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What the Olympics “Fab Five” Taught Me About Teamwork

The "Fab Five." Image courtesy Getty Images.

I won’t soon forget the 2012 London Olympics. There were so many inspiring stories – from the South African double-amputee who competed in the 400-meter race, to the American who became one of the first women boxers to medal in the Olympics. Above all, though, I felt a particular connection to the women’s gymnastics competition. And as I watched the U.S. Women’s Olympic Gymnastics Team take the Team Final gold medal, I thought about what made them so effective.

Each of the five gymnasts brought something different to the team. Team captain Aly Raisman brought experience, having competed at several international events. And, though not always the highest scoring, she was versatile in all areas. By contrast, vaulter McKayla Maroney competed in just one event but was touted as the best in the world. Kyla Ross, the youngest of the group, lacked experience yet exemplified grace under pressure – especially on the uneven bars. Jordyn Wieber was known for her consistency in competition. Despite her failure to qualify for the all-around competition, she rallied to post strong performances the very next day, helping to promote her team to the top. Finally, there was 16-year-old Gabby Douglas, who left her family for two years to develop Olympic-level skills. Her previous competition record made some people question how she would handle the pressure of the Olympic stage. Her performances in both the team finals and the all-around, though, silenced even the biggest doubters. The individual strengths of these five, when brought together, were golden.

The gymnasts also had, first and foremost, a team mentality. Before each went up to perform, her teammates could be heard delivering encouragement: “You got it. You can do it!” And after each performance, as the camera followed the athlete back to the staging area, I saw hugs and high-fives, and heard a choir of “good job!” from her teammates.

In short, diverse skills coupled with team support helped propel this team of five young women to the top of the medal platform.

I feel so fortunate that I, like the Fab Five, work with a diverse team of colleagues who support one another each day. We each bring different strengths, but I know we are on the same team, working toward the same goals. We serve on school committees together, and we’ve planned countless in-services together. When a group of us worked on our National Board Certification, we spent hours watching each other’s videos and reading each other’s papers, giving honest and valuable feedback. When we speak of one another, our message is positive. We highlight one another’s strengths. If one of us is aware of a leadership or professional development opportunity, we pass along the information to the team. At lunch, we talk about instructional challenges: How can I help this student understand this math concept? How can I reach this resistant student?

Like the American gymnasts, we don’t see each other as competitors for individual achievement but as collaborators for the greater good. I feel energized and motivated during our impassioned conversations around students and learning. For me, working with these colleagues is a joy. Their presence in our school building creates such a positive climate for staff and students.

Unfortunately, all educators have not had the pleasure of experiencing the teamwork that I’ve enjoyed at my school. When I’m asked, “How do we get from where we are to where we want to be?” by educators in schools without such collaboration, I now point them to Success at the Core Leadership Development modules, which offer concrete illustrations of effective teamwork.

One of these modules, Instructional Expertise (video link above), specifically discusses and shows how teams can capitalize on the strengths of individual team members. In one of the module’s videos, we see a team of teachers meeting in a professional learning community to look at data to regroup students in accordance with their learning needs. In another, a team discusses how to differentiate instruction for English Language Learners and at-risk learners. The module explores how teachers can benefit from feedback from an instructional coach, how teachers can provide professional development opportunities for colleagues, and how instructional teams can collaborate to maximize each member’s instructional expertise. All in all, the module allows us to see how effective instructional teams – despite the individual differences of their members – come together with a common goal of increased student achievement.

Perhaps, in addition to building stronger relationships with our school-based communities, we – as members of Success at the Core’s growing online learning community  – can use this blog to build a virtual team, sharing out insights, experience, and perspectives. Through our unity and our individual strengths, we can become stronger, so that all of our students can benefit from gold medal learning experiences.



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15 Responses to What the Olympics “Fab Five” Taught Me About Teamwork

  1. Lynnette Risk says:

    I enjoyed the real world connection for your team work example. A lot of us were Olympics junkies and watched with great admiration the women’s gymnasts achieve gold. Team work will be a vital concern for me this year as my 5th grade team is newly formed. We have some work to do and I look forward to making it a priority. Thanks for your insight!

  2. Mark says:

    Heather–such a good connection. I think educator teams have a lot to learn from this idea of recognizing the “experts within.” I think too often some in education look for an outside “expert” to turn to for solutions to internal problems of practice. We have the experts right here, next door and across the hall.

  3. Wendy says:

    Thanks, Heather, for reminding us of the power of collaborative practice. School teams that elevate teamwork and collaboration send a powerful message to students about working together. Check out this blog post on Edutopia http://bit.ly/OR30vC for ideas on how to build a collaborative culture in the classroom as well as school.

  4. Heather Byington says:

    SmartBrief from 8/17 also included an Olympics-centered blog post, seen at http://smartblogs.com/education/2012/08/14/back-school-teach-like-olympian/

  5. Judy Serrano says:

    I enjoyed your comments on teacher teamwork and collaboration. I also feel fortunate to have colleagues who are a pleasure to collaborate with and I have learned so much from them. I really think the synergy we have when we work together makes us all better teachers. I think the Success at the Core blog is a great place to collaborate. I wonder if teacher teaming and collaboration can serve as a model for student collaboration. As the new school year begins, I am thinking about the design of a learning environment that encourages and supports teamwork and peer collaboration among my 5th grade students. Kids learn better when they collaborate, exchange ideas and capitalize on each other’s strengths too. I think it is time for a 5th grade student blog! Thanks Heather!

  6. Maribel says:

    Yes, you are absolutely right, teamwork is about everyone in the team. If you look good, I do too, and, what’s even better our children will be even better!

  7. Heather Byington says:

    I love the discussion that’s going on here. Judy, I am also intrigued by the idea of student blogs and interested in checking out the ideas on Edutopia. Mark, I couldn’t agree more that expertise in buildings and districts should absolutely be utilized to the greatest extent possible. Thank you all for your comments!

  8. Tyler Rice says:


    You really hit the nail on the head with the critical importance of teamwork in improving instruction!

    Teachers must be encouraged and supported as we muddle through the hard work that goes into improving our practice. Strong collegial support is a critical aspect of teacher professional development – and one that is often given short shrift in schools.

    The shared viewing of videos of teachers in action can be a great conversation point for teams of teachers or professional learning communities.

  9. Obadiah Dunham says:

    Hi Heather,
    Very interesting parallel between the Olympics and the relationships you experience at work. It is amazing how much team work and coordination it takes to ensure that all students receive a first rate education. Thank you for voicing the importance of collegial collaboration and providing resources for us to access.

  10. Mike Burlette says:

    This is a great jumping-off-place for schools to address climate. We count on each other so much as a team, not just for resources or training but for motivation, encouragement, and a sense of purpose. When the adults in a building communicate with positivity and purpose and work to lift each other up, it reflects in the attitudes, energy and well-being of the students. Thanks for sharing this example.

    • Heather Byington says:


      Thanks for your comment! I could not agree more! Here’s to a great school year of positive support for each other as colleagues!

  11. Heather, your words really inspire me to do like the American gymnasts, continue working hard with tenacity and enthusiam. We all have an area of expertise that we can share with others and focus on our common goal: Help our students to succeed!

  12. Jean Sheckler says:

    Heather, I recently read an article about the missing link in school reform – collaboration. Some of my best teaching experiences have been when I have other teachers to collaborate with, to learn from and problem solve. I have used the module Leadership Teams and Quality Instruction to promote teacher leadership and support a group of National Board candidates. I look forward to using the module Instructional Expertise to “capitalize on the strengths of individual team members”. Last school year I was able to convince a group of humanities teachers to provide mini-professional development sessions. I believe this experience caused the change from teaching in isolation to teaching as a team focused on increasing student achievement for all students.

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