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Teaming With Purpose: Unleashing the Potential

by Andrew L. Rogers

Statement of Purpose
This paper intends to take a look at the research and practice of teaming in the middle school. One focus is to discover what has been learned over the last twenty plus years as schools and researchers have implemented and evaluated the practice and effect of teaming in the middle schools. A second effort is to identify steps and considerations necessary to implement effective teams at the middle school.


Teaming has been one of the central components of the middle school movement since its inception. Teaming is seen as the means to accomplish many of the critical components of effective middle school practice. It is critical to implementing a developmentally responsive middle school as described in This We Believe, published by the National Middle School Association in 1982. It is where we deliver:

Curriculum that is challenging, integrative, and exploratory
A variety of teaching and learning approaches
Assessment and evaluation that promote learning
Flexible organizational structures
In Turning Points: Preparing American Youth for the 21st Century, the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development recommends creating "small communities for learning where stable, close, mutually respectful relationships with adults and peers are considered fundamental for intellectual development and personal growth. The key elements of these communities are schools-within-schools or houses, students and teachers grouped together as teams." (p.9) Middle schools have discovered that to effectively implement the recommendations of the Carnegie Council teaming is a core element of any middle school reform plan. "The hallmark of an effective middle level school rests in its capacity to create dynamic learning teams within the school. Schools are organized into learning communities where close relationships between students and adults can be established and where more individualized attention can be given to all learners." (Kasak, 1998)

Teaming is a practice that has increased in the middle schools significantly over the last twenty-five years. (Clark, Irvin, Keefe, Melton, & Valentine, 1993) With the increase in teaming there has been a significant amount of attention paid to the topic of teaming. As the practice of teaming has become more common and institutionalized the focus has shifted to looking at the effectiveness and the outcomes of teaming. This attention and scrutiny has shown that not all teaming is equally effective. There are conditions necessary to create effective teams that produce significant, positive results. Teaming has enormous potential energy that, depending on the conditions, can be converted into kinetic energy. The potential of teaming is enormous, but it is the implementation of teaming that determines it's effectiveness. Teaming that simply allows teachers to share students over a longer block of time is unlikely to produce results any different than a more traditional schedule. Translating the potential of teams into a kinetic form requires adequate support, resources, planning, and ongoing evaluation.

Research Findings

What can a middle school realistically expect from implementation of a teaming model? The time, effort, energy, and resources dedicated to teaming should produce a tangible benefit to the students and staff in a school to make the investment worthwhile. The question frequently posed is, "Is this worth the effort?" In short the answer is yes, with a few qualifiers. Done well, teaming leads to improved work climate, increased parental contact, increased job satisfaction, and is associated with higher student achievement. (Flowers, Mertens, Mulhall, 1999) Many middle schools found that the move to teaming has accomplished these things and enhanced the work environment and student performance. Under these conditions it is understandable how a school would continue on this path of success. Other schools did not find this same level of success and were left frustrated and disillusioned. This leads to the question of what are the conditions necessary to accomplish improved outcomes for students and staff. Not all schools that "team" accomplish these same results.

Common team planning time is the single most significant factor in determining the level of implementation and the academic achievement gains shown by teams. Teachers need a dedicated period of time to work on team activities. The impact of common planning time was clearly illustrated in a study of 155 Michigan middle schools. This study (Flowers, Mertens, & Mulhall, 2000) compared schools that were teaming with high levels of common planning time (4 meetings per week of at least 30 minutes per session), low levels of common planning time, and no teaming. The findings were clear that teams with high levels of common planning time were engaged in more team practices at a statistically significant rate. They also found that team size and team continuity contributed to team effectiveness. Smaller teams engaged in more team activities than larger teams and the longer a team had been together the more they engaged in team activities. The variables of team size, high common planning time, and length of time a school has been teaming all contribute to the effectiveness of the practice of teaming. Teams with high common planning time also show the greatest gains in academic achievement (Flowers, Mertens, & Mulhall, 1999).

When a school is moving to a teaming model or reexamining an existing teaming model there are several crucial steps. The starting point is design, development, and resources. The first and most important aspect is a commitment to teaming for several years. The effectiveness of teams is shown to grow over time. A full evaluation of the effectiveness of teaming is not realistic in a short period of time. The next major area that needs attention is common planning time. It is clear that separate team planning time is a critical component of successful teaming (Flowers, Mertens, & Mulhall, 2000; Flowers, Mertens, & Mulhall, 1999; Felner, Jackson, Kasak, Mulhall, Brand, & Flowers, 1997). A schedule needs to be developed that accommodates a common planning time for teams that is separate from a teacher's individual planning time. Size of teams is another factor that will influence the effectiveness of a teaming model. Smaller teams produce more positive results and are involved in more team activities (Flowers, Mertens, & Mulhall, 2000). The success or failure of teaming in a school can be directly affected by the structure and design of the teaming model. Attending to common planning time, team size, and continuity will create dramatically different results.

Process and Development

The need for teaming at the middle school level has been clearly demonstrated. The next focus is how to implement and maintain teams that function effectively. Katzenbach & Smith (1993) share an excellent definition of a high performance team:

High-performance team: This is a small number of people with complementary skills who are equally committed to a common purpose, goals, and working approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable, and has members how are also deeply committed to one another's personal growth and success. (P.92)

Forming Teams

There is no proven method for how to select teams. A more objective approach will increase the likelihood of finding complementary skills and decrease the potential for perceptions of inequity of teams. Using learning style inventories, surveys that address instructional characteristics and approaches, or communication inventories to create teams with complementary skills is an important first step. As a team spends more time together they will begin to self-identify working norms and expectations. When a team needs to introduce a new member it is important the team be involved in the process of selection if at all possible and the hiring should be approached as an opportunity to enhance the team. When new members are introduced or teams re-formed a period of time reviewing and revising team operations and expectations needs to be incorporated.

Developing Purpose

Teams need time to develop their common purpose, goals and working approach. This time is created by common planning time, inservice days, and early release days, if a school is fortunate enough to have release time during the school year. Time needs to be set aside for team activities that lead to the creation of common purpose. Teams need to address more structural issues such as their schedule (fixed time, block schedule, or flexible schedule), communication with parents, team leadership, team meeting plan, and working with building support staff. Another significant area of work is team environment and expectations. Coming to agreement on student behavior and performance expectations, how to organize and group students, coordinating homework, projects, and assessments, and team activities all take time, communication, and planning. Teams also will need ongoing opportunities to discuss student learning and curricular issues. Student learning and curricular issues that need attention include integration of curriculum, team projects, differentiated curriculum and instruction, integration and use of technology, and service of special needs students. There is a continuum of team development that encompasses all of these areas and teams will need time to communicate, plan, address, and evaluate all of the various aspects of their team partnership.

Evaluation and Accountability

Teams need to identify goals and tools for evaluating the effectiveness of their performance. An intentional effort is required to insure that the functioning and performance of a team remain focused on the established goals and objectives. Dedicated time on a regular basis to review goals, student performance and behavior data, examine communication and decision-making, and other measures that the team selects such as student or parent surveys.


Teaming serves to enhance the dynamic point where teaching and learning, student and teacher, and content and learning experiences converge. Research shows that there are clear practices to enhance the effectiveness of teaming. It has also validated the positive effect teaming has on student achievement, school climate, and teacher morale. Schools now have available a body of evidence to guide their practice as they begin or renew their teaming practices at the middle level.



Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development (1989). Turning Points: Preparing American youth for the 21st century. New York, NY: The Carnegie Corporation.

Felner, R.D., Jackson, A.W., Kasak, D., Mulhall, P., Brand, S. & Flowers, N. (1997). The impact of school reform for the middle years: Longitudinal study of a network engaged in Turning Points-based comprehensive school transformation. Phi Delta Kappan, 78(7), 528-532, 541-550.

Flowers, N., Mertens, S.B., & Mulhall, P.F. (2000). What Makes Interdisciplinary Teams Effective?. Middle School Journal, 31 (4), 53-56.

Flowers, N., Mertens, S.B., & Mulhall, P.F. (1999). The Impact of Teaming: Five Research- Based Outcomes. Middle School Journal, 31 (2), 57–60.

Katzenbach, J.R., & Smith, D.K. (1993). The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers, Inc.

Kasak, D. (1998). Flexible Organizational Structures. Middle School Journal, 29 (5), 56–59.

National Middle School Association (1995). This We Believe: Developmentally Responsive Middle Level Schools. Columbus, OH: National Middle School Association.

Valentine, J.W., Clark, D.C., Irvin, J.L., Keefe, J.W., & Melton, G. (1993). Leadership in Middle Level Education, Volume 1: A National Survey of Middle Level Leaders and Schools. Reston, VA: National Association of Secondary School Principals.


About the Author:

Andrew Rogers is the principal of College Place Middle School in Lynwood, WA. You can contact him via email at


Copyright © June 2002 New Horizons for Learning, all rights reserved.

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