Learning environment

Team leadership: creating a collaborative learning environment


Most schools have a bureaucratic hierarchical structure. The head of the establishment monitors performance, communicates information, maintains structure, oversees consistency of results and ensures that standards are met. Routine, compliance and consistency of practice create a stable organizational structure and clear work processes.

Despite its effectiveness, the control and stability associated with hierarchical school environments can lead to stagnation and lack of innovation as teachers become isolated in their classrooms. Teachers are often individually busy with daily tasks and are reluctant to invest time and effort in team learning. Teachers may find it difficult to leave isolated classes to share ideas and ideas about their practice with colleagues or even to criticize the work of other teachers.

Why team leadership

A team leadership approach is imperative to create a collaborative learning environment that leads to a shift in attitude from the personal “I” to the collective “us”. A team approach to school management promotes participation, teacher involvement, open communication and shared goals. It is particularly relevant at the secondary level where departmental allegiance is privileged. Teachers often form collegial relationships within the same department, develop a distinctive identity, create a unique environment, and identify closely with teachers teaching the same subject.

A team approach requires a jump to work behind a closed classroom door and supports collaboration between teachers from different departments. He encourages team members to bring their expertise and skills and to map their knowledge together. The team’s collective knowledge base is broadened, islands of expertise are created, shared mental models are developed and untapped resources are used.

Building collective trust

Collaborative environments do not emerge organically. Creating a team does not guarantee that collaboration will take place as collaboration depends on the collective trust of team members. Otherwise, teachers might feel vulnerable and, instead of collaborating, they would take a position of self-protection. Lack of trust would alienate teachers and force them to stay in their classrooms.

Collaboration deprivatizes teaching practices and promotes common goals. It capitalizes on the expertise of teachers when they learn together, building knowledge collaboratively and collectively. Collaboration reduces teacher isolation and allows teachers to monitor their own performance as well as that of their colleagues to provide assistance, when needed. Mutual performance monitoring will be promoted, behavior that depends on interpersonal trust, in order to reduce the likelihood that the team will experience a diffusion of accountability.

Dealing with unique contexts

It is important to recognize that teaching and learning are distinct and situational, and that each teacher’s classroom represents a unique context. Team leadership supports the diverse skills, needs, goals, perspectives and expectations of independent teachers while connecting teamwork to the overall goals of the organization. The team, functioning as a learning community, must maintain a loose boundary by sharing their knowledge with teachers from other departments and aligning their work with how the school operates.

Successful teams can:

  • acquire knowledge and new skills that result from the shared experience of team members
  • perform interrelated tasks
  • effectively monitor their performance
  • dynamically adapt to various demands
  • apply conflict resolution practices

However, the school leader must balance the team approach with responsibility. Hierarchy should not be abandoned in favor of an exclusive focus on a team approach. A focused pursuit that addresses what team leadership “means and doesn’t mean,” as shown in the table below, would simultaneously capitalize on the strengths of hierarchical and collaborative cultures.

Ways Does not mean
  • Teamwork and innovation
  • Collaboration and participation
  • Collective decision making
  • Support and trust
  • Shared vision and common goals
  • Professional growth
  • Interdepartmental coordination
  • Disclosure of responsibility
  • Loss of stable structure
  • Elimination of liability
  • Neglecting content or reviews
  • Uninformed risk taking

The hope is to embed teamwork into the fabric of the school to ensure continuous improvement at the individual, collegial and organizational levels through an ethic of care, support and respect.

Written by Elissar Gerges, contributing writer from the world of education

Elissar has more than 10 years of experience as professor of AP and IBDP biology and head of department of biology. She holds a Masters of Science in Education from Walden University, a Masters of Education in Curriculum and Teacher Development Studies from the University of Toronto, and a Doctorate in Education. (EdD) in Educational Leadership, K-12 from Western University, Canada.

Elissar’s research focuses on learning communities, team leadership, instructional leadership, and the integration of citizenship into science education. She is a strong advocate for science media education to enable all students, as active citizens, to critically assess science in the media in order to make informed decisions.

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