Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Plays Well With Others

What does it take for a person to be someone who “plays well with others”? Does it have to be someone who’s a leader? A follower? A diplomat? Someone who cares too much? Someone who cares too little? Someone who takes the extra steps? Or an efficiency expert who sits back and lets everyone else do the work? Someone who volunteers? Or someone who just cooperates? I myself have been at both ends of the “plays well with others” spectrum, sometimes simultaneously. I’ve been both selected and eschewed for my leadership skills, selected and eschewed for my vision, selected and eschewed for my punctiliousness, selected and eschewed for just about everything you need in order to play well with others. In my last teaching incarnation I was often considered someone who does NOT play well with others. Now two years later, another school year has ended, and I have actually been on teams that have wanted me as a player, so I think it’s time to explore the game a little more closely.
My inability to play well with others with any great consistency could stem from the fact that I’ve always preferred activities where I compete only with myself--dancing, swimming, horseback riding, weight-training--to team sports. When I did engage in sport, I was always the one left facing a disappointed team captain after the one with the broken arm and the crutches was chosen by the other side. Obviously, the worst player can only benefit by playing well with others. 

But what about the best players? They can sometimes defeat the team effort when their ambition and skills blind them to those with whom they are playing. Can the parts ever be greater than the whole in team sports? Does playing well with others mean that one not shine TOO much? Or does it mean that one should shine only if s/he adds his or her luster to everyone’s efforts, even the dimmest stars’? Sharing is caring. . . but I’ll save that for another post.
I used to get the “you don’t play well” jab at conferences or meetings. My heart used to sink when, during meetings that always entailed group activities, I was asked to “Share [my] thoughts about [fill in some obvious aspect of student learning] and write those thoughts down on ginormous POST-ITs to display for a ‘Gallery Walk’?” The facilitators would always try to shame everyone into “buy in” by insisting the resistant be “team players,” as if that were the litmus test for how well someone functioned as a classroom teacher, locked in a room with 20-40 NON-team players. Administrators would insist,  “We need to ‘play well with others’ if we want to be successful!” We do? 
While I’m not a team fan, it doesn’t mean that I haven’t tried to build a team. When I was department chair in my former institution, I did away with paper memos and sent email to my colleagues about anything that pertained to our department. I was aiming for transparency but was greeted with "I get more email from you than people I like" or "I never get your emails because you probably don't have my proper email address, and it's YOUR job to figure that out!" 

It also doesn't mean that I didn't take one for the team, such as it was. I gave up an AP class because other teachers, some with poor reputations amongst both faculty and students but with golden district seniority, were pressuring the administration to rotate the class (not sure where the students’ best interest was here, but so be it). Once I let that class go, I quickly saw that even with the great success my students had enjoyed each year, I was probably not going to get it back. Then, I realized that in giving up the AP class, I had made way for the electives I had created, Creative Writing and Shakespeare, to be canceled--classes I had worked hard to prepare for and build to substantial numbers each year (36 and 26 respectively which would be strong by some standards, but weak by my public school’s standards). 
So I had taken not only one, but two and three for the team, and it soon became apparent that I had to ask myself, for which team? By offering these electives to the kids who wanted a wider range of rigorous English courses designed to prepare them well for college, I would not be available to teach the general English classes. Since their number was smaller, the students who wanted to take my courses were sacrificed for the sake of the team--but again which team?  The team of administrators trying to find the most gutless and efficient way to place what they saw only as student bodies into classrooms with interchangeable teachers? The team of teachers vying for the best students under the guise of “doing what’s best for the students”? Or the team of students attending school in order to get a good education?  Not only did I wonder which team I was on, but more important, I wondered why all these factions weren't part of the same team. It was clear that I was on the team that would accuse anyone who would ask such questions of being someone who "does not play well with others" or is not a "team player." Then again, what kind of team would cut down its players like that? I know. . . teams that aren't really teams in the first place.
According to HR websites, playing well with others means bringing solutions to meetings, communicating effectively and positively with coworkers, sharing success and credit for that success, keeping commitments, generating trust by not blaming or blindsiding coworkers. But none of this can happen if we don’t answer the one essential question: How can anyone play well with others whose vision and values they do not share? The answer to that question became increasingly obvious to me, so  I finally packed up my toys and took them to a different sandbox. Truth be told. . . .I can be a team player. . . but only when a team is really a team.