Learning Curve

What’s Gonna Work? Teamwork: The Hallmark of Good Academic Success Programs

Melissa Marlow

Clinical Professor of Law
Southern Illinois University School of Law

Originally Published in The Learning Curve, Winter/Spring 2019

Citation: Melissa Marlow, What’s Gonna Work? Teamwork: The Hallmark of Good Academic Success Programs, The Learning Curve (Winter/Spring 2019)

For those of you with young children, you may recognize this title from the popular kid’s show Wonder Pets where, before embarking on an adventure to rescue a pet in trouble, the team chants the familiar song (“What’s gonna work? Teamwork!”) over and over.  But teamwork isn’t limited to Wonder Pets and Paw Patrol; it can be exceedingly effective in legal education as well.  My entire career in legal education has been spent teaching in the team-based programs of legal writing and academic support.  A regular refrain from colleagues around the country is that teams do not function well.  This is not a problem unique to a particular school or specific directors; rather, I think it demonstrates the reality that working on a team is not always easy.  But teamwork is always a worthwhile pursuit for our students, and ourselves as academics.  Successful academic support and writing programs are often those that, regardless of program model, function as a team.  This essay sets out some observations on how to work well in teams, based on more than twenty years of experience with team teaching. ​

Check ego at the door:  The teams that work well are humble ones, from the top-down.  If the team’s work is weighted down with unnecessary attempts to boost individual ego or wounded pride, the program will not reach its full potential.  Each member has something useful to bring to the table; realizing that the work of the collective is what is desired, and not credit to any particular individual, is key to the team’s success.

Meet regularly face to face:  That almost seems obvious, but having heard accounts from many in various schools, we cannot assume this is always happening. Meeting in person helps minimize miscommunications and allows for the development and fine-tuning of ideas, lesson plans, and learning objectives.  When faculty get to know each other, a sense of teamwork is fostered.  The in-person meetings can also be used to strategize how to help a struggling student, deal with school politics, or serve as a steam valve for venting, without a written record of the discussion.

Reserve a time in each meeting for brainstorming: The real value of a team in skills and support teaching is the synergy of ideas, contributions of individual expertise, and the diversity of experience and viewpoints.  The final product or teaching decision will be stronger with input from multiple faculty. Academic support teaching teams will no doubt have differences in years of practice experience, formal training in teaching, expertise in legal education, and a host of other relevant knowledge and experience indicators, but everyone, from seasoned hands to newbies, brings meaningful insight to this process.  It is the blending of that training and experience that will best inform program design and execution.

Realize there will be disagreements, both personal and professional: It has been said that human conflict is inevitable but how we deal with that conflict determines our success.  In the context of team teaching in a program that requires intensive work together, that conflict could manifest itself in disagreement about anything from the goals of the program itself to whether to give practitioners who come to talk to third year students about taking the bar an umbrella or a coffee mug!  Much like the dynamics of a solid family, getting along well promotes the greater good.  Seeing the positives in each person and their contributions and realizing we were not hired to be independent contractors in legal education, but instead workers in a group effort, helps keep things in perspective.

Appreciate the benefits of teaching in a team: All of us have had times when life gets in the way, and in those moments a team pulls together.  Your fellow team members can teach a class for you, run a meeting, supervise a teaching assistant, or even hold student conferences in your absence. There is much talk of balance in our field, and academic support faculty have a built-in mechanism for achieving better balance through the culture and practical realities of teamwork in our programs.

Have a sense of humor:  In most groups of two or more, someone can be counted on to inject humor where appropriate to any situation.  That light-hearted approach with moments of levity allows the work of a team to be memorable. We all know these jobs are tough work, so we might as well make them fun whenever possible.

Celebrate victories together: Have a traditional end of semester lunch to both look back, as well as forward.  Those semester lunches are a time of marking that another semester has passed, someone on the team published an article, another was promoted, etc. ‘Celebration lunches’ go a long way to cultivating and preserving a sense of team spirit.

So, if you find yourself in a team that is not working well, just try one or more of these suggestions.  At my law school, we do not pretend to have achieved perfection in the inter-workings of good teams, but rather have had authentic experiences in team work, with all its triumphs and failures, and learned a lot from both.  Being assigned to work on a team in legal education has the potential of being a real gift—giving our students the benefit of collective expertise in academic support, and us the opportunity to enjoy the teaching journey more and forge bonds with our colleagues that will last.  And perhaps, one day, we will have our own theme song, too.

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