Examining Collaborative Team Meetings - Shifting to Key Issues

This posting is part of a series, aimed at sharing high-impact ideas and practices for consideration in relation to Collaborative Team Meetings.

When we consider the essential component of Collaborative Structures and Processes that is fundamental to Collaborative Response, the layering of team meetings is a critical concept that allows us to understand that each meeting has a different purpose in relation to responding to the needs of students. At its essence, the layers of team have the following purpose and focus:

Case Consult Team - wraparound conversation involving a variety of individuals focused on a single student, needing intensive supports which involves external service providers that support the school and/or district (Tier 4)

School Support Team - school-based team that regularly meets to examine the needs of identified/referred students requiring supports beyond the classroom level (Tier 3)

Collaborative Planning - teacher teams engaged in planning to examine classroom instruction and develop the universal resources, materials, lessons, and strategies to support students in their classrooms (Tier 1)

The Collaborative Team Meeting is the integral structure within Collaborative Response that serves to drive the entire approach within a school community. You can find multiple resources on our website that supports the understanding and implementation of Collaborative Team Meetings. How the meeting is structured is critically important and an integral process that ensures it focuses on the examination of differentiated classroom-based interventions, strategies and accommodations is a focus on key issues.

Take a moment to review an example from Oski Pasikoniwew Kamik School in Wabasca, AB that shows how the meeting agenda (in this particular example for an 80 minute Collaborative Team Meeting) infuses an explicit focus on Key Issues and the resulting Tier 2 (classroom based) supports.

For more on the tiers of support, check out this video from Lorna Hewson, sharing an understanding of tiers in relation to a Continuum of Supports.

Focusing on Key Issues Process

Step 1 - Identifying a Key Issue Through a Student Concern

Following a review of norms and an opportunity to articulate celebrations in relation to student success, the meeting facilitator moves to asking a teacher to identify a student and a key issue they are experiencing:

“Today, I’ve brought Raymond to discuss and the key issue I’d like to address is his difficulty to produce quantity and quality when it comes to writing. I know he is capable but just doesn’t seem to give me anything more than a sentence or two.”

The teacher has identified a student with an issue they wish to address. It is important to note that we didn’t divulge into a great deal of further details, background or other information. We also resisted the urge to identify a number of concerns occurring - the identification of a single issue is focused and is about to be turned into something that we can address in the classroom.

It may seem logical to identify the key issue as “unable to provide significant writing quantity” and move forward to the next step. However, it is important to dig just a little to help determine why that issue may be occurring. Otherwise, the conversation may devolve into reasonings such as “the student is just lazy” or “I wish his previous teacher would have…”. We want to delve into a key issue that we will have a direct impact in the classroom. Meeting participants, led by someone holding the facilitator role, begin to ask questions to surface a root key issue that may be happening. As soon as the teacher states “I don’t think it is a case of stamina or difficulty with the physical act of writing, from what I’ve observed. I think what may be happening is that he struggles to get his ideas out of his head and onto paper in a way that makes sense, so he then gives up.”

Now we have a key issue to address. It is important to understand that we don’t need absolute proof of what is exactly happening, beyond a measure of a doubt - we just need a hunch from the teacher of what may be happening.

Step 2 - Digging into the Key Issue

At this point, it is vital that we don’t turn to solutions or ideas to address the key issue for Raymond or to offer the individual teacher a myriad of possible ideas for consideration. We first need to ask the question:

What other students do we have that are experiencing a similar key issue?

At this point, a facilitator turns to each teacher in the meeting to determine any other students that are struggling with the same key issue. It may not be to the same degree as what was expressed for the student that initiated the conversation, but it is important to attach other students to the conversation by name. Offering the opportunity for others in the meeting (educational assistants, administrators, learning coaches and others) to identify additional students with the similar key issue should also be encouraged.

Attaching other students reinforces that the issue is not isolated to a single teacher or to a single student. By demonstrating it is something shared by others helps to foster collective trust and vulnerability, with the willingness and, in time, expectation that we need to surface areas where we are struggling and not sure where to go next. It is not a negative reflection on our teaching, but rather surfaces an area where we hope to grow and expand our toolbox, in an effort to best address the needs of our students.

Once a cohort of named students from multiple classrooms are identified as experiencing the same key issue, now we take the attention off the students to focus on the key issue.

“So, for the key issue of struggling to express ideas in writing, what could we do to support?”

Now a beautiful brainstorm begins. Team members start to surface strategies we are using in our classrooms. We start to ask questions like “so what does that look like?”. We ensure our facilitator is bringing all voices into the conversation without judgement on the ideas surfaced. We use phrases like “what if…” and “I wonder if we could…”. Here the language matters. It is a “we” conversation as we explore, not a “you should” directed at individuals.

Tools and Samples for Digging into Key Issues

Here is a template that we’ve used to help schools in articulating the key issue and then document the variety of ideas.

Here is an agenda template that can help align with the meeting agenda, and provides a space for the possible supports and ideas, specifically looking at the classroom-based supports (Tier 2) that we could be considering.

Here is an example from Corpus Christi Catholic Elementary/Junior High School in Edmonton, AB, where the conversation around a key issue was captured on a whiteboard during the Collaborative Team Meeting and then afterwards recorded in a poster to be displayed in their staff collaboration space, to possibly be referenced later by teachers or brought to the forefront in a future Collaborative Team Meeting when the key issue resurfaces.

Step 3 - Returning to the Student Concern

Once the conversation has surfaced some ideas for potential next steps and allowed an opportunity to share and examine classroom practices, we now turn back to the teachers to ask:

“For the student or students you identified, what is something that you commit to try from our conversation? What is an action you intend to take and do you need any support to actualize it?”

Now we return to the students we identified and ask the teachers individually what is their action and a timeline for putting it into place. This process ensures that the teacher is still in control of their next steps so that it is manageable for them, based on what they know about the student, their own pedagogy and the context of their classroom. In time, these conversations become deeper, more challenging and further refined by best practices. We start reaching further for innovative practices and start seeking out what support we need to make that happen. We hear things such as “can you show me what that looks like?”, “would you be able to share an example of that with me?”, “could we meet so I could understand that better?”, “is there any chance I could visit your classroom to see that in action?” or “could we create that together to use with both of our students?”.

Things to Watch Out For

In the Collaborative Team Meeting conversation, if the discussion focuses exclusively on an individual student, the following can happen:

  • Lengthy descriptions - we can see a tendency to move into storytelling, as we attempt to paint a fully formed picture of an individual student. Although this is vital at other layers of team meetings, it does not support the purpose of the Collaborative Team Meeting
  • Multiple variables - a number of issues can be surfaced, often with many things identified that may be outside of our collective locus of control. This limits the discussion related to what can we impact through the classroom and can serve to limit our sense of collective efficacy, that we can make a difference for students.
  • Disengagement of team members - when a focus is placed explicitly on a single student in the Collaborative Team Meeting, some team members can become disengaged, as the student being discussed is not one that they may directly work with during the course of the day.
  • Frustration with team membership - along with the previous statement, when focused on an individual student in the Collaborative Team Meeting, it can become difficult to be able to attend to a cohort of students for the discussion and ensure that everyone who may come into contact or teach that cohort is present. We can experience “why do I need to be here - I only teach a fraction of the students discussed today?” or “if we talk about this student, we don’t have everyone here who should be here for the discussion”.

When we focus on the key issue, surfaced through our experience with a specific student or students, we ensure that multiple students can be linked to the similar key issues, increasing the overall engagement of the team. Chances are, even though we may not all teach the student that initiated the discussion, we can all identify with the key issue being surfaced and can open up our instructional toolkits to discuss an instructional response, and eventually engage in a “what if” conversation to explore potentially innovative approaches to address the key issue being discussed. Through this process, we not only ensure a response for the students specifically linked to the key issue, but unpack classroom strategies, interventions and accommodations that could have impact on a universal level, as each individual in the room leaves with new approaches or insights to consider, with commitments to actions that, in time, start to stretch our pedagogical thinking. This approach can also surface topics or areas for further professional learning, as we could shine a light on a key issue that none of us seem to have a strong sense of how to possibly respond. This approach to professional learning is entirely influenced by the needs of our students and can create an emotional connection to the need for some further learning to help support the real needs of students being identified.

It is also important to resist the temptation to remove the student entirely from the conversation, coming to the table with a faceless key issue.

“The key issue I’d like to discuss today is handing in assignments. I have a number of students that are not handing in assignments to me on time or in a manner that meets my written expectations.”

Without a specific student in mind, it is hard to dig into a specific why, which leads to talking in generalities and presumptions. It also becomes harder to commit to actions, or see if what we are trying is making a difference. Most importantly, it removes the emotional connection to why I’m willing to stretch my instructional repertoire, as I’m looking for differentiated approaches that may make a difference for a student I want to see succeed. Although the Collaborative Team Meeting is focused on key issues, it needs to be individual students that are explicitly identified by name that initiate those conversations and are specifically linked to the actions that are put in place as a result.

By ensuring the primary focus in the Collaborative Team Meeting is shifted to key issues surfaced through an examination of individual students, we can ensure that this meeting structure within Collaborative Response places attention on the Tier 2 classroom-based supports and instructional practices. Essentially, we can ensure the Collaborative Team Meeting is dedicated to the question “so what can we do?”, reinforcing a culture of response associated with high levels of collective efficacy.


Author: Kurtis Hewson