Sunday / July 21

Lead Teams with Intention: Three Moves to Start the Year Strong

The idea of leading teams with intention surfaced for me in an unexpected moment, while I was standing in a long line at the airport security. That morning, I intentionally chose slip-on shoes so no one would be waiting for me to untie my sneakers. I decided to forgo any metal bangles even though they really made my outfit. I put all my toiletries in a clear bag, making sure the bag wasn’t buried at the bottom of my suitcase so that my unmentionables wouldn’t fly out when I went to put it on the conveyor belt, and I chose not to buy my water until I got to the other side. As I breezed through the line without a glitch, I wondered: What if we led collaborative learning with the same or greater level of intentionality that we put into preparing to move through airport security? Skillful team leaders do.

Walk into any team meeting and ask a skillful team leader why the seats are set up in the way that they are, why this topic is on the agenda and not that, which pieces of student work a team is analyzing and why, or what teachers are looking for when they are observing a colleague teach. They don’t just throw an agenda together and show up to meetings; they make deliberate choices. They think and act with purpose and commitment, always moving the work of teams toward desirable learning outcomes. Skillful team leaders have a reason behind each thing they do, and it’s what makes them effective.

In my new book, Intentional Moves: How Skillful Team Leaders Impact Learning, I name ten primary intentions that apply to anyone who leads a team and provide effective moves to reach each one.  Below are three of the ten skillful team leader primary intentions you’ll want to aim for at the beginning of the school year, along with a sample move to get you going.

Skillful team leaders have a reason behind each thing they do, and it’s what makes them effective.

Optimize Collaborative Learning Conditions                                           

Be intentional about time, space, and making accommodations for the adult learners on your teams. One move that skillful team leaders use is to “leverage strengths in disability.” (Move 1.7) Children with learning differences grow up to be adults with learning differences. Although, by adulthood, most have likely learned how to self-advocate and succeed, adults thrive on teams that accommodate their needs and capitalize on their strengths – and their teams thrive, too. Try the following:

  • Offer print copies of meeting materials for those who stay most engaged by marking up a handout.
  • Make reading accessible. Skip curly-cue fonts on PowerPoint and opt for clean open sans or calibri. Make texts available in advance for people who want additional time to process. Ask someone to summarize a reading before everyone discusses it, in case not everyone has finished in the time allotted.
  • Share personal learning histories – struggles and positive experiences – to the level of comfort people are willing for the purpose of better understanding learning differences and disabilities in students.

Establish Expectations and Responsibilities

Norm setting. (Audible groan acknowledged.) More than a list-generating activity, it is culture building. Skillful team leaders work to disrupt unhealthy patterns of interaction—those behaviors that are not written down but have become acceptable within a school culture. With group agreements, people develop mindfulness and take personal responsibility for their own ways of engaging with others. Team members agree to new expectations for working together. One move that puts a twist on your typical norm setting protocols is “promote mindfulness with personal norms.” (Move 2.3)

One week before you set team norms, invite people to notice how they show up in meetings.  As they reflect, ask them to do three things:

  1. Notice and name their collaborative superpower – what they bring to a team that helps the team function well and impact learning.
  2. Recognize what they do that inhibits collaboration and commit to changing their behavior. (This becomes their personal norm.)
  3. Set up accountability partners so each person has someone they trust in the group to signal them when they break their personal norm and help them get back on track.

Lead with Purpose and Direction.

Nearly every expert who writes about teams will tell you that groups need to have a clearly defined purpose. Skillful team leaders and their colleagues know where they are headed and why. Formulating an inquiry question (Move 6.6) is a good start. Nancie Atwell (2017) tells adolescent writers when choosing an essay topic to find the itch and scratch it. One could take a similar approach to adult team inquiry. Find a compelling question about a student-centered challenge and pursue it. Strong team inquiry questions that hold people’s interest meet the following criteria:

  • Based on an evident student-learning challenge within a priority-based focus area
  • Presents a “real” dilemma for everyone on our team
  • Is substantive enough to drive an inquiry cycle, but not overwhelming
  • Starts with What or How
  • Presents a learning opportunity for everyone on our team
  • Necessitates research and study
  • Feels relevant to teachers’ practice (not theoretical)
  • Is timely
  • Is something that is best explored with a team rather than alone

Intentional, Like a Teacher.

As a skillful team leader, you do more than facilitate meetings; you lead your colleagues in learning for continuous improvement. Like an effective teacher in the classroom, make small intentional moves to produce powerful learning outcomes for all learners.

Learn more about the Ten Primary Intentions and gain moves to lead your team to greater function and impact.

Written by

Elisa B. MacDonald has nearly 30 years of combined experience teaching, leading and consulting in schools. She is a bestselling author with a new book, Intentional Moves: How Skillful Team Leaders Impact Learning. Follow Elisa on Twitter and Instagram, visit her website, or reach out to her at

No comments

leave a comment