Written by Lisa Friscia
Diverse teams centered around a common goal perform better. That is true of any sector. In education, “performance” is more than a buzzword; it translates to the lives of children and so the stakes become even higher for us. They become higher still when coupled with a global pandemic unlike anything we have seen before in our lives. Building a strong team culture has to be a central part of our work and core to any contingency plan we create.
But how do we do so in schools that have long been such an in-person environment, where face-to-face collaboration is a core part of how we do our work? As school leaders, we have to intentionally center the ethos of collaboration into our remote work. These guiding questions provide clarity in maintaining a positive and collaborative adult culture.
What are the core values of your school?
What are your school goals for the year? The more that staff can see the “new” as an extension of what has always been true, the easier adaptation will feel.
How can I build opportunities for culture building within the prescribed day?
Many staff are balancing family responsibilities, such as child care or care for other family members in ways that they have not done so before. Having all of your culture building outside of the school day can present a challenge for those already struggling to balance child or family care with their workload. In addition, working from home can make it even more challenging for all of us to turn off- and rest is an important part of us all being able to run this marathon.
How do I leverage existing traditions, meetings, and professional development sessions to build culture?
It can be a challenge to not be in the same physical space. In addition, we want to make sure that we are leveraging times that already exist in a teacher’s day to build culture and joy, so that our culture building is a value-add rather than a time-add.
How do I translate the natural collaboration that happens in a shared space to the virtual space?
As staff, we see each other in the halls, at the copy machine, in the work room. So much collaboration and bonding happens organically. As you plan your remote school experience, how can you create intentional opportunities for conversation and collaboration?
How can I build opt-in opportunities for culture building outside of hours?
At the same time, we have many staff members who may be living alone or need a break from their loved ones. Creating times for (optional!) bonding can give us the connection we need to see our colleagues as people.
Our school and network leads have been incredible in translating how we build strong adult culture to the virtual space. Below are several tangible ideas they have developed to ensure their school communities are as supportive and strong as ever!
Increase connection– At Democracy Prep Charter High School, every meeting now begins with an energizer. This can be an ice breaker, like “Life in a bag” or Korean calisthenics (For context, we offer Korean as a foreign language!) At Democracy Prep Endurance Middle School, Principal Katherine Perez makes sure to highlight staff members, so that staff can celebrate the great individual accomplishments happening, even if they don’t get to see it.
Celebrate the wins and share gratitude– Our campus leaders have always included shout outs in staff meetings, but have been even more intentional in doing so! Another lovely practice? Shared scholar and family emails and texts that thank the school community. Seeing these individual texts and emails help the community know why we are working as hard as they are!
Be present in your meetings– The face-to-face is so important. We’ve established team norms that our cameras are on, so that we can see each other, and to minimize our tabs. This helps to build connections at a time where it is more needed than ever. Of course, we’re still figuring out how to adapt to the “Special Guest Appearances,” by our pets and family members!
Refocus Professional Development
Creating space for collaborative problem solving– At Harlem Prep High School, Principal Greg Daniel has refocused professional development so that teachers can collaborate on shared problems and concerns. This collaborative space empowers staff and sparks their natural creativity! Reimagining PD also communicates our dedication to our craft and our belief in our teammates’s creativity.
Showcase best practices– Teachers and school staff are incredibly creative and are innovating daily! Our leaders are creating space to identify best practices in remote learning and showcasing these in morning huddles, team meetings, and in staff PD.
Adapting to the Virtual Space
Increase opportunities for face-to-face interactions! Our leaders have increased the number of shorter huddles throughout the week, to ensure there is face-to-face communication. At Harlem Prep Middle, Principal Andre Geddes is using this time intentionally to reinforce emails with important information or, in some cases, reduce emails.
Plan for intentional collaboration within PD and meetings– Many staff members feel more comfortable sharing ideas and collaborating within smaller groups, increasing engagement. Leaders create space for this all the time during in-person PD! Leverage tech functionalities like Zoom’s breakout rooms to ensure that folks still have a space to process and discuss in smaller groups.
Create a shared experience– even if you don’t see each other! Having spirit days has been a great way for school leaders to connect the community. At Democracy Prep Baton Rouge, staff are invited to sport a shirt that highlights the social justice issue they care about. At Democracy Prep Charter Middle, Principal Nakita Green had such events as Dress Like A Meme Day (this may be my personal favorite!) At Harlem Prep Elementary, Kevin Shrum hosted a Swag Day and a Funny Hat day.
Move! Staff may be sitting much more than they usually do- working in a school requires a lot of movement! Democracy Prep Baton Rouge hosts optional daily music and stretch breaks at the beginning and mid-day for staff to move a bit!
Increase opportunities for feedback, and ensure a strong feedback loop– Our leaders are using brief weekly surveys with quick turn around to ensure they have a strong read of both bright spots and needs, and then quickly following up in individual check ins or team huddles.
Opt-in Bonding Activities
Trivia Evenings– At Democracy Prep Charter High School, Thursdays are Living Room Trivia. Having a consistent time and day for such events helps teammates plan better, and can be helpful when so much in our lives may be inconsistent.
Sharing Cooking Videos– At Harlem Prep Middle School, staff have been sharing cooking videos. The beauty of this is that staff can watch a time convenient for them!
Book Club– Some of our schools, like Democracy Prep Baton Rouge and Harlem Prep High School, are hosting book clubs. A less time intensive idea? Host an article club, where folks can discuss an article or two!
Virtual Board Games– Games like Scattergories, Taboo, and Code Names can translate to the virtual space. And you can access online Bingo cards, as well!
And remember, each staff member is going through a challenging time in ways that may not be visible. The challenge for any leader is to be intentional on building moments of joy and space to reinforce values, while honoring that folks may be dealing with challenges. To this, there are no easy answers. But the more we listen to our staff, both collectively and individually, the better our response will be.