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The Importance of Teamwork

Succeeding in graduate school through teamwork and collaboration with your peers.

November 28, 2018

Andrew Bishop is pursuing a Master of Public Policy at the University of Virginia. You can follow him on Twitter @xiongandi.

Some of my proudest moments as a 6th-grade language arts teacher came from seeing my students work in centers. If you walked into my classroom during a centers lesson, you would see my students working collaboratively in small groups on timed activities such as guided reading and writing. They would push each other to provide evidence from the text to support their answers, make suggestions on how to improve their writing and share strategies on how to design better presentations on their iPads. My students’ brilliance took center stage, and the class basically ran itself.

While I’m proud of the role that teamwork ultimately played in my classroom, it’s important for me to acknowledge that this wasn’t always the case. One of my biggest regrets from my first year teaching language arts is that I didn’t give my students enough opportunities to work together. For almost an entire semester, I was afraid to hand over the reins and let my students lead. This not only led to major classroom management problems for me but also denied my students opportunities to learn from one of their best resources: each other.  

Part of my hesitation came from inexperience as a teacher. However, I also believe that my own experiences with teamwork as a student played a role. I have vivid memories of projects in middle school, high school, and even as an undergraduate where I felt I had to pick up the slack of others. Hearing a teacher say anything with the word “group” in it would automatically sound a mental alarm. This was especially true if the teacher followed up by saying that we would not be allowed to choose our own groups.

I realize now though that much of this concern stemmed from a fear of ceding control. I didn’t feel comfortable putting my own academic fate in the hands of others. In doing this, I failed to consider the important role that working with others could have in improving not only the quality of my work, but also reducing the overall workload that I faced. I wasn’t aware of the need to learn this lesson prior to entering the working world, where prioritizing and delegating tasks is of the utmost importance.

Grad school can be a vulnerable time for many of us. It’s difficult to relinquish control of projects and assignments, especially when you’ve already invested hours of time and effort into them. At the same time, working independently can only get you so far when much of the material is new and challenging. We are also limited by the amount of time we have to meet all deadlines.

I’m fortunate to be in a program that doesn’t provide much choice when it comes to teamwork. It’s designed in a way that not only promotes collaboration, but ensures that it is an integral part of the experience. We complete many of our projects, problem sets, and classes in groups. Even though I knew the benefits of having this much teamwork, I must admit that I was nervous about the prospect when I first started. However, I’ve come to appreciate this structure, and believe that it’s helping me find success.

Whether you are teaching, writing, or just generally making your way through your grad program, you should consider incorporating teamwork into your classes and weekly routine for the following reasons:

1. Share the Burden
Over the last few months, I’ve learned that the to-do list in grad school is endless. Even if you just completed a project or made your way through another round of exams, there are always more readings to finish and tasks to complete. One potential option is to team up with others to divide and conquer many of these tasks. Throughout this semester, I’ve had the chance to split up readings and
note-taking responsibilities, create group study guides, write practice problems for each other, and jointly complete projects when allowed to save time. When I was teaching, I used a similar system to pool lesson plans, activities, and resources with other teachers. It’s amazing how helpful working together on these tasks can be in checking them off the list.

2. Exchange Ideas
It’s easy to get stuck on a project or problem and not know where to go. Oftentimes, we have trouble seeing beyond our first impressions or initial ideas. Rather than keeping this struggle private, you should talk with others in your program who will likely provide you with valuable insights on how to move forward.

Working in writing groups is one option that I (and many others) highly recommend, especially if you are working with colleagues who are open and honest when providing feedback. I can guarantee that I’ve had a number of different people read this post prior to publishing it, and the final draft is stronger as a result. I’ve also found that reading and giving feedback on what others have written helps me see areas that I can improve in my own writing.

3. Expand Your Skill Set
While each of us has strengths that we bring to the table, we also have areas for growth. I enjoy writing and am able to get through writing tasks quickly. However, I find that tasks on the quantitative side are more challenging and take me a little bit longer. In order to improve in this area, I’ve partnered with others who have strong quantitative skills to learn from them. Watching how my teammates work through economics and research methods problem sets has helped me develop my own intuition and laid a stronger mental foundation on which I can continue to build.

What suggestions do you have for supporting your peers and teaming up with fellow graduate students? Share in the comments below!

[Image taken and submitted by the author.]

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