Do you know how you fit into your teaching team? And how do we build an effective teaching team? On any given day you could find Cornelius talking about members of the Justice League or The Avengers. And in a sense he still is on today’s podcast. Cornelius is helping us think through how we assemble our teacher teams by looking to superhero teams. Much like members of The Avengers, our teaching teams all have different strengths, and how we apply those strengths matters to helping build a successful team.
Today we’re talking about the importance of working together as educators. While that might seem obvious, there are a lot of layers to getting it right. Cornelius thinks about this a lot in his PD work, but it wasn't until a student asked him if all of his co-teachers lived together that it got him thinking more deeply:
See below for a full transcript of our conversation:
Cornelius: It was kind of a weird situation. You know that myth where all the kids think that the teachers live in the school? Well, we were walking home one day, like clearly demonstrating that we don't all live in the school, and it was me and three of my co-teachers were walking home one day, and we all live in the same apartment building. And so this kid, Izzy, ran into us, and Izzy was like, "Wait. Do you all live in the same place?" And we're like, "No, Izzy, teachers don't all live in the same ... but we kinda do." And so it was this weird situation where were totally supporting the stereotype that all your teachers live together. But you know, it's a funny thing that as a young teacher, I just had so many problems. Like gosh, as a decently seasoned teacher, I still got a lot of problems. But one of the things that helped me through the first six years was really being in close proximity to my friends. I remember I came out of school with my friend Steve, and we were kind of looking for places to live, and we're like, "Man, it'd make a lot more sense if we were just close by." Because then you can go over there and cry when you've had a bad day. You can steal lunch meat for your sandwich.
And as I think about the work that I do with teachers now, and I'm not advocating that you move in with all of your colleagues, but I think that it is important that as teachers we have close-knit communities, and that we invest time in actually building those close-knit communities; that this is work that can't happen without a team. We say that all the time, and there are so many cliches that we use to personify team, but then I think what becomes hard is the active labor of building a team.
And so when I think about part of what makes a good teacher, you know there's the lesson design, and there's the having the great rapport with kids, but I think one attribute that makes a great teacher is the ability to constitute a team. And so I've tried to kind of think about, like when I go to talk to other teachers, how am I teaching them, yes about curriculum, how am I teaching them about reading and writing? But also, how am I leaving a little bit with them for how to build an effective team? And all of this for me is just stuff that's fallen together when I look at my own team, actually. It's now, gosh, more than 10 years later, and I still live next door to two of my co-teachers. And now we're raising children together. Like I've got my kids and they go next door and they play with her kids.
And that's an exciting thing to me, and so I think one of the first things that we have to do when we think about building team, identifying the things that we're really good at. So to kind of extend that Avengers metaphor, everybody knows their role, man. Like you need the smart guy that's gonna stay at the base and tell you where the bad guys are. And then you need the person who's gonna go out and do all of the smashing. And you don't want to play both positions. You want somebody who can specialize. And so I think whenever I talk to teachers about building a team, one important thing is that initial honesty that you kind of say, "I'm the one that's good at word study. Like for all of us, I got the word study." Or, "I'm the one that's really good at thinking about how we're gonna get kids to try big things in writing workshop." And so then every person kind of checks in with their thing, and so that's one thing that I like to teach teachers. Even when we sit in meetings, or in staff development, I want to ask or recruit from the group, "What are our superpowers here? Like, who's got the vocabulary? Who's got the really cool writing strategies? Who's got the math stuff?"
And then the second thing that I think is really, really important in building a team is designing your time. And that's kind of the annoying thing, because none of us have any time. None of us. So designing the time requires great sacrifice. So the first thing you're doing as a team after you've identified your superpowers, is you're actually making a sacrifice together that we're gonna commit to a specified amount of time together, and here's how that time is gonna go. Whenever I'm inviting teachers to work together, the first thing I ask them is for seven minutes. I'm like, "If you can give each other, not even me, but if you can give each other seven minutes a week, I promise that you all are gonna be amazing."
Brett: That's pretty good, seven minutes.
Cornelius: Yeah, seven minutes. And I'm really clear about what they should be doing. I always try to think about ... in seven minutes you want to spend your first minute or two just checking in. And not complain time, but check in. Because complain time could easily be 70 minutes. But that you check in, and what you're doing is a status check. You're doing a status check of the work, and a status check of how you're feeling. But that's really, really important. Like when you think about school buildings and how they work sometimes, very rarely do people ask how you're doing and then they stick around and listen.
Brett: How can we put a safeguard there to say when you're saying, "How are you doing", how do we keep that away from diving into complaining, because that can easily shift.
Cornelius: Yeah. And complaining is healthy. I complain a lot. Like complain, complain.
Brett: And you need to.
Cornelius: Yeah. And complaining is really healthy, but in the seven minutes time, what I ask them to do is the status check should be nouns. Because once you get into verbs, you gotta keep talking. But the status check should be this. So, this unit, noun, is going well. Or this student is experiencing some movement. So, noun. So I want to talk about the big nouns of our work. Because when we start talking about the big verbs of our work, things get really tricky. So, this teaching, this word study, that's when things get really tricky. And so to keep it just safe at seven minutes, like I'm the first, just kind of check in, how are we doing? And then the rest of the seven minutes, we just think about where's there space in the stuff that we've already planned, or in the stuff that I've planned that can assist support for their check-in. And so if I name that this student is progressing, or if I name that I don't know if this student is making the progress that I want them to make, or if I name that this unit is going well, then somebody else in the circle can be like, "Oh, I've got something that can add to that unit." Or, "Oh, we've made something that can add to the unit."
One of the things that surprises me all the time is how much stuff I've got in my pockets that can help my friends. You know, that my friends will be talking about a thing, and I'm like, "Oh. I've got something like in my pocket." Or, "I've got something like that on my iPad." So, but that we take the time to actually listen, because if I don't listen, I don't know that I can share it. And really, that's what the seven minutes is about, is just that quick status check, and what do those of us in the circle or those of us on the team, what do we have in our pockets that can help? So not, what can we make? Because it'll take us more than seven minutes to make.
When you look at teacher teams, we all do so much work, that if we're just honest with each other about, "Hey, here's what I got. It might help you. Might not be perfect, you can tweak it a little bit, but here's what I got."
And so, that's kind of the recipe. So I ask people, if you do that seven minutes a week, you'll find yourself in infinitely better position to feel relaxed, to feel successful, to feel at ease in the job. And again, team helps. We don't have to invest a lot.
The last thing I think about when I think about team is then the longer stuff. And it's the interpersonal maintenance. It's the happy hours after school, it's the baby showers, it's the, "I'm gonna call you on a random Friday just to check up on you because you looked a little weird on Thursday." So it's all of that stuff, and what I ask is ... and we kind of try to switch it up, and I do it in a really deliberate way at first, but then I work with teachers, as the relationships progress, they do it in a more organic way ... after the first few professional development cycles, or after the first few teacher meetings, I always ask, "Can you get somebody's number in the room and call them a week from now just to check up on them?" Like, "We just had a meeting about word study, so a week from now, I want you to call your person, and just ask them how they're doing with the word study. Just like, 'How you doing?'" And what's gonna happen, is they're gonna talk about life, and that's those longer conversations.
Brett: Those conversations mean so much.
Cornelius: Yeah, they mean so much. And that somebody would think to call you. There are so many times where I wish somebody would call me and ask, you know, something.
Brett: Well, you're shy to reach out. You've got this thing on your shoulders, but you don't know who to reach out to or how to reach out. So to have that invitation makes a huge difference.
Cornelius: And so to do that, it's not a judgment thing, it's just a reaching out thing. And what I've found is usually, if I orchestrate the first few, teachers will just start organically doing the others. And so if you're thinking about leadership in your own school building, one thing that you might do is, "Hey, after we've done some professional study together, everybody check in on somebody else a week from today." But plan who you're gonna check in on. Like, "Everybody, we're gonna trade names, we're gonna trade email addresses." But who you're checking in with a week from now, you check in with that person, and then it's the beginning of something big.
When I think about all of the professional progress that we celebrate, when I think about all of the heroes that we have, the social progress that we've made, all of it is on the back of intimate partnerships - that no one does anything alone.
Cornelius: For every hero, there's a posse of friends in the back, like really looking out.
Brett: Avengers assemble.
Cornelius: There it is.
Learn more about Cornelius Minor at Heinemann.com and download a sample chapter of his latest book below!
Cornelius Minor is a frequent keynote speaker for and Lead Staff Developer at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. In that capacity, he works with teachers, school leaders, and leaders of community-based organizations to support deep and wide literacy reform in cities (and sometimes villages) across the globe. Whether working with teachers and young people in Singapore, Seattle, or New York City, Cornelius always uses his love for technology, hip-hop, and social media to recruit students’ engagement in reading and writing and teachers’ engagement in communities of practice. As a staff developer, Cornelius draws not only on his years teaching middle school in the Bronx and Brooklyn, but also on time spent skateboarding, shooting hoops, and working with young people.
You can follow Cornelius on Twitter @MisterMinor