The difference between a good year and a great year

It’s something I’ve heard a lot this year—most recently, amidst the kids’ end-of-year festivities.

Silas (age 6) just wrapped up his kindergarten year, which was wonderful in every way. I couldn’t have asked for a better first school experience, and I told each of his four teachers so on the last day of school, thanking them effusively for making that possible.

They agreed, saying Silas had a great year. Everyone had a great year.

And then they all—all four of them—said something interesting, some variation on a theme: it was a good year, an exceptional year, because they had a great group of kids.

They wanted to make sure I understood how lucky I was: not only were the individual students all good (as they usually are) but the personality mix was right. The students complemented each other, balanced each other out. There was a well-constructed web of relationships, the right balance of calm and energy. This doesn’t happen every year.

Over the years the teachers have learned that while you can encourage it, you can’t force it. Some years there’s a magical synergy; some years (most years) there’s not. The teachers have learned to notice when the magic happens, and appreciate it for what it is. You can’t let something that good go unacknowledged.

The magic doesn’t always happen, of course, whether you’re in kindergarten or college or a bona fide adult.

Adults have their fellow-travelers as well, of course. My husband and I were once in a series of small groups that was so disastrous that the organization’s leadership sought our permission to use our experiences as the basis for a “what not to do” training video. (The video was hilarious, and weirdly reassuring.)

At school, work, our neighborhoods, I’ve been in bad groups, and good groups, and a very few exceptional groups—the ones with wonderful individuals and wonderful synergy.

I’m tempted to write off the bad groups as unlucky and the good groups as near-misses, wanting to believe that every group can be exceptional.

But I know this: while I haven’t enjoyed them as much, I have learned so very much from the bad groups.

I’ve learned to pay attention: what’s working, what isn’t, and why? What do I bring to the table, and what do others bring? What personalities are indispensable, what hard questions have to be asked, what difficult topics need to be broached, and what behaviors will kill a group?

I’ve learned to notice a group for what it is. To remember that I can’t force a group, but I can nudge it a little, one direction or the other.

I hope my future—and my kids’ futures—are filled with many, many exceptional groups. Of course I do.

But wisdom is born of experience, and hope is a function of struggle. It’s not an overstatement to say I’ve cherished my exceptional groups. Yet I am also profoundly grateful for the bad ones. Maybe not during, but certainly after.

P.S. When we were in the fire, and scrappy friends.

Do you resonate with this? I’d love to hear about your good, bad, and truly exceptional groups in comments. 


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  1. Jamie says:

    This made me think of Smarter, Faster, Better by Charles Duhigg. He’s got a chapter on teams/groups, and how (theoretically, according to science) it’s the rules by which a team works that determine how good and productive it will be rather than the personalities or skill sets of the individuals involved. As much as I appreciate the science, I think your son’s teachers have a point, too – sometimes there’s just magic, and it’s worth seeing and appreciating it for what it is. : )

  2. Shannon says:

    I would love for you to talk through this topic some more (even informally, here in the comments). I have similar experiences with groups, and as someone who is an initiator, I spend a lot of time thinking about why some groups work and why some very obviously do not.

    To start, I have noticed that one person or one family with a bad attitude/ugly ways of talking to each other/significantly different parenting techniques seems to be enough to derail the entire group. One group I am a part of now (but not the leader of) has such a family. We are all aware of the issue. But the question is: what to do now? How do you ask people to leave?

    All of which is to say: I find this topic fascinating.

    • Nikki says:

      I love that you call yourself an initiator. I must be as well, though I get discouraged when invites are rarely reciprocated among my social circle. I, too, have a hard time being a group member when leadership is not strong enough to address inappropriate group dynamics. It’s usually a deal breaker for me, but if the group is worth fighting for, I would see what the organizers could do. If it’s a work or church-based group, there may some norms of behavior you could use when addressing the offenders. If it’s a less formal group, those are trickier.

  3. Dawn says:

    I was part of an exceptional group (campus ministry) in college. After I graduated, I had to go through a grieving process, as we all went in other directions. I was spoiled by that experience, and I had to train myself to not compare my new groups and friendships to the exceptional one. That’s hard to do! I have learned to be grateful for whatever friendships I have, to not force that magic on anything. It’s a valuable and difficult life lesson.

  4. Laura says:

    This reminds of group formation dynamics that I learned while leading backpacking trips (forming, storming, norming, performing, etc.. Ever heard this?). I preferred groups that got to the stage of working together well and functioning in strengths earlier on, but probably learned more as a leader from those that struggled.

    • Sarah says:

      Thank you for this reference to Tuckman’s stages of group development…I’d gotten dusty on this, and it’s pertinent to a current work project.

  5. Dawn says:

    My 8th grade daughter just had two group class projects last week-one was productive and successful and the other disastrous. Both groups has most of the same people!!! The difference, besides the subject: They were assigned different group tasks. And yes she is learning from the bad group experience.

  6. Anna says:

    This does resonate with me. I have been in groups where nothing was particularly wrong, but they just weren’t working like they could. I think it’s usually been the personality mix more than anything.
    I always want to believe that every group can be exceptional, too. It just isn’t always going to happen. It does make it that much more precious when you have one that is exceptional. And even with the bad ones, I can learn and be grateful for the lessons learned, and the positives from that group. And sometimes, I can at least be glad that I’m moving on.

  7. Marci says:

    Boy, I could write a book… and maybe I should on my group experiences. I do second the support for Tuckman’s stages of group development (forming, storming, norming, performing and re-forming.)

    My daughter’s first grade teacher seemed to have mastered Tuckman’s concepts and worked very hard on “norming” by establishing rules and expected behaviors during the first months. It was truly amazing – I saw 6=year-olds from many cultures and family backgrounds learn how to apologize, make amends, respect differences, and give each other praise and constructive feedback. The teacher said the kids needed to learn how to get along with each other before they could learn. Learning to read took a back seat to social skills, but once those social skills were mastered, the kids learned reading and everything else so much faster. The “storming” stage was short, rather than constantly resurfacing throughout the year.

    Great teachers (and leaders) do make for great group experiences, if not exceptional ones.

  8. Dana says:

    A great post! It is so true about groups. As a teacher for 35 years I can recall some stellar years that were like the one Silas experienced and some truly disastrous ones. It is true that group dynamics is so important . I tried to foster a great atmosphere by my teaching style, which helped to an extent in the hard years, but some things were out of my control. You learn to navigate the tough years as best you can and learn from them. I was just talking with my husband this morning about my last class. It was one of my favorites through the years. The children truly cared for each other and worked do well in groups and independently that I was able to do a lot of “out-of-the-box” projects with them, which made it memorable for all of us.
    I have also experienced being a part or groups that worked well and those that did not, both at work and in other activities. The last 2 years my Bible study group has been so enjoyable for that reason. We all came together as mostly strangers in Fall of 2014, but we meshed well from the beginning. I have also been a part of Bible study groups at church that I could not remain a part of due to a lack of function and cohesiveness.
    A group of teachers I worked with over 25 years ago at a “tough’ school met back up with one another at the retirement party of 2 of the ladies just recently. Some of us had not seen one another in many years but to was if no time had passed. We all just fell into conversation as if we had never been apart. We all reminisced about what an unusual and memorable experience that had been. You need to recognize when you are a part of a great groups and savor it. In the tough years you can remind yourself that this it is temporary and a learning experience.

  9. Rebecca says:

    This. I am in a church full of individuals I love, but the group dynamic is very difficult for me. No leader giving vision or direction, and all of the other workers are last minute loosey goosies. My husband and I privately call it Hee Haw —– Church because anyone and everyone just pops up and does what they feel like when they feel like it. So hard for a person who prefers structure and planning!

  10. Liza says:

    My youngest son just finished third grade. His class was one of those exceptional classes- everyone working together, everyone on the same page reaching for the same goals. He told me was sad the year was ending because he knew he’d have a different class and a different teacher next year. He loved this particular group so much that he didn’t want to let go of it. Which wasn’t surprising, because his 2nd grade class was the complete opposite. In 2nd, he came home complaining about group projects because he was the only one in his groups trying to follow directions. He complained that he couldn’t learn because the class as a whole was terrible. I helped in there once and knew what he meant. In the hour I was there, about 40 minutes was spent on crowd control and attempting to get the kids to listen to directions. Only 20 was spent on the actual project.

    Even though his 2nd grade was a good lesson in patience and working with differing personalities, I’m glad it was followed by a year where everyone meshed together well.

  11. hillary says:

    I was in a sorority in college and 2 of the years were and are still some of the best of my life. I still keep in contact with the sisters from that year and we STILL go over the parties the most magical spring break in Mexico with a brother fraternity in the history of possibly EVAR. It was magical. However there was one year that was just…horrible would be a weak adjective for what it was. The fall semester was a disaster but the prez got her stuff together made some hard decisions about who had to go and actually did a purge and the spring semester was a little bit better but not MAGICAL.
    But I learned SO much for the future from that one “bad” year. I learned how to make the best of bad teams and while in “real” life I can’t purge people from places like churches I CAN do my part to try and make it better.
    I cherish the memories of the 2 years that were like heaven on earth but the year that felt like maybe the second circle oh hell? Well, I can now attribute part of my success in life from lessons learned that year.

  12. Tina B says:

    For me, the “bad group” at work turned into a good group when those causing the drama left – dramatically! The office breathed a collective sigh of relief that they were gone. However, we were about 4 people short and putting together an extremely large event for our organization. We asked the “newbies” to step up and everyone else gladly helped whenever there was a need. It was an amazing experience to be a part of and we received many compliments that the event was the best ever. The success was a result of the spirit of the new group and will live forever in my memory.

  13. Kim says:

    I’m a Pre-K teacher assistant, and we just finished a MAGICAL year. Really, the sweetest class ever. Substitutes hoped they were being called in for our class; the specials’ teachers looked forward to our coming. The children all played together nicely, no cliques or excluding. It was the best mix of children ever. It’s odd but true that sometimes the sum is greater than the parts. And sometimes not!

  14. Lori says:

    I absolutely resonate with this! My class of 4th graders last year was one of those one-in-a-lifetime great groups. I just finished my 9th year of teaching and they were the only one out of 9 with that amazing (magical) connection! It is so rare and SO lucky.

  15. I think about this a good bit with our overseas situation. Here, people rotate in and out every two or three years. I met great people my first year, but the second year brought a new crop that has made for a really delightful group. This makes me nervous about doing another post. You can’t control what people will be there or know the group dynamic, and it makes such a difference on day to day happiness.

  16. Guest says:

    I joined a women’s charity group as an adult and was incredibly excited about both the charitable and social aspects. It turned out to be the most disorganized and dysfunctional group I’ve ever been part of. There was very little advance notice of anything, planning was non-existent and there was no leadership to figure out what everyone’s strengths were and how best to use those. After wandering around SE DC (frightening at the time) to volunteer at a women’s shelter and fearing for my life (literally) and then showing up for a multi-hour shift at a different event only to learn there was nothing to do, I politely removed myself from the group and breathed a sign of relief.

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