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This document has been archived because some of the information it contains may be out of date. (Effective June 2009)

What's Working and What's Not for Your Team?

By Jennifer York-Barr, Gail Ghere, and Jenny Sommerness

If collaborative teamwork is an essential ingredient for inclusive education, why isn’t it standard practice in most schools? Teams can be a source of great energy, creativity, and support for educators – resulting in a high quality education for students. Teams can also be a source of great energy drain and frustration. Working on a team has the potential to both enhance and impede practice.

What does it take to work well as a team? The Framework for Analyzing Team Effectiveness (see figure) can be used to reflect on what’s working and what’s not for many different kinds of teams, such as student-specific teams, grade level teams or special education teams. It can also be used to guide the formation of new teams. There are six components in the framework. Following is a description of each component with related questions to guide reflection and planning for team effectiveness.

Purpose: What and Why?

Purpose is the foundation upon which effective teams are built. The purpose is the reason a team exists and is what gives meaning for its members. Meaning drives motivation and effort. A primary motivator for educators is student growth.

Purpose is operationalized by establishing specific outcomes or goals toward which team members can focus their energy and contribute their expertise. Too often, team members are not clear about the purpose or expected outcomes for their work. In reflecting on a team’s purpose, consider the following questions:

People: Who?

People are the essence of effective teams. The greatest resource for learning is within and among the individuals who reflect, create, and work together. Involvement increases ownership and a sense of responsibility for outcomes. Joined by common purpose, strong relationships and different strengths among team members create interdependence to enhance goal achievement. In reflecting on the people component of effective teamwork, consider the following questions:

Strategies and Skills: How?

Strategies and skills are the means by which team members productively learn and work together to accomplish team goals. Strategies are the ways of approaching group process; for example, the steps involved in generating ideas, analyzing problems, understanding conflicts, making decisions, and planning for action. Skills are the ways of thinking and behaving that promote effective communication, such as dialogue, listening, paraphrasing, using nonjudgmental language, asking questions, balancing input, and assuming positive intentions on the part of other team members. Difficulties experienced by teams sometimes result from a lack of opportunity to learn about and practice effective strategies and skills. Consider the following questions:

Structure and Resources: Support?

Structures and resources are the tangible supports for getting the work done. The primary structure required is the opportunity to meet as a team. Related to this are resources such as additional personnel, funds to purchase materials or to attend staff development opportunities, space, and equipment. Reflection questions for analyzing team structure and resources include:

Context: Where?

Context refers to the surrounding conditions that influence team effectiveness. Context is often overlooked because it is viewed as existing outside the boundaries of the team. Realistically, however, it significantly affects what happens within the team and what can be accomplished by a team. Even effective teams can hit a ceiling if their work is not supported in the larger school context. There are two major and inter-related context variables: school culture and leadership. For example, if there is a history of punishing initiation or failed attempts at improvement, a culture of low trust develops and team members are not likely to engage in the creative thinking and risk-taking required to address complex problems. Context can also involve power and politics not readily apparent at the team level. Here are some questions to reflect on context and its potential influence on teams:

Results: So What?

Results are the products and outcomes of the teamwork. Results are what sustains the interest and energy of the team members. Results can be intrinsic and extrinsic and include outcomes for students as well as outcomes related to team effectiveness. Reflecting on the following questions can assist in gauging progress toward results:

Tying It All Together

The absence of any one of these six components inhibits team effectiveness. Without shared purpose and meaning, there is no reason for expending effort. Without key people, expertise and ownership for accomplishing goals are missing. Without process strategies and communication skills, the potential for learning and for addressing issues is lost. Without structure and resources, team members are blocked from doing their work. Without a supportive context, the conditions are insufficient for taking the risks inherent in team learning and trying new ways of doing things. And, without results, team members will eventually disengage from the process – first psychologically and then physically.

Embracing the many opportunities and challenges facing today’s educators requires learning together and coming up with new ways of thinking about and engaging in practice. Teamwork is the key energy source for learning and continuous improvement. High functioning teams, however, do not just happen. They emerge from intentional design and development efforts.

Jennifer York-Barr is Associate Professor of Educational Policy and Administration, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. She may be reached at 612/625-6387 or Gail Ghere is a Project Coordinator and Jennifer Sommerness is a Research Assistant at the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota. They may be reached at 612/626-0890.


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Citation: Gaylord, V., Vandercook, T., and York-Barr, J. (Eds.). (2003). Impact: Feature Issue on Revisiting Inclusive K-12 Education, 16(1) [online]. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration. Available from


The print design version (PDF, 580 K, 32 pp.) of this issue of Impact is also available for free, complete with the color layout and photographs. This version looks the most like the newsletter as it was printed.

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