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Photo by yang miao on Unsplash

Building Teams and Supporting Individuals

Reflecting on the past and looking towards the future

I was listening to Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast, Revisionist History’s bonus: a debate between Malcolm Gladwell and Adam Grant where they discuss a variety of ideas around the big idea of human behaviour, understanding it and hopefully, making it better. It is truly entertaining while also being provocative. It is well worth listening to the whole show but the section I am commenting on is at 12:45 when Gladwell brings up the NBA as the sport where “talent matters most and coaching matters least” and then provides examples about why that statement is false.

Anyone who knows me is likely wondering why I would find anything about sport fascinating but what they begin to discuss is how we develop expertise and increase performance. As an educator and a leader, both expertise and performance are important to me, not only for the students I serve, the staff I support but also always seeking increased performance and expertise within myself.

Gladwell and Grant begin by talking about an NBA player who was believed to be a great disappointment and when he moved teams, he became one of the best players in the league suggesting that mediocrity is actually nurtured by a mediocre environment thus claiming that in this case, coaching mattered far more than talent. There are other examples provided such as cardiac surgeons and flight crews — both which show that the effectiveness of the team makes the difference in all cases. When you remove one from the team and put that person in a different context, they do not perform as well.

It makes me think about this video with Lucy West, Navigating the Tension between Educator and System Directed Learning, when she discusses the irrelevance of best practices. She explains that best practices “emerge and the people in that situation figure out what works in that situation and they help each other resolve a problem”. She cautions us that what we often do is “transplant this problem where it originated organically out of a need [but what actually happens is that] we transplant the superficial aspects of that and not the essential process that allowed that to take place. We learn from what happened over there but you don’t superimpose it in another situation.”

So what does this mean for teams? Individuals? How we hire? How we place people? The expectations of the individual and team? The development of self efficacy, collective efficacy and agency?

Recently, I was involved in an interview process where part of the process included a group dialogue. Although I left the process before that part of it took place, I was fascinated about what this might look like. Are extroverts valued over introverts? The process was with external and internal candidates. Would those on the inside have the benefit of previous relationships on the team? Equally, it might be a deficit for them if there is history there.

Teams also have expiry dates…Going back to the basketball analogy, Gladwell and Grant discuss that research shows that any NBA team maximizes their skill by four years and after that, they actually have less of a chance to win which might be due to “routine rigidity” because the comfort on the team will ultimately lead to complacency and lack of adaptation. So how often is change needed? How much change is needed?

A colleague of mine recently told me that she was confused as to why she has so many applicants for her team. She and I, along with another colleague talked about it. What was it about their team (which I am not on unfortunately) that attracted so many to apply? She and the other colleague asked me, as an outsider, what people see? I knew immediately…first, they are a team, and not just because they sit in proximity to one another. The leader of the team (who would say she is not the leader as they are all leaders…another reason why everyone wants to be on their team) looks at every opportunity as one to build capacity of the team and has built the team purposefully for a diversity of expertise, ethnicities, experiences, age range, gender while at the same time, she looks for ways to create mini teams that are also diverse. So if one has expertise in math and another in equity, she will partner them to find opportunities to transform the knowledge and thus the support they provide. The team is allowed to be creative. If there is an idea, the team works together to determine the intersections of the work, the relevance, and the potential for innovation.

As a school principal, I learned early on, that creating a leadership team was about finding the dissenting voices, diversity of opinion, people who were willing to engage in debate about the ideas placed on the table and willing to challenge my thinking. I learned about the importance of stepping back and being open, always, to other ideas. In the Gladwell/Grant discussion, the ultimate message was that “the people you surround yourself with, really matters” but we don’t always have a choice of who we surround ourselves with, do we? I learned something as a principal…there are teachers who will, every year, tell you that they have the “best class”! It doesn’t matter who is in their class each year…every year they claim to have the best class. What I know is that they have the “best class” because of who they are as a teacher. Steven Katz talks about “knowing our class”. If we are school leaders, our teachers are our class. If we are system leaders, our principals and vice-principals are our class. It is what we make of the class, the teams we are working with, that makes them the best.

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I have been thinking about this as once again, I am about to embark on another change. I have been at the Ontario Ministry of Education for a year and I will be leaving the board I have worked in for 13 years. This is not new for me. I left another board that I had worked in for 12 years before that. I am so excited to be going back to a school as I have been at the system and provincial level for four years which means limited time with students and what I know about myself is that being with students makes me happy. I am asked what I will miss from my previous board and my current role and always the answer is the same. It is the people. Before I left my board for this position last year at this time I wrote a piece called, My Five People, and it was a testimony to those who have made me who I am as an educator. The list is not exhaustive as I focused on my mentors and could have written a similar piece in terms of staff I have worked with, parents who I have learned from and students who have inspired me. It is almost like a nesting instinct where I have to document, honour, name those on whose shoulders I stand on and those who have helped me to take a next step.

Reflecting on the past…

Whether I built the team or was placed on a team, it is always the team that made the difference. The team, the culture around that team, and the relationships we built together determined the success, innovation and transformative powers of the team.

When it was up to me, the culture I nurtured on the team made all the difference for those on the team.

There must be a balance between individual and collective efficacy to move forward into individual and collective agency.

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My friend, Pamala Agawa, posted this the other day…

Just because it worked before, doesn’t mean it will work again. Each situation, workplace, team is different and will move us into discomfort but hey, that’s where the learning happens!

Every experience, every individual, every team, teaches us something about ourselves — who we are as leaders, who we are personally, what we are willing to fight for and what we need to learn about ourselves in that process.

Looking to the Future

I will build a team and be part of a team that so many want to be a part of because it is a space where ideas are welcome, creativity and innovation are central to our process, challenge is expected, and growth is compulsory.

I will continue to push myself to ensure that Equity and Indigenous Ways of Knowing are an explicit part of every decision made and every action taken. I will be a part of a team that always asks what we can do better to serve our community, honour the truths, experiences, and needs of each and every student in our care.

I will celebrate every moment in gratitude for the opportunity to be around children again, each day, and be a part of their learning, growth and joy.

I will continue to live within the mantra that I have created for myself: I will never let my ambition surpass my integrity.

I will embrace my new home with loyalty, excitement and passion as I move towards this next change in my life and career.

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Thank you to the North York Board of Education for educating me from a young child to a beginning teacher, teaching me what equitable and inclusive practices look and feel like, and the importance of knowing the truth of the story of Indigenous Peoples of Canada.

Thank you to the Toronto District School Board for teaching me what it meant to be creative and innovative, take risks, and serve students and communities.

Thank you to the York Region District School Board for teaching me what it meant to be a leader, build teams, strategically plan, be an instructional leader, and what professional learning should look like.

Thank you to the Ministry of Education for the amazing learning, the opportunity to see the province, and the honour in working with Indigenous communities and school.

Thank you to the Peel District School Board for offering me a future, giving me a chance and inviting me to join your team.

Did you enjoy this piece? If you did, don’t forget to click the clapping hands below so that others can find it as well! Thank you!

Do you want to read more of my blogs? Check out my publication, Reflective Stance on my website, http://debbiedonsky.com/

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Written by

REFLECTIVE STANCE writer, thinker, drawer, painter, designer, mommy, teacher, leader, learner of all things debbiedonsky.com

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