Professional Learning: The Secrets of Skillful Team Leaders

Elisa B. MacDonald is the author of one of our favorite new books: The Skillful Team Leader: A Resource for Overcoming Hurdles to Professional Learning for Student Achievement (Corwin, 2013). It’s perfectly aligned with the partnership approach to professional growth that undergirds the Alabama Instructional Partners Pilot program and based on these five values: (1) Collaboration; (2) Shared Leadership; (3) Goal Setting and Attainment; (4) Rigorous Discourse; (5) Continuous Improvement.

We’re delighted that Elisa agreed to talk with ABPC’s Cathy Gassenheimer about the ideas found in The Skillful Team Leader. Elisa currently serves as the Director of Teacher Leader Development with the Teach Plus T3 Initiative where she oversees the training and development of coaches and teacher leaders in low performing urban schools across the nation. She has also been a teacher, a literacy coach, an assistant principal for instruction and an education consultant.

Elisa lives in Boston with her husband and four-year old twins. If you’d like to get in touch, she can be reached at: [email protected]


Cathy Gassenheimer: Elisa, many of the educators with whom we work spend some time coaching other adults. Some are full-time instructional coaches, others are instructional APs, some work for a school district or in our regional inservice centers (housed in higher ed institutions) or the State Department of Education. If you could share one major “aha” with them about effective instructional coaching, what would it be?

Elisa MacDonald: Whether it is your first year leading adults learners or your 20th, you are going to be confronted with hurdles and with dilemmas about how to respond. These hurdles come from people we care about, cultures we are proud to work within, and oftentimes from our­selves. Our approach to the hurdles determines how well we as leaders overcome them. A skillful approach is rooted in a leader’s values, mind­set, intelligence, and skill. Here are the key ideas behind each:

Values – As leaders we have an elevated, nuanced under­standing of five foundational values: collaboration, shared leadership, goal setting and attainment, rigorous discourse and continuous improvement, and we fully commit to putting them into practice. We do this not because someone else says we have to, but because we fundamentally believe they are essential for schools to make gains with students.

Mindset – As leaders we approach hurdles from a growth mindset with a belief that every learner (students and adults) can improve as can our own ability to lead them. When faced with resistance, this mindset keeps us focused on what we need to do to help the adults with whom we are working learn and potentially change, not look for reasons as to why they can’t.

Intelligence – The intelligence with which we approach our work is not IQ but EQ, emotional intelligence. As leaders of adults we are highly attuned to the emotions of those we lead and how our own emotional response can impact others. We manage these emotions with skill.

Skill – As leaders of adult learners we don’t react to hurdles, we skillfully respond. We identify the hurdle, explore possible causes within and beyond our control and thoughtfully respond using a combination of proactive, in the moment, and follow-up strategies. With practice, reflection, and collaboration with others we learn and get better at preventing hurdles and responding effectively when they do surface.

In short my “aha”: This work is hard. Stay rooted in your values and growth mindset; apply emotional intelligence and skill to each hurdle that comes your way and you will leap over them.

Cathy: I love the title of one of your chapters, “Alone Together: Overcoming Hurdles to Foster a High-Functioning, High-Impact Collaborative Team.” Can you summarize your team function impact matrix that is a part of this chapter?

Elisa: The Team Function, Impact Matrix is one of my favorite tools in the book and from what I have seen it has proven helpful to many teams. There is a lot of literature on improving teams and most speak of the importance of having a high-functioning team, often defined as one that was productive. I realized from my work with teams and team leaders, however, that function should not be the only criterion by which a team’s collaboration is measured.

Just as important as how a team collaborates is the measured impact the team’s collaboration has on student learning. This requires teams to take a close look at what they are collabo­rating about, their implementation of ideas, and the outcomes they achieve. The skillful team leader ensures his or her team is not only high functioning, but also high impact.

The Team Function, Impact Matrix illustrates four possible types of collaborative teams. Beginning in the top right quadrant and moving counterclockwise, they are:

Quadrant I: high functioning, high impact –This is of course the most desired state for a team’s collaboration. Members have a shared instructional purpose that is both high leverage and aligned to school and district goals. They utilize teaming tools such as agendas and group agreements to achieve that purpose. They have evidence that the result of their collaboration is improved student learning.

Quadrant II: high func­tioning, low impact – This team’s collaboration is deceiving to the untrained eye because it is extremely productive, yet what it produces yields little to no measurable gains for students. The team might stick to an agenda, but the desired outcomes on that agenda are low impact. For example: By the end of this meeting we will leave with a schedule for open house. They might even use a protocol to look at student data, but analysis does not lead to any change in instruction. The learning chal­lenges students faced when the team started collaborating remain unresolved.

Quadrant III: low functioning, low impact – Teams whose collaboration fall in this quadrant are at the polar opposite of the high functioning, high impact team. Members have such difficulty working together that even if they did all agree to focus on work that could improve student learning they can’t get past their low function.

Quadrant IV: low functioning, high impact – A team whose collaboration falls in this quadrant is peculiar in that they do not function well as a group and yet still manage to achieve team goals that advance student learning. Conflict, gossip, or withdrawal characterizes the behaviors of the team. Members struggle with the concept of interdependence. High performing individuals either work in isolation, fostering a team culture of “alone together,” or allow members to depend on them as the lone hero, tasked with accomplishing and sustaining the high-impact results for the team. In either case, the team’s low function discourages learning from one another or bettering each other’s instructional practice.

The Team Function, Impact Matrix provides a framework for teams to discuss how well they collaborate and where they need to improve. My book includes a supplemental resource that lists common indicators for each quadrant as well as strategies for becoming consistently high functioning, high impact. When using the Team Function Impact Matrix it is important to keep three points in mind:

Levels of collaboration may vary over time (e.g., a team may have high impact in one inquiry cycle and not another).

Teams often fall along a continuum on either axis (e.g., high functioning, moderate impact).

A team’s placement in the matrix is not fixed. With skillful team leader­ship, every team has the ability to evolve into a high-functioning, high-impact team.

Cathy: In chapter 4, you talk about “shared leadership for learning” and note that it “is more than distributing roles and responsibilities to a few individuals.” (p. 57). What else is it?

Elisa: ‘Shared leadership’ is one of those terms that is easy for everyone to say they believe in, but hard to put into action.

While distributing jobs like facilitator or notetaker may be enough for us to check off the box for shared leadership, it is insufficient. Yes, it spreads responsibility for the team’s function among team members, but it does not give teachers responsibility over their own and one another’s learning.

Sharing leadership for learning means teachers have an important role in instructional decisions and take ownership for their own and others’ learning. For instance, in a true shared leadership environment teachers are empowered to:

create short term goals for each inquiry cycle to reach their annual goal;

weigh in on selecting assessments that will best provide the information they need to track their progress toward their goals;

choose study materials to equip the team with the skills they need to succeed;

craft and revise action plans to meet the needs of their students;

host classroom observations;

model instructional strategies for colleagues;

decide how to adapt instruction when new data becomes available.

Shared leadership for learning also includes (and this pill can be a bit tougher to swallow) working with colleagues who seem unreceptive to learning. When a colleague pushes back, rather than saying, “that’s not my problem,” or throwing strategies at him in the hope that he will embrace one, we work with all team members to help him reach a place where he can learn what he needs to succeed.

Now, I realize approaching shared leadership in this way requires a deeper investment than being the timekeeper in a meeting. It brings up a lot of issues, particularly when members are not equally pulling their weight on a team or they exhibit different levels of willingness to learn and act. It can be exacerbated when there is the presence of a culture of dependency in the school – when a few become reliant on others to lead.

Schools operating in a culture of dependency typically harbor harmful beliefs about teachers and school leaders (i.e., teachers think school leaders are out of touch with what teachers and students need and are incapable of making good instructional decisions; school leaders think teachers lack the knowledge and perspective to make sound decisions).

These and other negative beliefs inform how much or how little a school embraces shared leadership. School leaders give teachers less responsi­bility for decision making and micromanage those responsibilities that they are given. Teachers, not having the trust of their leaders, refrain from stepping up to take the lead for fear of being reprimanded, shot down, blamed, or ignored. Simultaneously, teachers don’t trust the decision making of their school leaders and therefore share no responsibility for the outcomes of poor decisions. Mistrust abounds.

There is, however, a foundation of trust in schools where the principal, administrators and teachers take active roles in their own and each other’s learning. In these schools, sharing leadership is viewed as more than just dealing out roles that have little impact on instruction. Instead, all school members are expected to push one another’s learning and practice.

WHAT’S NEXT: In Part 2 of our conversation, Elisa MacDonald talks about the hurdles that can arise for teams who function in a “scapegoat” school culture; why it’s important for teams to engage in “rigorous discourse” (and what that means), and how resistance to change can become an opportunity for learning and testing the soundness of our plan to improve.