Getting to “We:” Why High Performance Teams are Needed to Meet the Challenges of Reopening Schools During COVID-19

By Andrea Schanbacher, Jennifer Dale, Lynne Mainzer, and Marilyn Muirhead

 

A few terms emerged over the last six months within families, among friends, in television, and across social media related to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic: “new normal,” “unprecedented,” “we’re in this together.” Their frequent and widespread use has been somewhat comforting because it has fostered the sense of camaraderie  while facing the unknown, and nurtured a belief that “we” would work together to successfully meet the challenges of the pandemic. 

As months went by, a plethora of plans to mitigate catastrophic risks and keep individuals healthy, people employed, and students learning were generated by political, health, social, economic, and educational organizations. The “we”  became better defined as these plans crystallized with goals, timelines, actions, and roles for those responsible for implementation. 

However, transformative understandings about the virus continued to unfold, resulting in substantial, frequent changes in most plans. As changes multiplied, confusion and angst heightened.

One explicit understanding discerned from reports of tests, cases, outbreaks, and fatalities triggered even more alarm: COVID-19 data was not stable It was “data in motion.” The ongoing volatility required rapid changes to plans and nurtured tensions and fears among educators and parents. A surfeit of disagreements arose around how best to modify these plans. 

The once unified “we” was cracking under the pressure of opposing, intense opinions. These dissident voices resounded throughout newspaper articles, social media postings, and television interviews, particularly in response to the opening of schools during the pandemic. 

Regrettably, this turbulent atmosphere that began months ago continues to envelope educators as they struggle to develop and implement reasonable plans for opening schools. Outbreak rates continue to surge, flatten, and rise again within states and counties. Almost daily, new scientific findings unfold, influencing decisions around school openings and exacerbating tensions between the public health risks and the effects of online learning on academic and developmental learning — especially for young learners. 

Just days away from school openings, many districts still grapple with questions about the best way for students to return to school. Will the choice be in-person learning, remote learning, or a hybrid strategy that combines the two approaches? 

The answers are layered in complicated considerations, such as the need among parents for childcare, traditional beliefs in what school is, financial resources, public health, and political mindsets. Nonetheless, administrators and teachers are responsible for quickly generating answers and plans that promote academic and developmental growth for all students, including those with disabilities amid the pandemic.

Furthermore, these plans for opening schools, as well as others that evolve, require flexibility in case urgent public health situations arise that require immediate changes in procedures. They also need to align and interface with existing, consequential plans, such as those targeted to close achievement gaps, increase inclusion, reduce suspension rates, improve graduation rates, promote literacy, and increase results for all students on state assessments. 

Predictably, if state, district, and school strategic plans dovetail with their sweeping pandemic plans, complexities and implementation barriers will lessen. Accepting this premise calls for leaders to be equipped with strategies that promote cohesion and successful execution of multiple plans, pandemic risks and chaos notwithstanding. 

It demands they garner resources within their school or departments and establish structures and procedures strong enough to handle the exigent demands of pandemic plans. It requires establishing an infrastructure of linked implementation teams who are committed, flexible, and able to mobilize and execute actions that produce intended outcomes across multiple plans. It means leaders need to find ways to get to “we” despite the clamor of opposing voices.

One efficient way to get to “we” is to establish high performance teams. Far too often, leaders assign individuals to teams without ensuring there are principles and processes in place to make sure they are well-functioning. What results is a team in name only or, in other words, a work group. 

This structure is too loosely coupled and lacks the solidarity necessary among its members to successfully meet the intense challenges educators face today. Rather, high performance teams provide a substantial structure that optimizes the strength of individuals and the team to generate ample force to realize their goals despite thorny barriers. 

At their core, high performance teams are driven by the principle of positive interdependence, which is understood and actualized by all its members. It is manifested by a shared belief among members to build on each others’ strengths and maintain a high commitment toward effectively mobilizing actions to reach identified missions and goals. 

This understanding is central to a program at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education Center for Technology in Education (JHU CTE) called Dynamic Impact. Dynamic Impact utilizes the power of high performance teaming to propel continuous improvement processes in order to reduce implementation barriers and execute action plans successfully. 

Team members learn how to collaborate as a high performing team capable of tackling complicated implementation issues. Dynamic Impact includes a powerful protocol especially designed to move a group to a high level of team performance. This protocol — called UNITED — provides step-by-step actions to get to “we.” 

Team members learn the principle of positive interdependence, not just in theoretical terms, but in authentic practice. Together, members unveil their beliefs, vision, and mission. They delineate operating standards, identify goals, and commit to high performance. They put processes into place for determining how well they worked together as a team and how effective they were in realizing their mission. 

These processes are streamlined and advance a team to “we” rapidly. Once a team is a “we,” they are united with an esprit de corps and ready to take on challenges, including that of opening schools during a pandemic. More than likely, without this intense level of teaming, many school teams will fall short of realizing their goals. Consequently, it is important that leaders take the extra and essential step to get their school teams to “we,” so implementation of the varied and multiple plans produces their intended outcomes. 

For more information on Dynamic Impact, email Jennifer Dale at jdale@jhu.edu.