When teams do not work out: 5 things to watch out for

(Reading time: 4 - 7 minutes)

Schools, as any organization, cannot be run by single people. More and more we realize that the long-term success of any organization in not just due to the brilliant professionals it employs, but mainly due to the effective, coordinated work produced by these professionals. In order to do that, team members and their leaders need to put themselves second and the team first, to work on communication and to have a common understanding of the aims of the team.

 The way teams work

 Successful teams do not just produce some kind of work. They work effectively and efficiently with visible results. Each individual in this team experiences a sense of belonging, feels valued and sees that his contribution is appreciated. Successful teams are also support mechanisms when mistakes are made but they are also rejoice together when a member of the team stands out. Jealousy, self-praise and self-pity are not needed.

 Teams need managers and leaders who will coordinate but not micro-manage. The boundaries between these two are often blurred. I will use an analogy to make my point clearer. It is no wonder that quintets can play without a conductor but whole orchestras need one. The role of the conductor is to make the music stand out, not the individual performers despite the fact that certain musicians, like the first violinist, will do so. Each musician is a master and a professional regarding his ability to play that musical instrument. They can all read music. They can all ‘’feel’’ music. Therefore, the conductor will not teach them how to play the violin, as that would be the equivalent of micromanagement. The conductor will coordinate the music produced by individual musicians so that the whole produced will be harmonious. On their part, the musicians have spent considerable time studying the score, so during the rehearsal they do not read notes and struggle to actually perform that music expressively.

Hopefully, my little analogy has managed to show the following:

  • School managers coordinating teams of teachers are not there to teach people the basics. Professionals, who have been hired as professionals, ought to be able to plan, adapt and design flexible lessons which cater for their learners needs. This is the equivalent of actually performing the music expressively, rather than struggling to read notes.
  • Coordinated teams tend to produce harmonious work. This does not mean that the work produced by different individuals will be become absorbed or amalgamated by the work produced by the whole. The manager needs to know what kind of work each member of the team produces. How managers can accomplish that was covered in the previous month’s article.  
  • Professionals can only follow a certain amount of clearly and unambiguously expressed rules, much like the musicians can follow the notes and decode symbols that explain how the composer meant the music to be performed. Neither musicians, nor professionals can guess. Asking professionals to guess and to use ‘’common sense’’ to deduce certain ‘’basic things’’, never works out. Functional teams communicate on a very clear basis; therefore if there are miscommunications in any team and mistakes ensue, instead of blaming the members of the team, we should examine the framework of communication and the foundations of this team.


Why might teams of teachers malfunction?


1 Teams overlap

FLS present a unique environment for teamwork. Instead of consisting of separate teams that have undertaken a particular task, the teams overlap. Members of one team are also members of another (teachers teaching juniors and teachers teaching senior classes, for example) and leaders of one team might be just members in another. There is also the general group ‘’the teachers’’ as opposed to that of ‘’the secretaries’’ (if there are more than one) or ‘’the administration’’ (school owner, DoS and secretary). 

 2 Socio-dynamics

The way team-members interact with each other actually defines the success of the team. The role the team-leader plays in this interaction is crucial. Let us not forget that the team leader is the person who makes the conscious choice of who is going to be part of this team. When new teachers are hired they come with some pre-conceived notion of how FLS work and they have a certain way of going about the business of teaching. Sometimes, the newcomer might appear to be a threat to the team. Is this new person better qualified? Is she perhaps more eager to please the boss and puts in extra hours of work? Why is she doing things in a different way? Now, the positive attitude to that would be for teachers to think that they can actually learn from the newcomer, but for teams to adopt this mentality, team members need to feel secure as professionals and team members. Therefore, strong and impartial leadership is needed. Unfortunately, this is the exception not the rule. Usually, the distrust between the new member and the existing team can drive the first wedge.  The socio-dynamics, which are also at work here, will deal the second blow as members of the existing team of teachers tend emulate the attitude of the popular teacher, no matter if she is the official or unofficial leader of this team, towards the newcomer.  This brief presentation of that rather complicated matter only highlights why careful hiring and an induction period are needed if we want teams and individuals to work well together.

 3 The behavior of the star

There are many reasons why certain teachers feel they are more ‘’worthy’’ of the rest. It might be because they teach the higher-level classes, they are native speakers or they are simply ‘’old hands’’ and better paid than the rest. This gives them the impression that they are notches above the rest of the team, therefore they feel they have the right to look down on their colleagues, belittle them by suggesting that any other kind of teaching below C2 level is easy, simple and irrelevant to the highly sophisticated and advanced teaching they engage in. The behavior of the star tends to alienate the star, but if the star acts so with the blessing of the school owner, things tend to become difficult. Yet another reason why school manager and the DoS should not label teachers and offer them a balanced ‘’teaching diet’’.

 4 Lack of clearly defined roles

Teams tend to malfunction when roles are not clearly defined, there is no defined hierarchy outlining who is the leader of each team and how those teams should interact. In the absence of a plan, individuals with strong personalities will step in and simple ‘’grab’’ the part, causing other teachers to protest or to respond by not actually following  their ‘’leader’’.  It is easy to notice that once again, the problem lies with communication and clarity.

5 Lack of communication

The most serious problem is when we think we have teams but we actually have ships sailing in parallel or teacher teaching next to each other but with no communication or long intervals of non-communication between them. We also need to examine the quality and the depth of communication between teachers. Discussing particular students and their performance or looking at course books and deciding on test dates is only part of communication and it gets to be superficial.  

 In the next article we will see what can be done so that we can avoid problems in our team work. Until then, take a notebook and write down what you notice regarding team work in your school.




Maria Sachpazian BA education / RSA dip/tefl (hons)  is the Academic and Managing Director of Input on Education a company which provides academic, business support and consultancy to Foreign Language Schools. She is also an educational management specialist who has worked as a teacher trainer and materials’ developer. Maria works as an EFL teacher at the Straight Up Markoyannopoulou schools

www.input.edu.gr           This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.     

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