The daughter of a manicurist at a local Orange County nail salon was visiting her mom at work. She overheard that I had been a teacher and a principal, picking this up from parlor chatter — a charming cultural overlay to having nails done. Julie came right over to engage me in conversation during my manicure. Her mother had told me she loves school. As a fifth grader, she turned out to be a great conversationalist. (Her real name was Tuyen, she mentioned later.)
When I asked Julie what subjects she liked best, she answered science and math. She said she studies hard and wants to be a doctor. She also added that she likes to work alone. In her class, she further explained, their teacher sometimes requires students to work in teams. “I’d rather work alone,” she explained. Julie also said the kids call her a “nerd.” My suggestion was to ignore them. As an English-learner, here only two years, she then needed the definition of ignore. (She knew what a nerd was through context.)
As we continued our discussion, I asked her what she did not like about team work.
She mentioned that some of the kids on the team don’t do their work and the whole team suffers. That was a reasonable reply. In a graduate class at UCLA in the 80s, three of our group (of four) objected to our team project grade. We had been penalized by the non-participation of Greg. The result was a project three-fourth’s complete, and a commensurate team grade. Could we have made Greg do his share? Should we have done his assigned tasks for him? The professor understood, and assigned a grade that reflected our work.
How can we involve our little “Julies” in successful teamwork, which is invariably part of school programs?
Try to form teams with complementary skills, so the final product reflects the hard work of young citizens of varying talents. Balance your work teams. Acknowledge the contributions of individual team members from time to time, and state the project was successful due to various efforts.
To develop teams, conduct team-building activities. Find twelve tips for successful teams at this web site. You have the skills to modify these tips so they apply to school teams. For example, empowering is one of the ideas presented. Empower young people by letting them make decisions about the goals they want to attain in a project, how their team will operate, and how the results will be reported — orally, a written report, a power point presentation — whatever suits the strengths and wishes of the group. Empowering students is one of the 40 Developmental Assets shown by the Search Institute to foster student growth.
The after school program is a great place to practice empowerment!
Ask students how they would prefer to be graded, or even if they would like to be graded or not for a particular project. If they are guided properly, they will be eager to do a good job if your project is fun, interactive, and uses team talents, e.g., organization, speaking, social interaction, etc. As you spark an interest in team work (in addition to individual work), you are preparing students for the continuing explosion of information-sharing, collaboration in the workplace, in the state, in the nation; and in the world. Nations depend on each other for supply-chain manufacturing. Going from the schoolroom to worldwide interaction is a long road, but it will be traveled by some of our students.
How can we also, as group leaders and teachers, be fair to students doing team work? Often teams are heterogeneously composed to allow the slower children to be exposed to other students’ ideas; and to encourage students who learn easily to have empathy for those with learning challenges. Another goal is to help students learn how to work together. How do we provide adequate and fair recognition for good collaboration?
Look for the specific talents of children in your groups.
Some are artists, some are musical, some can write well. All contribute to the team effort. Have you recognized children’s gifts and commented positively in front of the class, .e.g., “Juan, I like the way you used your art skills to contribute to the July 4 collage.” Be sure to give special recognition for something to each child as the school year progresses. Other students will then recognize those strengths when that child is in their group. And proud students who are not doing their share! It’s not just “all about me” or “all about you.” It’s “all about us.”
Oh, and what about Julie’s need to do individual work? Her ability is a needed and valuable skill that provides her with independence and a sense of competence. Individual work is respected on projects when teams delegate tasks after they meet. It is also required in many fields, e.g., research, art, and writing, for example. If you want to be recognized and paid for your work, however, collaboration with a sponsor, an editor, or a publisher is part of the process! If Julie follows her life plan, she will come to know that doctors also need an office team. If they perform surgery, they need an even broader scope of support. Either way, they need to collaborate with insurance companies!
On my latest visit to the salon, Julie’s mom told me that her daughter remembered and shared with the family the discussion about teamwork and bullies. She said Julie enjoyed our chat. At that moment, Mom and I shared a smile!…Go team, go!
P.S. The Breakfast Club asked what I had for breakfast this morning …a thinly-sliced apple and some lemonade!
Author: Roberta Pantle