school teams are the result of many precursors and intentional leadership techniques. A school with a positive team culture brims with energy; teachers are engaged and go the extra mile. The majority of teachers collaborate and cover for each other. Discretionary effort abounds, resulting in fresh ideas, extra activities, clubs, competitions, outings, and events. Staff retention is high; turnover is lower than average. Communication is open and information is freely shared in interesting weekly newsletters and in social media posts. Ideas are generated. Pupil discipline incidents are infrequent.

On the back of a deliberate attention to creating ‘sticky’ experiences and direct personal interaction with the head, parent conversations about the school are generally upbeat, satisfaction levels are solid, and the campus atmosphere is welcoming and one of ‘felt’ possibility.

In our experience (Alex is the college head of Reddam House Constantia, Cape Town, and Nicky is the executive director of Uplands Outreach in Mpumalanga, with her PhD in Education Leadership), we have identified eight essential elements of high-performing teams in schools – all of which are replicable and described below.

1. Set the direction and tone

A school’s senior leadership team has the responsibility to thoughtfully guide the work lives of the whole school staff. A strong foundation for this work is achieved by adopting a clear and well-communicated strategic plan, with staff input and buy-in. Having the primary leadership team embody the traits of a cohesive and aligned group as its culture (seen and felt) will also permeate that of the wider school. The team must clearly detail expectations and ensure that accountability has been set within a supportive and open relationship that vibrantly communicates ‘we are in this together’.

In order to foster trust and respect throughout the wider school team, and to exemplify the sought culture, this team must also invite ‘upward management’ from all levels of staff – and then purposefully act on the feedback. This is not an easy dance. If we are seeking schools where rich education thrives, it is worth activating these complex steps. It is the senior leaders who set the tone, and who open or close opportunities for an engaged staff team.

2. Coach first

Perhaps due to the hierarchical history of schools (note the ongoing use of ‘Master’ in school nomenclature), the oldschool mentality of ‘boss’ – using outdated command and control techniques – can dominate. Our recommendation is that school leaders adopt a coaching mentality instead, where support (albeit stretching and expectant) is freely given and understanding comes first.

Professor Richard Boyatzis is renowned for this approach, and coaches his teams to lead with compassion, not compliance. We would encourage leadership teams to actively encourage discussion. Asking teachers and the support team to complete the following statement – ‘I wish my line manager knew …’ – is a means for showing that the senior cohort is hungry to understand people and respond to their needs.

Creating and valuing a culture in which people feel seen is vitally important for maximising a high performing school. Legendary Coach John Wooden said, ‘Seek opportunities to show you care. The smallest gestures often make the biggest difference.’

Take time each day to write thank you e-mails or cards, saying you noticed something special about a teacher and his/her work. Research shows that people who have a positive influence over others – who lead them and the organisation forward – serve as a source of inspiration; show a genuine sense of caring and concern; provide support and encouragement, and facilitate the discovery and pursuit of dreams and passions of the people they are coaching.

3. Wherever possible, openly share information and activate communication

Rumours flourish in the absence of information, especially in schools where teachers can only connect for brief periods of time. Attention given to weekly newsletters, staff meetings, assemblies, acts of kindness and meaningful corridor chats that allow heads to share their philosophy, their personal stories and that invite a return flow of insights from their team, will build an aligned sense of knowing and confidence.

The outcomes of all significant meetings, including board and executive committees, should be shared as much as is possible, to all levels and layers of staff in all corners of the campus. Out of Nicky’s doctoral research, it became clear that some of the most successful school heads spent time connecting with all staff members, including security guards and kitchen staff, who would often be able to tell them vital and unique information about a child or an incident.

4. Clarify roles

If the management and/or staff team doesn’t know its individualised role descriptors (importantly, their personal ‘why’) and how all interact towards a given objective, it is probably heading down a path of divergence.

A wise leader frequently checks role profiles and confirms that current job descriptors still reflect what you and your team are needing to do on a daily basis. If they do, the next step is to ensure that what is written is actually happening. If their accuracy has waned however, then heads need to jump back a step and update the work map. Heads could consider co-creating high-level role summaries as a team so that everyone is in the loop. This creates quiet accountability, where everyone knows what each other is expected to do. Heads should work hard to avoid grey areas as these are quicksand for employees.

Frequently articulating and affirming how each person’s contributions connect to the overall success of the school will reap rewards.

5. Promote continuous team development

Frequent, authentic conversations should be held with all staff members. The senior team should identify high performers and work hard to keep them. It is not the case that all should be treated the same; your best deserve your best attention. Probe beneath the surface of struggling teachers, replacing quick, facile judgments with a commitment to discovering what is behind their sub-par performance. This may entail a positional change and or introduction of an on-hand mentor (this is not an acceptance of ongoing poor performance. Once coached and without improvement, counselling becomes the next phase of intervention). When giving feedback, wrap it beautifully.

Google Surveys can be used to provide quick ‘pulse’ checks. It is important that the feedback from these is acted upon, otherwise staff cynicism (if present) may deepen. All eyes are on you as a head: develop yourself publicly and share your growth.

Traction will only happen in the professional development space if the heads share their lessons, interesting books and conference feedback, all so you are walking-the-talk. If we are not continually re-learning, not only are we trampling on what we purport to drive – a thirst for education – it is also likely that a school’s relevance will be in free fall, as it lags behind the pace of environmental change. Is this not where we find ourselves during the pandemic?

6. Check your assumptions

Apply the new holy grail of ‘critical thinking skills’ to yourself and your teams – not just to pupils. We believe that too many schools remain stuck in outdated patterns, entrenched cultures, and expired ways of being.

High-performing teams deliberately look for innovative ways to move forward and actively search for new research and evidence of better practices. As they know the world is uncertain, they do not presume that they or their policies are the oracle. Instead, the best leaders keep their eyes up and eyes wide to validate (or course-correct) their trajectory. Most importantly, they consistently query their ‘sacred cows’ to secure educational excellence by following the wisdom of Oliver Cromwell, who said: ‘I beseech you… think it possible you may be mistaken.’ Keep checking your assumptions about why activities are undertaken.

7. Protect staff time by making meetings count

Be prepared for staff meetings and don’t waste precious time. Teachers are highly observant and can have critical eyes – one needs to stay a step ahead with your preparation and direction in meetings. Be succinct. Learn to read the room. Give all voices a chance, not just the loud or vocal staff members who can dominate the discussion.

Stick to an agenda and use action items, if needed, not minutes – when last did you read a full set of minutes? Be honest. Interrogate the need for standing meetings. As Elena Aguilar writes in The Art of Coaching Teams: Building Resilient Communities that Transform Schools: ‘Members of an effective team know, in the moment, whether a meeting will lead them down a path to results or whether their efforts will be derailed or stalled.’

8. Action wins over rhetoric

Many educationalists have been schooled to believe that change in education is slow and incremental. However, the two of us are pretty confident that the recent changes brought about by the pandemic (the sudden proliferation of online schools, for example) expose the fallacy and laziness of this thinking. Change was previously slow because too few have acted and experimented. So, if you really want a great school, then fly-wheel action to support forward-movement. Encourage sensible risk-taking, try new approaches, tap into your ‘race-horse’ teachers, and drop the word count below the action count.

In summary, the application of these eight principles over time will ensure that talents are unlocked and energy is released in school teams. Staff members will be happier and more motivated. Absenteeism will decline and the exit of the best will cease. ‘Customer’ ratings from parents and pupils will rise – and visible action will become a cultural trait. Simply stated, high-performing team cultures, led by progressive and self-aware team leaders, matter at schools.

Heads can no longer be indifferent to the concerns of teachers, accepting tepid cultures and fixed mind-sets. In many ways, this article and the eight elements boil down to school leaders demonstrating competence and warmth, both of which will permeate the school culture and create the necessary conditions for high performance.