Reforming Dysfunctional Teams

Dr. Tracy Reimer (@TracyReimer53), Bethel University Program Director: EdD Leadership in K-12 Administration

Mrs. Becky Gerdes (@BeckyJoGerdes), Bethel University Adjunct Faculty: Special Education Department



Trust matters because it is at the core of everything we do. With trust, few things are out of reach; without it, efforts are undermined. Dysfunctional teams often have a history of miscommunication, misuse of school resources, and conflict. Reforming a dysfunctional team to functional requires more than establishing trust; it requires restoring trust. The restoration of trust can be a long and difficult process.


Principal leadership is essential to restoring a trusting environment through the direction of the school’s mission and vision; team members know where they are heading and why they are headed there. Principals committed to restoring trust create formal structures such as PLCs, staff meetings, and grade-level meetings with established norms that shift control from the principal to the teachers. Trust focused principals ensure that clear, scaffolded expectations for group task(s) and products are articulated and supported with modeling and examples.

Principals begin the restoration process by planning low-risk exchanges that are social in nature and identifying easily accomplished group tasks. Trust grows through positive interactions with increased frequency and duration. Low-risk exchanges reduce vulnerabilities and set the stage for future high-risk exchanges such as sharing student achievement data and addressing classroom instructional practices (Kochanek, 2005). Positive team momentum builds and fosters a shared purpose. Individuals realize they have a genuine contribution to make, and the team realizes they can leverage their talent to achieve significant results. Group members become confident, entrusted, and empowered. Trust grows through interactions, perceived intentions, and sense of obligation.


Some teams use norms very well and others don’t.  Highly functional teams develop norms and follow them.  When norms are not followed, a school leader can hear a variety of complaints from teams and their team leaders.  Sometimes a frustrated team leader will tell the principal that her/his team developed norms but they are just ignored. Other teams appear to get along very well but don’t get very much accomplished.  This team leader will probably say his/her team is pretending to follow the norms.  Other teams might not accomplish very much yet resist having norms because one or more team members think they are unnecessary.

Steps principals can support and enforce to ensure that norms work:

  1. Develop norms as a team.  Most teams have completed the process, perhaps many times.
  2.  Post norms in the meeting area or have them listed on the agenda. An additional step teams can take to commit to the norms is to have everyone sign them and post the signed copy on the wall in the workspace where the team meets.
  3. Verbally review the norms at the beginning of team meetings.  Although this may seem unnecessary, the verbal review is a group reminder and usually takes less than a minute.  As teams work together, they may find that the review of norms at the beginning of each meeting is unnecessary, but this typically only happens after a team has worked together for an extended period of time and consistently followed the norms the group set.
  4. Remind team members when someone is not following one of the norms.  Often times there are one or two norms that a team struggles with.  Determining a signal such as the time-out signal or holding up the number of fingers for the number of the norm being violated provides a non-confrontational strategy to address norm protocol.
  5.  Evaluate how well the group followed the norms at the end of every meeting.  This only takes a few minutes.  It can be as simple as going through the list and having everyone give a fist to five on each norm and then discussing norms that are less than a five to establish a commitment to improve.
  6. Discussing and role modeling how to handle conflict amongst team members are helpful steps that leaders can take so they are prepared to support teams with norm setting and handling situations when team members break norms.


Trust is the foundation of a successful team relationship. Any time a group forms there is a play for roles, power, responsibilities, and positioning.  This is natural and happens in professional settings.  The engagement becomes dysfunctional if it goes unchecked.  It is common for team members to have triggers, quirks, and behavior issues.  The goal is that the team manages their interactions. When norms are developed in collaboration and adhered to, a safe place for teamwork is created.  It is important to remember the quality of the team impacts student performance, the school environment, and the overall school operations (DuFour & Marzano, 2011).  A leader has the ability to create an environment where people are encouraged to work together using their talents and skills to achieve common goals.  Intentional planning builds connected and collaborative teams.


DuFour, R., & Marzano, R. J. (2011). Leaders of learning: How district, school, and classroom leaders improve student achievement. Solution Tree Press.

Kochanek, J. R. (2005). Building trust for better schools: Research-based practices. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

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Don’t Forget to Celebrate

by Chris Bjerklie (@ChrisBjerklie), Principal, J.A. Hughes Elementary School


Each May I find myself reflecting on the current school year and wondering if J.A. Hughes Elementary School made a difference in the lives of our students. Did we better our students? Did we better our school? Is our community of Red Lake Falls better because of our actions?

Like most all of you, we have multiple forms of data and assessments telling us how our students performed over the year. We look at MCA results to measure growth from year to year. We look at formative and summative assessment for proof of the difference we made in student learning and how to drive our instruction. Did our students respond to the interventions we gave? Did we make our students better people for the world in which we live?

This year J.A. Hughes Elementary and its 190 students in Northwest Minnesota did its part to better the world. The best part is not a single test score will show the impact!

Every April in Red Lake Falls the Diane Brumwell Memorial Hoops for Hope basketball tournament takes place. It is more than a tournament though; it is a spaghetti feed, silent auction, fundraiser, and a basketball tournament. Hoops for Hope is organized by Diane’s sons Jason and Ryan, husband Dick, and daughters Heather and Stephanie. Due to the wonderful people involved, Hoops for Hope continues to grow each year from its humble beginning thirteen years ago.

Hoops for Hope is made up of a group of everyday people that have become one big, extended family. When this family gets together, they do their part to better the world by raising funds to rid the world of cancer. Every penny raised during the Hoops for Hope weekend is donated to the V Foundation to help fund research to end cancer.

This year J.A. Hughes Elementary School joined the family and jumped in full swing. We challenged our students to donate $1,500. If we met our school goal, 4 teachers and I would get Mohawks.  What happened next was amazing! Over the next 2 weeks J.A. Hughes Elementary didn’t just meet this goal, we smashed the goal – to the tune of $2,505.00! So, we celebrated in true J.A. Hughes Elementary School fashion. Four teachers and I got Mohawks and others dyed their hair. There was lots of laughing, chanting, smiling, and a few tears were shed.


Undeniably, we made a difference in the world. The difference I’m referring to is not measured by tests, report cards or any other form of assessment though. The difference I’m referring to is almost impossible to measure. We made a difference; we bettered the world.

“The difference I’m referring to is not measured by tests, report cards or any other form of assessment.”

Some might say we wasted valuable instruction time in the heart of MCA season. Instead, I say we learned some valuable lessons over the 2 weeks we raised funds. We learned it is okay to give and not receive a prize. We learned it is okay to celebrate an accomplishment. We learned it is okay to help someone you’ll never meet. We learned that it takes everyone to reach a goal. Most importantly, we learned that a small elementary school in Red Lake Falls, Minnesota with 190 students has the potential to change the world!

As you are ending the school year, don’t forget to celebrate! Missing an hour of instruction during the school day will not cause the world to end. All too often we look at what else we could have done, or have yet to do instead of all we accomplished. We have all accomplished great things over the last 9 months, don’t forget to acknowledge them!

Have a great summer, but don’t forget to celebrate first!


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Lessons Learned as a Focus School

by Jen Larva (@jlarva4371), proud principal of Lowell Elementary School in the Duluth Public School District


As we are wrapping up our four-year designation as an MDE Focus school, I spent some time celebrating our work with my leadership team. I started on this journey with the team after they had completed their first year in the process. The struggle of putting together a Leadership Team structure and defining the work to be completed the first year is often mentioned as we realize how easy it all seems now.

Our leadership team has definitely grown into the role and is currently able to share the knowledge and experiences gained with the other teams being implemented across our district. The following are a few key lessons learned as we received our MDE supports and training and made significant improvements to the growth and achievement of our students:

Lesson 1: Leadership teams are integral

Continuous improvement efforts begin at the leadership team level. Our teams do a bulk of the heavy lifting when it comes to examining the data, making instructional decisions, implementing and then monitoring our plans.

Our works starts with the comprehensive needs assessment (CNA) where different types of collected data are recorded and analyzed. Reflection on the review helps to identify the next steps and provides us with more opportunities for collecting data. The team then does the hard work of determining how to address the root cause and make necessary changes.

All our work gets brought back to the grade-level teams through the PLC process.

Lesson 2: Laser-like focus on instructional practices

No longer is a leadership team responsible for planning potlucks! Practice profiles are the drivers that get all of our staff on the same page with our instructional strategies to address the gaps revealed in our CNA. Our leadership team carries the load of researching instructional practices, developing a practice profile, determining how the staff will be trained in the new practice and then analyzing the data collected during walkthroughs.

Each meeting basically has the same agenda that focuses on identifying celebrations, reviewing our progress on our practice profiles, reviewing data, updating the team on PLC work being done in the grade-levels and determining what needs to be communicated back to our stakeholders. This consistency has allowed us to focus on the important work that needs to be accomplished to make changes.

Lesson 3: A fidelity check is a learning walk

As our staff rolled out our practice profiles, we wanted to ensure that teachers were adopting these instructional practices to fidelity. As a building principal, I felt it was important to include the Leadership team on these walkthroughs. We created a Google form for each profile and began scheduling our fidelity checks.

The most powerful learning that happened was way more than the data; it was the self-reflection of the teachers doing the fidelity checks as a team. Through reflection, teachers would make great connections and further their understanding of the instructional practice. Teachers on the leadership team now take along grade-level partners to conduct checks using the shared tool. The learning has spread out, impacting more teachers.

Lesson 4: Accountability

Who do we want our teachers to be accountable to? Obviously, we want our teachers to follow through on embedding the instructional practices in order to make improvements for the benefit of our students. Leadership has taken on the role of holding teachers accountable to each other through the PLC process. Each Leadership team member is part of a unique PLC and is responsible for documenting at each PLC meeting and sharing progress at Leadership. I used to think the building principal needed to rotate between all PLCs to ensure that the work was being done. This was almost impossible!  However, by allowing leadership to take the lead, my time is better served with my MTSS Data Review Team that meets with each PLC every 6 weeks.

“To lead people, walk beside them. As for the best leaders, the people do not notice their existence … When the best leader’s work is done, the people say, ‘We did it ourselves!’” – Lao Tsu, Chinese philosopher

by Jen Larva (@jlarva4371), proud principal of Lowell Elementary School in the Duluth Public School District

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Don’t Let Your Dreams be Dreams

by Tom Benson, Pilot Knob STEM Magnet School,


Dear Friends,

As you may know, I am out sailing for a year on Faith Afloat, my Catalina 350 sailboat, with my two boys Luke, 12, and Liam, 16. But many of you don’t know the back (and back, back)-story to this #PrincipalSailingEdventures. So, let me take you back a few years and show you how my dream was ignited and how it became reality more than 40 years later.

Back Story …

My dream to sail began when I was a teen. I read the book “The Dove” and saw the 1974 biographical film based on the story of Robin Lee Graham, a 16-year-old who sailed around the world alone from 1965 – 1968. The book and articles in National Geographic hooked me and created my dream to become a sailor. This trip is the achievement of that dream.

For those who want to know more, here is the Back, Back Story …

In 1974 was a 6th grader living in St. Cloud, MN. St Cloud is about as far away from an ocean as you can get (and surely not a tropical location). I happened to watch a National Geographic special about Robin Lee Graham, a 16-year-old boy who sailed out of Marina Del Rey, CA in 1965 to become the youngest person to sail around the world. The documentary made such a powerful impression upon me that I clearly remember sitting on the red indoor/outdoor carpeting in our basement (a memory which singles me out as a baby boomer) and watching it. I was spellbound, and from that moment on I was fascinated with sailing and determined to become a sailor, adventurer, and explorer.

We all need role models and supporters; fortunately, I had both. My parents supported my dream and my mom bought us a small Snark sailboat. A Snark sailboat is nothing more than a large piece of Styrofoam with a sail – but you need to start someplace. After many capsizes and rescues I got a little better at sailing the Snark. I also had teachers who shared their passions. I clearly remember Mr. Bruce Moberg, my high school social studies teacher, and the times we spent sitting in his garage looking at his sailboat as he told stories of sailing in The Lake of the Woods. Mr. Moberg fanned the flames of my sailing dreams while showing me the powerful impact a teacher can have on a student’s life. If there are any teachers reading this, please tell your stories and share your passions; “Telling story,” as Hawaiians call it, is a compelling tool.

The next big step towards my dream came while living and going to university in Portland, Oregon, a location I chose specifically because of its proximity to the ocean. Portland’s nickname is “Bridge City” due to the rivers which crisscross the city. Whenever I could, I sailed 27’ – 30’ boats on Portland’s rivers and through the Columbia Gorge. One summer, my friends and I chartered a 40’ Islander sailboat in the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington. We sailed to Canada and explored the islands that we came across along the way. The excitement of sailing to a foreign country, landing on an island, exploring, looking for shells and driftwood, and learning about the local history was fascinating to me. Seeing Killer Whales and all the ocean life exceeded my expectations beyond belief, and confirmed my dream. I knew for certain that sailing was something I wanted to do more of.

A post shared by Tom Benson (@tombenson777) on

In 1986 I left Portland and moved to Los Angeles, California, to begin my career as an inner-city teacher in South Central LA. At first people laughed and doubted that a teacher making $24,000 a year could have a sailboat. But dreams are powerful things to mess with and I spent all my free time searching through marinas in Southern California for a boat I could afford. Finally I found a 27-foot, 1968 Santana/Schock sailboat sitting under a layer of dust and grime at a working marina in San Pedro, California. I called the owner and learned that the boat had been the pride and joy of a man who tragically died before completely finishing the boat. I purchased the boat from his widow, who was pleased to know that I would love, cherish, and restore the boat, completing her husband’s work while creating my own dreamboat. When finished, I named the boat The Roy after my grandfather who loved the water. I learned through trial and error – mostly errors! — how to sail The Roy. Again, something for teachers and students: I raced the boat and at first I was such a terrible sailor that all the boats finished hours before we finished. But, we practiced and learned more, and finally won the race series (Growth – Mindset and Effort = Achievement).

As a teacher I wanted to share my love of sailing with my students (biking too) and encourage them to dream, “paying it forward” like Mr. Moberg had done with me, so I taught some of my 3rd grade students to sail. These were African – American and Hispanic students who lived only eight miles from the ocean, but rarely, if ever, made it to the beach, let alone on a sailboat. It was gratifying to teach them, although I began to question my teaching skills when, after sailing for an hour or so, one of the students asked where the motor was and why didn’t he hear it. So much for my teaching skills, though I like to believe that they have developed considerably since then.

I eventually left behind the ocean, but never left behind my dream. Fast forward to 2003; while working for the Minnesota Department of Education I met Jay Haugen, a fellow co-worker. We bought a boat together, which allowed me to sail once again. I shared my dream of sailing full-time with Jay, and we hatched a plan to take a sabbatical (I like to call it a seabbatical) to go and sail. Jay, his wife Janet, and their children Kaetchen, 15, and Kimberly, 10, headed out for a year of sailing “The Great Loop,” down the river system to Florida and up the East Coast. They had a great trip that was life changing. I wanted to follow in Jay’s wake, but was unsuccessful at getting a sabbatical to support the trip. As each year passed Jay encouraged me to get going despite the lack of funding, but the time was never quite right. I would often sit over a craft beer with Jay and have him recount his adventure; now I am looking to tell the story to others who will also take the trip or pursue their dreams.

Fast forward again to 2017, when a combination of events vividly illustrated how life and circumstances can change in an instant; I realized that time could run out before I achieved my dream. Around the time of that epiphany, I saw “Don’t Let Your Dreams Be Dreams” written in the bathroom of The Thirsty Pagan Brew Pub. This became my personal motto; I decided to cast off the bow lines and take a chance that it would all work out. Thanks to the support of my wife Sandy, daughter Nicole, Mom and Dad, along with Mr. Visa, Mrs. Chase, and their son Discover, we headed out on Faith Afloat on August 1, 2017 for a year of sailing. I call this year long journey my “Principal Sailing Edventure,” because it combines the fulfillment of my own dreams with the desire to share my experiences with students, just as Mr. Moberg did with me, to encourage others to dream and follow those dreams — regardless of how long it takes.

As I finish writing this I am at anchor just outside of St. Augustine, Florida with my two boys Liam 16, and Luke 13, living our dream. We are continuing our adventure down the Intracoastal Waterway and heading to the Caribbean. We are excited that you are following our sailing adventure. You may follow us via FaceBook and Instagram at TomBenson777. If you would like to reach me in person, please feel free to call at 651-262-9197, or email at

Tom Benson

S/V Faith Afloat

Pilot Knob STEM Magnet School Principal



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Power of the Dog


by Taber Akin (@taberakin) and Bret Domstrand (@bretdom)

Junkyard Dog, Snoop Dogg, School Resource Dog

Which of these sounds like something you want to share at your school? I hope the answer was easy: School Resource Dog (SRD). Since 2014, the Lakeville Area Schools have been hiring School Resource Dogs dogs to play an important role working with students. Although the work of each School Resource dog looks slightly different at each site, the results are pretty clear – students enjoy working with this unique instructional tool.  

In Lakeville, we have five School Resources dogs. All of our dogs were trained for 2+ years as service dogs by Pawsitive Perspective Assistance Dogs (aka PawPADs). They were dual trained to be mobility assistance and diabetic alert service dogs.  For different reasons, each dog was seeking a career change and were placed with ISD 194.  Similar to police K-9 officers, all of Lakeville’s School Resource Dogs are owned by the school district, assigned to a primary handler who feeds and cares for them as well as lives in that person’s home. Three of our dogs have a principal as a primary handler, one is with a school psychologist and another lives and is cared for by one of our an elementary school counselors.

Hero Reading

We see each dog as an instructional tool for our students.  The work of the dog is differentiated based on the needs of the students or the school.  Of course, unlike most instructional tools (such as iPads or pencils), these tools have tails, heartbeats, and wonderful personalities. With five full-time School Resource Dogs there are lots of stories to tell about their work and the connections they make.  The connections our dogs make range from being the school tour guide/ambassador for new students and families, supporting specific students in the academic and social venues or simply help change a bad day into a great day by interacting with a student.

Starting the School Resource Dog program in ISD 194 wasn’t incredibly difficult, but we did encounter some resistance.  That small amount of resistance and anxiety about a dog in a school on a regular basis would be nothing compared to what would happen if we tried to end the program and remove the dogs from Lakeville schools. How many students have easy access to the dog depends on the setting that the dog is placed in.  In both of our cases, all students have access to Seamus and Hero.  Some students have more consistent access to the dog leading to integrated regular connections between the dog and students.  Other students may occasionally seek out a dog for a little canine love. The power of the dog is amazing as some students will work tirelessly towards meeting all of their daily goals in exchange for spending time with Hero, others find time for a quick visit with Seamus to help them return to class and re-engage in their work, and it doesn’t stop there as adults also have strong positive connections with their School Resource Dog.  

Adding a School Resource Dog is a commitment. Having a team of handlers makes the difference. Providing training for teachers, parents and staff members is the critical component to maximizing the use of your dog. The possibilities are endless!

If you want to know more about how we brought School Resource Dogs to Lakeville or have questions in general, please do not hesitate to reach out to either of us.

Taber Akin

Bret Domstrand

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Trust Your Wisdom (and Play to Your Strengths)

by Jake Donze, Plainview-Elgin-Millville PreK-3 Principal, @PrincipalDonze

BasketballLast week I attended ‘open gym’ at one of our school buildings to play some basketball. I expected to find a bunch of middle-aged people like myself who wanted an evening of gentle exercise, lots of rest time, and mostly self-deprecating camaraderie. What I found was a gym full of twenty-somethings (many of whom were former students) all looking like they turned down a night with the NBA to show off for the locals.

I halfway decided I wasn’t going to stay, but my friend convinced me otherwise and told me “our wisdom will be our advantage.” Wisdom. I knew it was just a code word for Old, and on this night I wasn’t sure how that would help us. But hey — I was wearing my “vintage” 90s basketball shoes, so I might as well get some use out of them. It’d been a long time since the glory days.

Speaking of the glory days, mine were less than glorious, athletically speaking. I can spin a basketball on my finger exceedingly well, which is not actually a move that anyone on the court uses, unless you’re a Harlem Globetrotter. This “talent” was the direct result of spending a lot of time on the bench, needing an activity to keep me occupied. (It has proven to be very impressive for the elementary kids — an unexpected perk for all that lack of playing time!)

After the ritual of shooting free throws to decide teams — Who will be shirts and who will be skins (Why does this still exist?) — I took to the court, hoping my overly-wise self wouldn’t get maimed in the midst of these behemoths.

This is when things got surprising.

No — I didn’t play out of my mind and shoot the lights out. No — I didn’t become the de facto leader of this athletically-inclined dunk squad, though that would make for a cooler story.

What was surprising was that I wasn’t entirely embarrassed or even particularly outmatched. I was certainly out-sized and out-youthed… but I soon discovered that thinking a little quicker might be the key.

So I began anticipating runs to get a little distance on the surrounding cheetahs. I kept running, all the time — even slowly — and it turned out that most of these guys didn’t like being in constant motion to keep up with me.

Granted when I got the ball, even a lay-up was no guarantee… but I did get the ball. I even got some points. And some assists. And some weird cracking noise in my knee whenever I turned too fast.

So why this extended sports anecdote in a principals’ blog? Because our experience as principals is not far off from this evening on the court. Our job as principal is not to be better at everything than everyone else. We’re not — so be okay with it. You spend your day surrounded by experts doing what they do best. It is our job to anticipate, think fast and stay ahead of the game. It’s our job to go to the people who can get the job done right, and then let them enjoy the glory that comes with it. And yes, we’re also always running — certainly metaphorically and sometimes literally — and that’s all part of the game. You might not end up with a trophy, but we all know trophies aren’t why we chose this profession.

So I invite you to take a moment to reflect on your practice during this busiest time of year. Think about what you’re good at and where you shine. Consider what a great team you have at your school. Revel in your wiseness, even if for a moment.

The best part is, even after a little reflection, you’ll still be able to walk the next day without being sore.

Have a safe and relaxing winter break, everyone.

Jake Donze

Plainview-Elgin-Millville PreK-3 Principal



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What MESPA is Thankful For This Year

by Jon Millerhagen, MESPA Executive Director


Dear MESPA members,

Happy Thanksgiving! At this time of year, I like to reflect on what I’m thankful for here at MESPA.

The biggest thing I’m thankful for, of course, is all of you. Our members make MESPA what it is: a relevant, thriving, member-directed organization. So far this year we have 941 total members – that’s a staggering number of you from around the state who are committed to developing your skills and improving the educational experiences of the students you serve.

MESPA has always been about making sure members are getting what they need. That’s why we’ve made it an organizational goal to have as many of our professional development opportunities as possible be designed and led by MESPA members. No one knows what principals need like other principals who have been there before. So I’d like to send my thanks to our incredible professional development design teams who put together sessions including our Early Career Principals Workshop and 21st Century School Office, and helped design our PreK-3 series.

In 2016-17, nearly 1,600 principals and school teams took advantage of our 50 days of professional development. That number is already at 551 this year and on a similar pace as last year. In 2016-17, our sessions combined for 271 CEUs – an immense number that speaks to the variety of different options Minnesota principals have to expand their horizons and find the professional development opportunity that meets their particular needs or challenges.

I am thankful for MESPA’s flexibility and ability to explore new ideas and always stay on the forefront of providing our members with what they need. I am thankful that so many of our members are able to give themselves permission to leave their buildings for professional development – so they can come back reinvigorated and recharged with new ideas and new tools to accomplish them.

As one MESPA member said, “I appreciate this opportunity to learn more about how to serve the students, staff and families in my community!”

That’s what it’s all about. Giving you the tools and knowledge you need to succeed for your staff, your building, and, most importantly, your students. I’m thankful for all that you do for them, for all the hard work and long hours that can go unnoticed. We see you, and we applaud you. And we want to make sure that MESPA continues to champion the idea of principals helping principals. Because no one can do it better than you.

Wishing you all a safe, happy, and healthy Thanksgiving,


Jon Millerhagen

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