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Why Do My Students Hate Teamwork?

Updated: Jun 24, 2021

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I remember in second grade, I was placed in a group with my seven-year-old peers to write and create an audio narration of an original Halloween story. While this was several decades ago, I do remember being very excited by this assignment. This was right up my alley, and I couldn’t wait to go at it. I always loved to read and write, and this assignment was especially fun, full of sound effects, possible howling winds, creaking doors and ghastly screams of terror. While my memories about activities from such a yesteryear are typically faded, I do remember at least four people my own size sitting at the table with me. I have a firm recollection of creating the storyline, writing the script and stage directions for each character, and if my memory serves me, creating many of the cool sound effects. What did everyone else do? I loved the assignment. I was proud of how it came out. Did anyone else have a good time? Did they feel included or proud? Maybe yes, (I can’t even remember their names to find them on Facebook and ask), but my guess is no.

This scenario, and ones like it, are repeated in every classroom at every age. Teachers are required to ensure each student becomes proficient in subjects and tasks, and they also know there are benefits from requiring students to work together. So, students are placed into groups where everyone must demonstrate their proficiency in the task at hand. This is problematic. Some students control the work flow (with resentment about having to do more than their share of the work), others feel unsure of how to insert their voice, some don’t care enough about the assignment to engage, especially when one or two seem to have it under control, and worse yet, others fear they are not good enough – that they don’t possess talents that are important to the group. What is accomplished is that students learn to hate working in teams. Teams, typically, should not be used to demonstrate that everyone can do a task.

Teams are for highlighting individual strengths. Teams should be places where everyone has a role that allows them to shine. Teams should be about equity, not equality.

I have been teaching college-aged Honors students for the last 12 years, and I have been teaching for 21 years. When I took over my position as the director of the Honors Program, I reimagined the focus. I knew these students were bright and highly motivated. What could I provide that would serve them differently and give them a real advantage, not just in the workplace, but in their pursuit of personal success and happiness? I decided that the focus of their Honors experience should be learning how to work on teams. I created a class, which I often say is more like a semester-long therapy session than anything else, that is called The Study of Self and Teams. In the first day of the first semester I taught this class, I asked the students “Who likes working on teams?” I think one person raised her hand. Every semester I have taught the class, I get the same response. Why? Why do we want do things alone? Why don’t we want help? Help is good, right?

Well, not if you have spent the last 18 years on teams where you often did way more than your share of the work. The students that are traditionally “academically high-achieving” have learned from years working on teams, not to trust. Others didn’t do the quality of work that they were capable of producing, or sometimes they didn’t do the work at all or in a timely manner. For many of the other students, maybe the ones working on my Halloween story with me, they learned that others didn’t value their input, or that certain students really needed and enjoyed doing the work, where you feel less secure about what you are putting out there – this translated to a lack of confidence and a lack of output. There is a direct correlation between low confidence and low motivation, and herein the problem begins.

It is time to teach our children how to work on teams. Teams should always have two focuses: outcomes and process. They are equally important. If you only value the outcome, then it probably shouldn’t be done through teamwork. Process means valuing the people. Quite seriously, what could be more important than teaching our children, our students to value other people, and moreover, to value themselves? (Think about it, even on teams where the objective is to get more points than another team, how good do we feel if everyone on the team is miserable. If we surveyed high scoring sports teams, we would find they value people as much as winning).

To be clear, teamwork doesn’t only breakdown when we have students who excel in traditional academic areas of study working with students whose talents lie elsewhere. The breakdown exists between students who are extroverted and introverted, athletic and non-athletic, creative and logical, and on on. Anywhere, any field, room, office, etc., where we value one type of learner/doer/thinker/feeler more than another, we are setting ourselves up for bad experiences, and people who feel bad. about themselves, if we don’t teach what lies at the core of most great teams – EMPATHY!

When I imagine my little kidney shaped table in the front of my second grade language arts classroom where I sat dominating the direction of Halloween ghost story, I think how I could have so much more fun if I would have written the script, but let others think of cool ways to make sound effects, and allowed someone else to act out the lead. Not only might I have been involved in a A+ project, I might have made a new friend and helped someone else to feel important. #empathy#educdation#teamwork#careerdevelopment

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