Group Dynamics That Damage

One thing I love about attending conferences is being exposed to different perspectives and views. I remember attending sessions and sharing ideas while serving as a district specialist for Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools. There were so many times that I went in feeling like “we have so much work to do in Charlotte” and through talking to other district support staff I was able to shift my perspective. We had done so much good work. Yes, we still had a way to go, but we were not at the starting line with everything.

I have been thinking about factors that influence professional learning settings. At a major conference, I notice that overall people are invested in the sessions they commit to attending. You don’t see large groups traveling to sessions together and assuming specific unwritten roles. This may be because schools cannot afford to send whole teams of teachers from one grade level. More often than not, you leave some of the team behind. When big teams are afforded the opportunity, employing a “divide and conquer” strategy helps to ensure that you don’t miss anything. With this, teams do not travel together.

Team dynamics seem to play a different role when professional learning is on a smaller scale. Imagine a PD taking place at your school. All teachers are required to attend. Close your eyes and picture it…

What do you see? Do you see the people coming in and saving seats for their teammates? Do you see strategic table selection to ensure your team has the option to either engage fully (if the presenter and content are “good”) or check out (which could be related to a number of reasons)?

Allow me to play a scene out for you:

Kaneka enters the media center and heads for a table on the perimeter (she hates to be closed in) yet one that allows full view of the presentation. She is settled when her team enters.

Teammates: Why are you so close?  “Let’s sit in the back!”

Kaneka: I am new to this I need to hear every word.

Teammates: Ok be antisocial, that’s fine.

Kaneka: Okay, I will join you guys back there. I guess I can see from there too.

As the session starts and Kaneka’s teammates are worked up over a recent email that just came through about progress reports. Kaneka hasn’t seen the email. Her phone is in her purse. The table is buzzing and Kaneka is struggling to hear the presentation. She gets anxious as the presenter looks at the table.

Kaneka is torn. She is worried about the details of the email too but she really needs this professional learning. Will she be called out for the sidebars?

What’s a teammate to do?

I have been here as the teammate who distracts, the teammate who is trying to participate and the facilitator who is trying to determine what is going on and how she can help. None of the roles are easy. They all seem to be rooted in something real for each party involved.

How do we advocate for our learning in the face of well defined, yet unspoken team roles? The person who had been there the longest may call the shots. The teacher known for getting the highest scores may never be addressed for choosing not to engage in PD.

The classroom dynamics that our students face mirror those we face as teachers in professional earning environments.  I am facilitating a lot of professional learning these days and I see some form of this dynamic in every session. What are the moves we make to support these challenges? To what degree do we turn the responsibility of managing this on teachers and leaders? How do we navigate such unsettling spaces without damaging relationships?

Unlike a conference, “choice” is often eliminated in a mandatory after-school professional learning setting. Adult learners have to be there. They may need what you are offering and they may not, but everyone must attend.

So what do I do in these delicate situations? First I pray, then I act. Some of my moves that are not gospel but have proven to be successful are noted below:

“If you feed them, they will soften”

We never know the circumstances that bring a teacher to a PD. Some want to be there and other have to be there. Some want to “be there” but are so preoccupied with life that they cannot. You have their bodies in the room but their minds are a million miles away. No matter what the internal storyline holds candy makes things a little better and CHOCOLATE can redeem a soul. I always try to have candy for teachers. It seems to communicate my appreciation for their time and energy. It also says “I come in peace”.

“Stop and honor the elephant”

Sometimes you catch wind of the elephant in the room. Often times learners (adults and students alike) want to know that what they are worried about matters to you. As a facilitator, I try not to make my agenda the most important agenda in the room. Taking a moment to speak into the issue ailing a group can buy you points and shift the winds in a session. This is a dangerous move that can blow up in your face, so be careful. I have been known to say something like:

“I know you guys just learned that you have been given a day off in light of the pending teacher walkout and that this is going to require rearranging not only your professional schedules but your personal schedules. We have about _____ minutes left in this segment and I will be sure to include a short ___ processing break to give you time to process this with your teammates. How does that sound?

I have also been known to stop and give people a minute to process the elephant, with the agreement that we will resume in 5-10 minutes. It’s works sort of like in the classrooms when students see the first snow. You can try to teach through it, but they are not with you. You might as well take a moment and let them process.

“Learn your audience”

I often start sessions with some form of a get to know you. There are so many people who just hate this! I am not one of them but I respect the sentiment. In light of this, I try to keep these activities short and purposeful. When I ask for the number of years you have been teachers (often done in a poll) or the position you hold, I am gathering information about the group in service of session adjustments I may need to make. It also helps me to navigate room dynamics. There are a few things that people say that can be subtle messages to the whole group. (None of this should be over generalized)

“This is my first year teaching 7th grade math and I have been teaching for 20 years” 

Potentially hidden message: Be gentle with me, I am headed into new territory and I am not feeling so secure about it.

“I have been teaching math in this county for 9 years, endured two curriculum changes, 2 principals, and 3 superintendent appointments”

Potentially hidden messages: Ask me anything, I know this place well, or I am not quite buying what you are selling but I will be polite…maybe.

“I teach SpEd, all grades and 3 subjects”

This can mean a lot of things. Here lately it has communicated how stretched the teacher is feeling and I have taken this as a request to be conscious when partnering and asking teachers to engage.

I can speak to the facilitator moves but I am still wondering about the moves we make while participating in the professional learning. What makes this hard? How do you participate? How does it impact others?  What is your responsibility in the learning exchange? To what degree do formal team or session norms influence this dynamic?  What is the role that district leaders, teacher leaders, and building leaders play in this dynamic?

I welcome your thoughts and thank you so much for stopping by.





One thought

  1. Very well stated! Two thoughts: regardless of the situation when we are participants, we should exhibit professional respect and view ourselves as learners rather than experts.

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