Sustaining the Momentum: Dancing the Dance of Collaborative Teamwork

by Mary Mehaffey, Ed.D.

Ten Pitfalls to Sustaining the Team's Momentum

Leaders of collaborative teambuilding projects in schools are working hard to keep multiple teams in place. Both students with and without disabilities are benefiting from the energies being expended on these partnerships. This article focuses on ten challenges or pitfalls to sustaining the momentum of collaborative teams and six steps team leaders can take to reevaluate and continue moving forward.

According to Walther-Thomas, Korinek, McLaughlin, and Williams (2000), many collaborative programs fail, even after a successful year, because of the lack of sustained effort. Maintaining commitment to change over time requires an understanding of the change process. Senge, Kleiner, Roberts, Ross, Roth, and Smith (1999) remind us that an entrenched culture tries to avoid change. To get beyond that, he and his associates mention barriers that have the potential to interfere with collaborative teamwork efforts and the team's ability to maintain momentum. They are listed in the box to the right.

Pitfall #1. We don't have time for this stuff. Extremes exist with the challenge of not having enough time. On one hand, little or no progress ever occurs because of the lack of flexibility with time. On the other hand, team members have a great deal of flexibility and make steady progress. While working on any pilot initiative, new teams fall somewhere in the middle. In other words, they have enough control over their time to sustain some effort and gradually make progress, even when under considerable stress. This holds promise for schools that are implementing collaborative teamwork concurrently with accountability standards, for example.

Pitfall #2. We have no help! The key factors in a team's success are adequate coaching, guidance, and support. These resources may come from both internal or external sources. Therefore, collaborative teams need administrative support. The school leader is the link to resources from the school itself, the division/district, as well as the community or the state.

Pitfall #3. This stuff isn't relevant! In tight budgetary times, the perceived lack of importance of the mission of serving all students collaboratively may drain the energy from the entire team and the funds from the school budget. Therefore it is critical that the team leaders do their homework to convince all members that collaborative teamwork benefits all students.

Pitfall #4. They're not walking the talk! A mismatch between behavior and espoused values is harmful to the life of the team, especially for those championing the change effort. All collaborative team members must speak with high regard for this instructional arrangement at all times, inside and outside of the school setting. Team members must never forget that a negative comment made during a moment of frustration can come back to impact them negatively when they least expect it.

Pitfall #5. This stuff is _________! Senge et al. (1999) say that the answers are so varied that a blank here serves the purpose well. In collaborative teamwork, this concept may manifest itself in various ways. Sometimes members are very open and say exactly what they think and feel. Then the very next day, they are closed and not willing to take risks because of something they feel personally or have heard someone say.

Pitfall #6. This stuff isn't working! This speaks to the challenge of negative assessment of progress: the disconnection between the organization's typical means of evaluating success and the achievements of a pilot group. This may confront the collaborative team when discussing the roles of the co-teaching partners in the general education classroom. Initially, feelings of discomfort may surface when the general educator thinks of the special educator assessing student progress of all students or when the special educator thinks of the general education teacher implementing strategies perceived to be special.

Pitfall #7. We have the right way!/They don't understand us! This challenge may be found when "true believers" in the premises of collaborative teamwork confront their "nonbeliever" counterparts outside the group. The team who believes strongly that collaboration and the team's efforts are vital to the success of all students may consistently misinterpret the intentions and statements of teachers who are happy with the way things have always been done and vice versa.

Pitfalls #s 8-10. Who's in charge of this stuff? We keep inventing the wheel! and Where are we going? These final barriers mentioned in The Dance of Change refer to the challenges of redesigning and rethinking. Collaborative team members must remain ready to answer these questions never faltering in their belief that sustaining the momentum of the change process is necessary and possible. When these challenges are present, it may be time to reevaluate to determine the structure and support of the existing team(s). The College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota (1999) provides the following critical steps that may help to determine if changes or adjustments are needed in the initial development of the collaborative team(s).

Meaningful change takes time as barriers occur in the implementation of the change process. Senge and colleagues (1999) refer to these challenges as the dance of change. All students are relying on team leaders to continue to assist in sustaining the momentum of collaborative teamwork and in evaluating the trouble spots along the way. For students with and without disabilities, it is important to keep moving forward with great zeal stepping back occasionally to evaluate progress in the dance of change. It will be worth every step it takes whether developing the collaborative team, sustaining its momentum, or reevaluating to ensure improvement.

Evaluating Collaborative Teamwork
  1. Do you have a planning committee?

    Yes ___ No ___  

  2. Does your planning team have members with diverse roles as key stakeholders?

    Yes ___No ___  

  3. Does your team include administrators, staff, families, and students?

    Yes ___ No ___  

  4. Do you have the support of key central office administrators?

    Yes ___ No ___  

  5. Does the team have vision as to the outcomes that are anticipated for special and general education students as a result of this collaborative teamwork?

    Yes ___No ___  

  6. Has the team outlined specific goals and benchmarks to mark its way in determining its progress as a whole?

    Yes ___No __


Senge, P., Kleiner, A., Roberts, C., Ross, R., Roth, G., & Smith, B. (1999). The dance of change: The challenges of sustaining momentum in learning organizations. New York: Doubleday. University of Minnesota. School of Education & Human Development. (1999).

Getting Started: Developing an inclusive school community at the secondary level [Brochure].

Walther-Thomas, C., Korinek, L., McLaughlin, V. L., & Williams, B.T. (2000). Collaboration for inclusive education: Developing successful programs. Boston: Allyn Bacon.

Date: November/December 2001