Working with the Team

Team A at Shady Oak Middle School shares different perspectives about interdisciplinary instruction and assessment methods. This case examines collaboration and conflict among administrative, technology, psychology and teaching personnel.

Team A is meeting.

The 8th grade Team A, composed of teachers Marion Webster, Robby Kenyon, Paula Packman, and Ed Banion, and including school psychologist Pete Ford, and media specialist Ethel Singleton who both meet with the team occasionally is holding its sixth meeting of the academic year. It is mid-December, just prior to the winter break. They are meeting to start to plan for midterm exams late January.

Marion Webster, team leader of the Team A, who prior to the introduction of the team concept at Shady Oak, had been a language arts teacher for 10 years. She had embraced the Whole Language approach to her teaching. She has been Team Leader for three years. She is strongly committed to the team and to interdisciplinary teaching.

Robby Kenyon, 10-year veteran science teacher, fought the introduction of the team concept in the middle school. A firm believer in the integrity of the academic disciplines, he had argued that having teams dealing with several subjects would inevitably lead to what he called the “watering down” of the content. He joined Team A at the beginning of the current school year.

Ethel Singleton, media specialist at Shady Oak, is assigned to Team A for 1/3 of her time. She meets regularly with them, is expected to provide technical support for the Team’s lessons, and to teach computer skills to the students. She spends the other 2/3 of her time with the other two teams at the 8th grade level. She likes the team approach to teaching but complains occasionally about these “team meetings where not much gets done.” She has been at Shady Oak for three years.

Paula Packman, a 6- year math teacher and one of the original members of the team, believes fully in the interdisciplinary practices. Prior to the introduction of the team concept, she had decried the isolation of the subject matter focus; she has blossomed in the team approach to teaching.

Ed Banion, social studies teacher and coach of the school boys soccer team, wavers between being indifferent to being hostile insofar as the team approach is concerned. A believer in strict chain of command philosophy of school governance, Ed had agreed to join the team in the first year because “that’s what the principal wants.” He has been at Shady Oak for five years.

Pete Ford is the school psychologist who divides his time among the various teams in the school; he has been at Shady Oak for seven years. Known regionally as an expert in testing and evaluation, Pete is fond of the team concept and believes that it provides the youngsters a “chance to work together in solving problems.” He also believes it is good for the teachers to be working together instead of alone in their separate classrooms. Pete tries to attend every other meeting of Team A.

Marion: I guess that we all know what the task is today. We’ve got to come up with a format for the exams. You’ll remember that last year we had separate exams for each of the subject matter areas. I think all of us on the team at that time agreed that giving that type of exam wasn’t true to the spirit of interdisciplinary learning.

Robby: Marion, I wasn’t on the team last year, but I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t have agreed to that conclusion. After all, the disciplines have their respective characteristics.

Ethel: Come on, Robby. That kind of conversation brings us right back to Step 1 when we started this process. We’re all committed to the interdisciplinary approach.

Robby: We’re all DOING the interdisciplinary approach; I’m not COMMITTED to it. There was no way that Phyllis was going to let me keep teaching science as a separate subject.

Pete: From what I’ve heard, you’re still trying to teach it as a separate subject even in the team.

Robby: What’s that supposed to mean? I’ve been cooperating with everybody.

Pete: I’m just reporting what the students say; they say that Mr. Kenyon really teaches us science.

Robby: I guess it’s nice to know somebody’s getting something out of this.

Marion: Okay, let’s see if we can get on track to face the problems of getting the mid-year exams ready. We have been discussing these matters since Phyllis came here and we’ll probably be discussing them for a long time. But right now we’ve got to get to work.

Ethel: I just want to say that the resources of the media center are available if you decide to use them.

Ed: I’d like to see us do something like they did in Sizer’s book, HORACE’S SCHOOL where the students did those exhibits to show what they’d learned. I know he was writing about high school and we’re a middle school, but I still think we could do something like that. Maybe the kids could do some of their things on video.

Robby: Oh, I get it. The kids will work on projects together and we won’t know who did what. I don’t like that idea one bit. I want to know what each kid can do in each of the subject areas we’re covering in this approach.

Pete: Robby, we get that information when they take the state-mandated tests in May,

Marion: Let me try again to see if we can move forward. Let’s admit that not everyone is 100% committed to the interdisciplinary approach but that we are in this together and need to come to some agreement about how we can do some interim assessments in January. Here’s my idea: We develop five or six descriptions of possible problems that call for some understandings of math, social studies, science, and language arts. The kids can decide whether they want to do individual projects or team projects, whether they want to do paper products, media products, or some combination.

Robby: Okay, I’ll do the science ones.

Marion: There aren’t going to science ones, Robby. I’m talking about themes or topics that would require the students to demonstrate skills and learning.

Paula: Let me see if I’m understanding what you’re saying. Would an example be something like this: A family is planning a trip out West on a limited budget. The family wants to visit as many historical sites as they can as well as any national parks that are on the way. The students have to do things like develop a timetable, demonstrate costs, and so forth. Is this in the ballpark of what you’re talking about? I know it’s pretty rough but it’s just off the top of my head.

Robby: I see a lot of math there; I see history there, but I don’t see any science.

Marion: Oh, for goodness sake, Robby. They could be doing some biology-related things as they travel through different parts of the country. Part of the project could require that they explore on the Internet or somewhere else the various flora and fauna on the trip. To answer your question, Paula, yes, I can see how that idea could very well develop into a possible assignment for the examination.

The meeting goes on the another 45 minutes. Robby continues to raise objections. At the end, all do agree that they will come to next week’s meeting with two or three possible topic questions such as Paula articulated.

Marion and Robby talk.

Marion and Robby stop in the library to chat briefly after the meeting.

Marion: Robby, we’ve got to talk about the situation with the team. My position as team leader carries no authority with it, but I do have to provide some leadership as we develop curriculum and other things. I don’t like to criticize but it seems to me that you are always resisting what the others and I are trying to do.

Robby: Marion, I’ll cut to the quick and save us some time. I just do not like this way of teaching. I don’t feel like a teacher anymore. All I ever am is a piece of something, you know, the little bit of science that fits in with a unit on the history of the state or something. I’m a science teacher; that’s what I prepared to be. I sure don’t feel like one now. Last year I could get the kids all excited about an experiment or something. Now I feel like an afterthought. When I’m doing something for the team with the kids, I never get the opportunity to go into the kind of depth they need if they are really going to understand something. There’s never enough time for me to do the things I need to do. I am just not happy doing this.

Marion: But, Robby, the whole middle school is in teams now. Nobody is teaching any of the subjects by himself. Several people have had to make adjustments to fit in with the plan. Why can’t you?

Robby: Marion, we’ve been friends and colleagues a long time. I trust and respect you, but I’m simply not cut out for this kind of team teaching or whatever it is called.

Marion: What do you propose to do?

Robby: I don’t know. I know I can’t keep up just driving people nuts in the meetings. I applied for that vacancy in science at the high school last year, but they said I didn’t have enough physics in my background to have the job. And besides, I really like teaching middle school kids. That’s why I applied here 10 years ago; I like the age group and I relate well with them. I know I do. So, I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to keep making others and myself unhappy. Maybe I should think about signing on with one of the high tech companies that are doing so much hiring.

Marion: But, Robby, you’re a great teacher. The kids love you.

They chat a bit more and then part with no further resolution.

Marion Webster meets with Phyllis Kimball, the principal.

The next morning, Marion stopped by the principal’s office and requested a meeting with her. Marjorie Blanchard, the administrative secretary, arranged the meeting for 3:30 PM, half an hour after the close of school. Phyllis Kimball is in her third year as principal of Shady Oak Middle School. Prior to coming to Shady Oak, she had been curriculum director at Rolling Hills Middle School in a neighboring community. A firm believer in interdisciplinary curriculum, Phyllis led in the establishment of interdisciplinary teams at Rolling Hills. When she was hired as the principal at Shady Oak, the board and the superintendent were clear in their expectation that she would bring this approach to the school. She is a calm, reflective person who regularly keeps a personal journal in which she reflects on her work.

Phyllis: Hi, Marion, good to see you. It seems that the days fly by and we just never have time to get together. I’m so glad you asked for a meeting. What’s on your mind? But before you answer that, let me say that I believe that you are doing great work with Team A.

Marion: Thanks, Phyllis. It’s nice to hear that you feel that way. I’m not quite so sanguine today.

Phyllis: Why? What’s the problem?

Marion: I’m not sure that I should be bringing this to you. Maybe the Team should work it out. But I feel a need to talk with you about the situation.

Phyllis: Let me guess. This is about Robby Kenyon.

Marion: How’d you guess?

Phyllis: Well, you’ve never come to me with any curricular problems; you and your team have always solved them and then told me about them. So, it has to be personnel and the only change in your team has been the addition of Robby after Mal Hendrickson left last year and Robby replaced him. So what’s going on and how can I help?

Marion: Well, as you know, Robby was one of the last of the teachers to join a team, and he did so only because the whole school went to teams this year and there was no place for someone teaching a single subject the old way. I know he was an excellent science teacher. And that’s what he wants to be: an excellent science teacher. All fall he fought doing group planning. When we were planning the environmental unit, he kept saying that this should be just about science. I was sharing poems with him on the subject; others were sharing policy statements from the governor’s office, ways to analyze problems mathematically. He wanted no part of it. Then he’d grudgingly give in and half-hearted teach with others of the team. But even the kids could tell he wasn’t happy with what was going on.

Phyllis: If this has been going on all fall, why did you wait until now to talk about it?

Marion: I suppose it’s my idealistic side; I kept hoping we could bring him around, that by seeing the kids so excited about what we were doing that he’d decide to work with us. But it hasn’t happened. The final straw for me came yesterday when we met as a team to plan for the midterms.

Phyllis: What happened?

Marion: He just kept resisting, saying things like “I’ll do the science part” or “I don’t see the science in this” when people would suggest an idea for the examinations. I talked with him after the meeting and he told me how unhappy he is with this arrangement. He said that he feels useless, that he can’t do what he does best. I just don’t know what to do with him.

Paula, Pete and Ed have coffee together.

Paula: Gee, I’m glad to see you guys. Can we sit together and talk a bit?

Ed: Sure.

Pete: What’s up?

Paula: I think we have to do something about our team. That meeting on Monday was not very successful. It so clear that Robby simply isn’t happy doing this kind of teaching. I think that’s what makes him so obstructionist. And we’ve got to plan this exam. I tried writing a couple of topics last night and I kept thinking, “What will Robby say about this?”

Ed: Maybe we’re all giving Robby too much leeway. I ‘m not crazy about this team thing and all this interdisciplinary stuff sometimes drives me nuts. But I’m doing it for the good of the team.

Pete: Well, Ed, we’re not all made the same. Robby has those deep-seated convictions about the nature of science and its importance to kids. Do you have any ideas on what might be done, Paula?

Paula: Here’s what I’ve been thinking. I’m no expert on interdisciplinary stuff like Marion and Phyllis so I don’t know if what I’m thinking of is possible. But why can’t we cut Robby some slack and let him do his science thing every so often? He knows so much about evolution. When we plan that unit again for next year, why can’t he have a day or two to really hone in on what he sees as the key scientific issues and how they affect us today? We’ve heard him on this. He’s almost eloquent!

Ed: Do I get a day or two to talk about the social implications and the religious issues?

Paula: Oh Ed, cut it out. You’ve had plenty of time and opportunity to get your stuff in.

Ed: I know. I’m just trying to bug you a little.

Pete: Well, I’m no expert on interdisciplinary curriculum either, but everything I know and believe about teaching and learning says that we all need to have some space to grow and practice what we do best. I don’t see why we can’t explore this as faculty and see where it goes.

Ed: I’m okay with that. But we’ve got to remember that Phyllis is really gung-ho on this stuff and has invested a lot of her personal energy in getting the whole school into teams. I wonder how she’d react to something like this. But I guess the first thing is to find out how the rest of the team feels about it. Maybe somebody has another idea or two. We’ve got to go to class, but before we go I want you to know, Paula, that I had as much trouble as you did last night in trying to come up with some questions.

Ethel: You all know that Robby spends a lot of time preparing for whatever he is asked to do. He’s relentless on getting me to provide more media materials for him. Last year when he was teaching social studies solo he was putting together some incredible multi-media presentations. He hasn’t been doing that this year.

Paula: We’ve all given up some of the special things that we have done as single subject teachers, but I think a greater good has been served. I’m torn; I want the team to succeed; I want to see interdisciplinary studies thrive. But I’m worried about Robby; I’d like him to be happier. He’s such a vital person.

Ed: I think you just summed up how we all feel. Let’s go see Marion.

Team A meets with Phyllis.

A couple of days have passed. All the members of Team A have met and decided to meet with Phyllis and ask her to agree that they modify the team approach sufficiently so that Robby can do occasional “pure science” lessons. Robby is excited about the possibility. Phyllis agreed to meet with them.

Phyllis: Welcome. What brings us all together on this cold Friday morning?

Marion: First of all, thanks for agreeing to meet with us on such short notice. We know you’re very busy. We want to talk with you about an idea we have that might resolve the situation I described to you the other day, Robby’s unhappiness with his role on the team and his desire to teach more “pure science.”

Phyllis: I’ll certainly be glad to hear about something that might help your team. What is the idea?

Marion: It’s pretty simple. Paula, Pete, Ethel, Ed… why don’t one of you describe it? It is your idea, after all.

Paula: Okay, I’ll take a stab at it. We know Marion met with you the other day and described some of the difficulties we are having as a team, in part because Robby just doesn’t like being totally bound by the team concept. He would like to teach some of his science simply as science, do a lecture, conduct an experiment, and so on, all without having to work in concert with the rest of us and not worry about all the possible interdisciplinary ramifications of what he’d do…

Pete: That’s about it. We think the team ought to be able to flexible about how it uses the various talents of the faculty. Robby is a wonderful presenter, but – I’m not telling any secrets-he’s just not a really good team member when it comes to planning and presenting interdisciplinary materials.

Ed: We all agree on these matters. We could do the transitions to the other parts of the curriculum. I’m not worried about that. And I think the kids would get a better understanding of science this way.

Phyllis: Robby, what do you think about this?

Robby: If we could do it, I’d be very happy. I’d just feel more that I was being true to myself; I’m a science teacher, first and foremost. And I admire a lot about interdisciplinary teaching, I’m just not very good at it. I could transfer to the high school. Last year, I didn’t get the job because I didn’t have enough physics. But Anthony Martino, the department chair, called me the other day and said that a biology teacher-his son Vincent– was leaving. He encouraged me to apply for a transfer. I don’t want to do that now. I’m a science teacher as I said but I’m also a teacher of middle school kids. I just love that age group.

Phyllis: We have some real issues here. You know how much I want the interdisciplinary curriculum to be a success. We’ve put a lot of energy into it; you’ve all worked very hard at it. I’ve put myself on the line with the community and with the superintendent that we can succeed at it. I’m very reluctant to mess with it.

Marion: We all know that, Phyllis, and we have been very supportive. But now we think it might be time for a little tinkering, a little refining to make the parts work better together.

Phyllis: Yes, Marion, change is generally good. But having one teacher distinct from all the other members of a team in how he teaches goes beyond tinkering and refining.

The group talks on for a few more moments. Phyllis indicates that she has enough information and rises to indicate that the meeting is over.

Phyllis: Thanks again for coming by. I know this is very important for all of you. It’s also an important issue for the school and for me. It’s no secret that I’m deeply committed to the teams and the interdisciplinary approach we’ve established in the school. I’ll be very honest with you and say that my first thought is that I’d hate to disrupt the progress of where we’re going. Then I think that our process is already being disrupted by what’s going on in your team. Let me think about this over the weekend. Let’s agree that we’ll meet right after school on Monday and come to some closure on this matter.

Phyllis writes in her journal.

Phyllis writes in her journal: What should I do? Everybody knows that I’m totally in favor of the team concept and an interdisciplinary approach to curriculum. Robby is a wonderful teacher; the team wants to support him. Yet he is diametrically opposed to what I believe is best for the school. They would like him at the high school, but he wants to teach here. I could, I suppose, agree to some modified version of what the team is proposing. Maybe if Robby had the chance to do his thing for a while, he’d slowly come to terms with teaching as part of the team. Maybe I shouldn’t have been as insistent on having the whole school faculty go into teams. I know of at least a couple of other teachers who feel the way that Robby does. Would I lose face with the faculty if I yielded on this? I guess the other side of the question is that I might lose support from the faculty if they come to see me as unyielding and totally inflexible. I think I’ll write the positives and negatives of all the possible actions I could take and see where I come down.

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