Being on middle grades team can be the best of times or, unfortunately, the worst of times. When teammates click and are both congenial and collegial (Read Roland Barth’s article on this topic), a team is unstoppable in helping their students learn. However, when one teammate is unwilling or unable to work collaboratively, the enthusiasm and effectiveness of the other members of the team is often eroded. Collaboration slowly grinds to a halt and students suffer.
Build healthy relationships with teammates just as you would with students. It takes time and a genuine interest in order to forge these relationships. Taking a few minutes to check in with each other at the beginning of common planning time is well worth the time.
Assume positive intentions on everyone’s part. Sometimes a conversation can clear up underlying issues. You might try this activity as a team (I think I first heard about this strategy from Chris Stevenson, a middle level guru.):
- Gather everyone together in a neutral space–off campus if possible–snacks and libations make for a relaxed and non-threatening situation.
- Ask each team member to list 3 behaviors they would really appreciate from their teammates.
- Then ask them to list one non-negotiable item about team work–that one thing that really annoys them. For example, I used to hate it when teammates brought work to correct to common planning time. It was obvious that we didn’t have their full attention for team matters. I especially hated hearing sarcasm about kids or a teammate’s ideas.
- Compare the the lists of 3 behaviors and look for commonalities. Write those items down and agree to use them as your working conditions.
- Then look at your non-negotiables together. It is important that folks remain very respectful during this conversation. Practice your paraphrasing skills and ask your teammates to “please tell me a little bit more about your thinking” !
- The combination of the non-negotiables and common behaviors identified from the lists of 3 become your best working conditions (BWC).
- Revisit and reflect on how you are doing as a team in adhering to your BWC regularly. I observed a leadership team that took time at the end of each meeting to reflect on how they did. They were one of the highest functioning teams I have ever seen because they paid attention to their process. They made sure everyone had voice, was treated respectfully, and that each decision was made in a thoughtful manner.
Six Types of Difficult People
Sometimes, unfortunately, conversations do not solve the problem. Relationships on middle grades teams can be tricky, especially for the team leader. Often our colleagues are also our personal friends outside of school. Collaboration can stress these friendships. Turning to experts in the field of dynamics in the workplace is helpful. One of my favorite sites is BlueSuitMom.com. One of the pages on this site is entitled “Dealing With Difficult People” by Laura Benjamin. She identifies 6 types of difficult people and offers sage advice on how to deal with them:
- Don’t back down, but be respectful. I disagree and here’s why…. You may have to rehearse — find a friend who will play the bully and practice what you might say.
- Do something unexpected which disrupts the rhythm of the conversation. Knock a stack of papers waiting to be corrected over or go get a drink of water. Disrupting the flow of the conversation with an unexpected act makes redirecting the discussion easier.
- Don’t hold a grudge–as soon the person shows respect, put forth a friendly comment.
The Constant Complainer
- Ask for specifics. You’re saying that Sally and Joey never do their homework and are impossible to work with. Well, let’s assemble some statistics on their missing assignments in all of their classes.
- Direct the conversation to problem solving. OK, we have the information on Sally and Joey. Now let’s look for patterns–are there specific types of assignments that don’t come in like writing or texts based? Then we can narrow the problem down to something specific.
- Don’t agree with them just to get them to stop complaining–that will only validate their behavior. Go back to asking for specifics and suggestions for how the team can work to resolve the problem.
- Use the same open ended questioning techniques you use with students–why? how?
- Use wait time (again just like with students) — don’t fill the void with your chatter or solutions.
- Be direct about how your are interpreting his/her silence. You seem upset with the direction we are headed….
- When s/he does contribute, be attentive.
The Over Promiser, but I Never Deliver–Super-Agreeable
- Build a genuine relationship with this person so s/he feels valued.
- Be sure the team divides the work up evenly; don’t let this person over commit.
Princes or Princesses of Negativity
- Avoid win/lose battles with them.
- Appoint them the team’s reality checkers. This is an important role if it helps the team attend to details it might miss otherwise.
- Ask them to give specific examples rather than just making BIG statements.
- Take time as a team to celebrate little successes (with yourselves and with the students).
The Expert–Know-It All
- Do your research–estimates will only feed this person’s belief that everyone else is incompetent.
- Help them consider other alternatives with statements that begin I wonder if or We’ve looked at the issue from this perspective, what if we looked at it from the students’ or parents’ point of view?
- Be respectful of his/her points and paraphrase to make sure you understand. Help me understand exactly what you mean when you say..
- Share your information, but avoid one-upping the person.
Be sure to read the entire article. Benjamin offers more ideas and insights: http://www.bluesuitmom.com/career/management/difficultpeople.html
Other sites you might find helpful: