Foundations for Building Lifelong Learners

As the school year comes to an end, educators are celebrating student successes and thinking about how they can help struggling students do even better next year.

As an instructional coach, I, too, am reflecting on the accomplishments of teachers I work with and starting to think about how I can set them up for success next year, which oddly enough, made me think of building a house. Let me explain…

Every school day, my morning consisted of getting my two children ready and out the door, dropping one at the elementary school, and continuing my drive down a long winding road to drop the other at preschool. Along this road, there is a house, though it wasn’t always there. My son and I watched it progress from the ground up. My curious 4 year old looked forward to seeing how it changed each day, and often questioned early on why it didn’t look any different. I tried to explain that they were building the foundation, and foundations take time. I tried to explain that a strong foundation was so important before adding on all the things that make it look like a house. Most of this went right over his head, but then again, he is only 4. Day after day, it just looked the same to him, a shell of a house that was beginning to take shape.

After a while, the construction started to take off. One day there was a roof, next bricks, then windows and doors, and before we knew it, it actually looked like a house! The construction workers took their time building a strong foundation, and when it was ready, the rest seemed to come with ease. We still enjoy driving down that road and are looking forward to the day we see the people who will be living there, wondering if they know what we know about how it came to be.

That's when it hit "home" for me.

Teaching is similar to building a house. We need to make sure our students start learning from a strong foundation that is embedded in classroom and school culture.

Teachers start each year by setting classroom expectations and routines, so this concept may not be anything groundbreaking. But, as education shifts toward more student-centered approaches, such as Project Based Learning (PBL), we not only need to set up routines and expectations, but we need to build foundational skills that help students work together and succeed in collaborative settings. We need to go deeper than surface level procedures and common expectations to give students tools that allow them to take ownership over their own learning so they may become productive members of a group -- and eventually society.

The TeamBuilders Group has a research-based approach to building the foundations needed for Equitable Collaboration to take place. We begin with a set of 6 Norms that can be strategically scaffolded to help build a culture of collaboration in classrooms and schools:

  • Be Present

  • Listen

  • Be Inclusive

  • Be Critical Friends

  • Share

  • Support

Norms are introduced individually through lesson plans that can be easily adapted to meet the needs of all students. In addition, there are tools and strategies teachers and students can use to help take ownership of these Norms and bring them to life throughout the school year and in their everyday lives.

The TeamBuilders Group Norms are like the foundation of the house that my son and I watched each day on our drive to school. They are intentional, and they take time, but once they are in place, student learning will soar. These foundational skills and strategies become the tools students need to construct their own learning. This way, they are better able to "build" lives that are fulfilling to them as individuals while also being firmly grounded in the importance of equity and collaboration in our ever-changing 21st-century workplace and society.


Mary Claire Arena, M.A.

Literacy, early childhood education, and outreach for TeamBuilders Group

Mary Claire is a master teacher and compassionate coach who leads the Educator Success team at The TeamBuilders Group. She is a certified Literacy Specialist and experienced early childhood educator. She received her Bachelor of Arts in Elementary Education from Loyola University of Maryland, and a Masters Degree in Literacy from the University at Buffalo.

For questions or more information about The TeamBuilders Group program, contact Mary at

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