Posted: February 26th, 2023


Setting the Stage:

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You are the principal for an elementary school in a county in Tennessee where the COVID cases are rising but not as fast as some metro counties, unemployment for some of your students’ families is high because a local company has been hard hit by COVID, and many of your teachers are over the age of 50. The County Board of Education has recently decided that all schools will open. Given the limited internet access, an online option is less viable in your school district.


Based on the calls you have received (and you have taken notes), 50% of the parents/teachers want classes to resume as normal pre-March. That means all activities take place, there is no mask use, and no social distancing. The other 50% want school to be delayed until the rise in cases subsides. They also want masks to be mandated and social distancing to be enforced.


No matter where you go, people seem to be divided. You recently completed an awesome leadership course at MTSU based on the 5 Practices of Highly Effective Leaders. You’ve decided to use some of the techniques the professors shared with you. You know that the school year will not be effective if you cannot find the common ground between what appears to be a divided school family (teachers, parents, kids, staff, etc.).


Technique: Post-It Notes Exercise to Find Common Ground


· This technique uses a “focus-on-the-future” approach to help people who are divided to find common ground when they focus on the future they want to see.

· This technique also uses post-it notes to capture EVERYONE’s views without judgment. It is essential that every idea shared is read out loud with no judgment, same matter of fact done of voice, treating every comment/idea in the same way.

· The exercise should be facilitated by someone the group trusts or at least does not lack trust in. You may want to bring in an outside facilitator that has little knowledge or “dog in the fight” to lead the exercise. There cannot be an hidden agenda to the process or it will not work.









How It Works


Leader or Facilitator Poses 3-5 questions to the Group.


· Have the group focus on a question about the future. For example, the principal could ask:


What do we want the last day of school to look like for our school in May?


If we could read the minds of our students on the last day in May, what would make us most proud to learn?


Ten years from now, when we are at the high school graduation for these students in our classes today, what do we want them to remember about this year?


· Also, ask a few questions that allow people to get their points of view considered in the collective whole. Again, no judgment. Sometimes it is powerful to acknowledge fears, worries, unspoken thoughts, etc.


What do you fear about the future for our school family?


What is special about our school?


If we are not able to teach face-to-face, what concerns you most in terms of your students?


Members of the Group Answer the Questions Individually


· People record their answers on post-it notes and then walk their answers to the board or flip charts to post their notes.


Providing the same color post-its and same color pens helps keep the comments/answers anonymous.


Sometimes it works best not to limit the number of different post-it’s a person writes for a question. You could also say, write three fears or at least two ideas.


You may have them only answer one question at a time or do them all at the same time. Letting them work at their own pace within a given time frame may allow for those to spend more time one question than another. It may make the process seem less controlled which could be good.



Reporting the Answers/Input and Sorting into Common Themes


· After all the post-it notes are posted, then have a volunteer read all the answers under the question. They should not ask follow-up questions or pass judgment.


· The common ground part comes in grouping the answers into themes. You can have a facilitator do so or ask for volunteers from the group to do so. It is important to not over collapse. You can ask the group for guidance or approval for the themes.


Did I represent what was suggested by grouping those ideas together?


Does the group see these things as being similar?


Helping the Group See the Common Ground that has Been Identified


· Once the input has been grouped, the Facilitator reads each posed question and the theme areas. Hopefully, the group will have identified some common themes that can lead to moving forward.

· If the group seems to be in a less divided state, ask for observations or take aways. This may be where the leader steps back into the process if a facilitator was used.


Do you feel like your input is still represented in the theme areas?


Do you believe this process has captured where we collectively want our future to be?


Getting from where we are to where we want to go is the hard part. But can we know see where we want to get together and can focus on how to get there?


· Take a picture of ALL the post-it notes under their categories to record the session/input. People want to know that their input was given equal weight with other input. People want to feel like the process was fair, authentic, and not manipulated to generate a particular result.










Technique: Toss Away Negative Thoughts in Trash Can


When trying to get a group to have ownership for the fears/needs/weaknesses of the entire team, try this technique.


Using the same color/size of paper and same type of pen, have each team member answer a question, wad up the paper into a ball, and toss it into a CLEAN and EMPTY garbage can. The trash can should be placed in the middle of the team or in front of the team. Possible questions are:


What is it that I dislike about this company?


When do I feel the least productive or valued at this company?


What do I fear about the future?


What do the leaders of this company not understand that is getting in the way of us being a better company?



Reporting Out and Collectively Owning the Input


After all the input has been deposited into the trash can, have each person take a crumbled piece of paper from the clean trash can. Taking turns, each team member opens the paper and reads out loud to the group what is written on it. Again, with no judgement.


The facilitator may want to repeat the question every 2-3 answers to give the question more emphasis and context for the input.


The purpose of the exercise is for the team to have team ownership of these more negative ideas/beliefs/feelings. It is also possible that others may also be feeling these same things but are afraid to say so.



  • Health and safety: The health and safety of students, teachers, and staff should be the top priority. With COVID cases rising and many teachers over the age of 50, it is important to take measures to mitigate the risk of transmission. Learning: Students’ education is also important, and the best way to ensure learning is to have students attend school in-person. However, it is also important to make sure that students are able to learn in a safe and healthy environment

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