Michael Roberts

Michael Roberts is an author and consultant with over two decades of experience teaching and leading schools at all levels.

Finding Your Team's Foundation With Fundamentals

Fundamentals are never fun. Fundamentals are never exciting. But fundamentals are necessary. 

NBA Hall of Famer Michael Jordan summed up the importance of fundamentals when he said, “The minute you get away from fundamentals—whether its proper technique, work ethic, or mental preparation—the bottom can fall out of your game, your schoolwork, your job, whatever you’re doing.” 

Teams ignore the fundamentals of the collaborative process at their students’ peril. When I work with teams that are not getting the student learning results they expected, it is often because they have skipped a fundamental piece of the becoming an accountable team

In my experience, the fundamental step most often ignored by teams is the creation of meaningful norms that the collaborative team will operate by. Dr. Richard Dufour (2010) was known to say the most common mistake teams make when setting norms is that they don’t do them. Many teams will say that all adults on the team get along well, so they do not need norms. Wrong. In fact, very wrong. 

Without clearly laid out and agreed upon norms, there is no commitment from team members for how they will conduct their work, how they will treat one another, and what each professional will be held accountable for. Norms are vital; it does not matter how friendly team members are.

Another common fundamental mistake teams make is that the norms they establish are too general, and not stated as behaviors the team is committing to. For example, “be present” is a common norm teams use. But, is “be present” ever defined? 

A vague norm like this can be replaced with a more meaningful one, like, “We commit to participating fully in all discussions and will not have side conversations or be checking technology unnecessarily.” The second norm is significantly more specific and easier to ensure all team members adhere to.

A third common mistake is that teams assume everyone will be perfect all of the time. They won’t. So there needs to be a norm set for how a team will deal with someone who is not following the norms. When a team member chooses not to follow through on the commitment he or she made to the team, this person needs to be called on it immediately. 

If a team does not call out the negative behavior, they are endorsing it through nonaction. This is not something that should be left to the person running the meeting—any team member should address when norms are violated. How a team chooses to address the violation is up to the team. 

Several teams have chosen to use light-hearted ways to redirect their colleagues. At a school in California, teams squeak a rubber chicken at the violator; another team in Washington state holds up a picture of beloved actor George Went (aka “Norm,” from the hit TV show Cheers). How the norm violation is addressed is not as important as the addressing of the violation itself.

Team norms are the most fundamental of fundamentals. Norms lack excitement. Norms are not fun. But, the lack of norms can be the piece that is keeping a team from fully committing to the work of ensuring all students learn at their grade level or better.


Dufour, R. (2014, September). First Things First: Building the Solid Foundation of a Professional Learning Community at Work at Solution Tree PLC at Work Institute, Anaheim, CA 


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