Those dreaded group projects can actually pay off

As soon as I announce the next project, a low growl registers through the classroom.

“I know. You all love group projects so much,” I say sarcastically. I see eyes rolling so far back in students’ heads that I’m afraid their eyeballs will get stuck.

Do you remember group projects? First, there are roles – not the ones the teacher assigns. No, I’m referring to the ones that students embody: Grade Mongers, Followers, Apathetics and Rebels.

Next, teachers have two options for forming groups: Darwinism or Socialism. Either students choose their own groups – survival of the smartest, weaker students fail – or the teacher chooses for them, redistributing the “wealth” of skill and knowledge so every student suffers equally.

No matter how the groups are formed, the result is a painful social experiment. Teachers tell students that the suffering is necessary, that group projects are designed to prepare them for the “real world” where collaboration and teamwork are needed skills.

But similar issues exist in the adult work world because the roles don’t go away, we just get older. For example, my husband worked for more than six years for a private corporation specializing in shipping. The pay and benefits were generous, but he came home frustrated because of the dynamics between loaders, drivers and management. It’s not a secret that some people work harder than others. So did we really learn anything about teamwork?

Teamwork. This word should have powerful connotations of pride, loyalty, camaraderie and sweat. Except when it doesn’t. I mean, most of my team experiences can be chalked up as pretty horrifying at best. Why? Dear Reader, when one is a Competitive-Control-Freak-Perfectionist-People-Pleaser, then “team anything” really bites.

I was a Grade Monger. I prided myself on overachieving and feared failure. I hated doing group projects unless I knew that my teammates competed at the same level. This pattern held into my mid-20s when I entered my third year of teaching.

I hadn’t expected to approach teaching as a “team” event. At most, I expected it to be like track, mostly separate performances that added up to points to win the competition. But teaching real students ripped off my skin of pride and fear of failure.

Every day, I stood in front of three classes of about 30 students. Every day, they expected me to teach them something. Every day, I felt woefully underprepared for that expectation. Every day felt like a battle.

Quickly, I realized how greatly I needed support and the expertise of my peers. My vulnerability allowed me to be humble enough to accept help.

Help came in an unusual form – a group project. Oh, the irony.

A team of us volunteered to try something different at our school. We met twice a week to create lessons and projects. We got to know each other – well.

For example, one of the teachers would always growl during our meetings. Thinking that he was disagreeing, I finally asked him, “What the heck is going on in your head?”

He looked shocked, like he was unaware of the growling, and assured me that he was just thinking and we laughed. After that conversation, I gained confidence. Over time, we all grew to trust that each one truly cared.

Thankfully, no teams are judged by perfection or imperfection. However we are judged by whether we are functional or dysfunctional. We are judged by whether we set aside differences and egos to achieve a greater purpose.

If dysfunctional, teams can fail on a grand scale; if functional, they are far more successful and satisfying because of the shared “win.”

I thought I knew that group projects were riskier and more work. What I found out is that the best teams become family. And because of the struggles, pain and triumphs on that House C team, I have a soft place in my heart for those people. To them, I am forever indebted.

Casey Silbaugh of Tacoma, an educator of 15 years, is one of five reader columnists whose work appears on this page. Email her at caseyjosilbaugh@gmail.com.