Collaborating, learning, and supporting the coaching process in underserved districts.

Coaching a Dysfunctional Team

Coaching a Dysfunctional Team

Remember your college days, where you were assigned to a group of peers who did not always have your work ethic or attention to detail?  Did you carry that group to an “A” or mourn when they brought your grade down?  The outcomes were important then to your GPA.  The teams you lead now as an Instructional Coach have greater implications than those college cohorts, despite how important the GPA felt then.

As an Instructional Coach in Literacy, my job is to bring all of the teachers from the place where they present on day one, to a place of successful outcomes for students. Share on X

This is a new role for me, and the challenges of a dysfunctional team require deliberate practice and reflection. We know all too well that not every teacher shows up ready to teach, fully understanding solid pedagogy, with a bag of engagement tips and tricks, and with the fervor needed to deeply understand the curriculum and its correlation to how developmental psychology says that students learn.

As an Instructional Coach, our emphasis must be to impact the teaching in the classrooms.  When our teams are not working together, it is our job to help fix it.  We know that collaboration in planning is important because it benefits those teachers who lack the ability to instill rigor into lessons, struggle with building engagement, or generally need that little extra.  We must bring our dysfunctional teams to a place of understanding of the RIGHT work.  Patrick Lencioni, the author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, describes the hierarchy of issues that teams face when trying to accomplish a goal.


In a grade level team, the teachers have often worked together for some time, possibly even years.  As a new coach, I am an outsider.  I am also seen as the administration which means I could be evaluative, and possibly dangerous.  Establishing trust is the first step in truly joining the team to hold sway and make an impact.  Time together can help to ease these concerns.  Reaching out to individuals and meeting with subsets of the team are also strategies that can lead to a more cohesive team.  Ultimately it goes back to the old adage:  People don’t care what you know until they know that you care!  Establishing a safe environment where the growth mindset can truly exist is crucial.

However, teams have a history together which can lead to a lack of trust.  The more you know about each person’s style of communication, the better you can facilitate productive conflict.  Conflict is inevitable, and if you are not comfortable with handling it rationally, you can build those skills through practice and professional development.  Productive conflict can be healing because it involves changing perspectives and focuses on solutions.  Teams can express their emotions as well as their viewpoints.  This struggle creates equilibrium within the team if it is properly facilitated.  It is imperative that after a productive conflict, the team debriefs and reflects on the issue as well as the process, becoming metacognitive of the way they worked through the issue together.  This builds capacity in the team towards future communication.


When dealing with teachers, it is not often that you run across someone who lacks commitment to their students.  However, for many reasons, you will find teachers who lack a commitment to their team, administration, or school in general.  Once the teacher loses commitment from the top-down, though, it can translate into a loss of commitment to students.  Then you have the teachers who are committed to their own performance over the actual performance of the students.  These are the teachers who give a little too much information before an assessment, putting their proverbial finger on the scale so that students perform better than they should or would.  These teachers may enter data towards growth that may not be solid or even true.  But since the culture shifts failure back to the teacher instead of diagnosing and remediating the problems of the students, it is no wonder that teachers feel the need to tip the scale so their performance appears highly effective.  Sadly, this cheats the students out of access to RTI, small group instruction, and thus leaving them stranded in their deficit.

A lack of commitment damages so many aspects of the school culture and performance. Share on X

In collaborative planning, those teachers who are busy doing the work begin to resent those who are disengaged.  In order to re-engage a staff member who has lost commitment, understanding why the disengagement occurred, developing a personal relationship, and rebuilding trust in the team is crucial.  There have been times in my 25 years of teaching that I have lost commitment.  While it’s disheartening to admit it, it is true.  Why this happened varied with the situation, but it has happened more than once.  For me, I’ve always been aware of the level of my commitment and exactly when it is lost.  I have found that many people are not, however, aware of when or where they lost that commitment, engagement, and focus.  Sometimes all it takes is bringing it to the attention of the team member for it to be corrected.  You may need to rebuild the team from the ground up, though.  It will be worth the work if it benefits students, and, as coaches, we are not afraid of hard work!


Everyone resents accountability to some degree.  Don’t believe me?  I can prove it.  How do you feel when you are getting pulled over while driving?  Are you easy going, relaxed?  Do you say to the officer, “Yes, I was speeding, and I welcome the chance to pay for this ticket!”  Our administrators, district office, state laws all place requirements on us.  Our curriculum has guidelines.  Parents of students have expectations that are often seem unrealistic.  How we respond to accountability depends on our personality and life experiences.  It is often a strong trigger for some people.  Reflection on our own level of accountability is useful in creating change, but calling out an individual or even a team related to a lack of accountability will backfire. Ensure that clear expectations are established and communicated clearly and in advance.  The lack of clear communication of expectations can lead to administrative dissatisfaction of the teacher’s job performance and to the teacher’s dissatisfaction with the work environment and culture.

Creating change in others begins with a self reflection.  Hypocrisy in this area can create further dysfunction in communication and teamwork if the coach is not viewed as persistent and has a history of not following through.  Negative emotions related to accountability can be changed, however, when people understand the ‘why.’  It is not enough to say that district requires that data to be entered or that administration wants it done.  What does this task lead to?  How will it assist the teacher in being more productive? What impact will this have on student achievement?  When people are treated professionally and provided with a ‘why’ that they can buy into, the resentment of accountability can be lessened.  You will run into people who hate being accountable no matter what.  Continue to build relationships with these teachers.  Continue to hold them accountable in a respectful or professional way.

An interesting subset of teachers lack accountability because of their own lack of executive functioning skills.  Teachers who are persistently late to work or meetings, disorganized, unfocused, or generally flustered often suffer from their own need to strengthen their brain in the area of executive functioning.  The brain is malleable, even if it is a slower process as we age.  Communicating the the employee that improvement in a specific, focused area is critical and why, can lead to that teacher improving.  With adults, we know that they learn more slowly, but also more deeply and in a transformational way.  If a teacher sees the need and commits to a small change, a coach can encourage and be a cheerleader to solidify the change.

Acting on Results

In teaching, we consistently  make data-driven decisions.  We plan instruction based on the results of our data.  We engineer CFAs and exit tickets to ensure that learning occurs.  This is a behavior that should be a habit for educators.  However, do we always act on the results of our knowledge of other team members?  Are we sensitive to the fact that Mrs. A is pregnant, Mr. Y’s wife is in the hospital, and Ms. Z’s test results are not back yet?  We, as coaches, must be sensitive to the changing needs of the team.  We must acknowledge the little steps of growth more than we attempt to remediate other behaviors.  We must be the guide, the facilitator, the mediator, and the cheerleader, all rolled into one.  Deliberate planning for your teams will make your life tremendously easier.  Your coaching plans for individuals may need to be expanded to coaching cycles for teams.  Just like in a classroom, you may not reach every child, remember that we may not reach every teacher.  Those educators with issues beyond your and your administration’s abilities to reach and teach will probably move on next year.  That doesn’t mean stop trying, but keep a realistic goal so that your own sense of success is reasonable.  At the end of the day, if you have given your all to the teams, you are making a difference.

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