Putting the Team in Team Teaching

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“One of the most predictable contradictions in American college classrooms is that a solo instructor confronts a classroom full of diverse students. No matter how much she might strive to empathize with different learning needs, racial traditions, and personality types, any individual teacher is inevitably limited by the boundaries of her personality, learning preferences, racial group membership and experience . . . As teachers we all bring different gifts and handicaps to the table. A team that works well is aware of the different talents of its members and attempts to mix these as equitably as possible” (Brookfield, 2015, p 102).

The idea of creating a learning environment that capitalizes on the strengths of each member while minimizing weaknesses is so exciting! After all, aren’t ‘two heads better than one’? Brookfield (2015) states, “ . . . when two or three people with different racial identities, talents, and personalities form a teaching team, the possibilities for connecting to a wider range of students expand exponentially” (p 102). Yet, when I reflect on my experiences of ‘team teaching’ in workshops and in the online environment, I must confess it hasn’t been exciting at all – in fact sometimes it has been quite frustrating!

Are two heads really better than one? According to Ludden (2016), it depends on how they interact. In the past, it was thought that group work intelligence was determined by the average intelligence of the members or that one really clever team member who takes over and runs the show (Ludden, 2016). Research from Woolley (as cited in Ludden, 2016) reveals that the group actually develops a group mind and that the determining factor in how well the team performs is not based on “ . . . accumulated knowledge or skill set . . . (but) how well the individual team members can read the emotions of team members” (para 10). In other words, “ . . . a group composed of members who have moderate intelligence but are very good at reading each other’s emotions can outperform a group with high average intelligence but low social perceptiveness” (Ludden, 2016, para 12).

Another factor that impacts team functioning is how alike or diverse team member personalities and cognitive styles are (Ludden, 2016). Too close and there are limitations to the approaches the team will use, but too diverse and there are breakdowns in communication and a loss of empathy amongst team members (Ludden, 2016).

Too great of a diversity in teaching perspectives certainly was the cause for the feelings of vulnerability and frustration Dabbs (2013) had during “ . . .a very tough first year . . . “ (para 3) of teaching with a co-teacher who did not share her enthusiasm for teaching “ . . . in new and authentic ways” (para 1). As someone who is equally and enthusiastic about the very same thing, I can relate!

Team Teaching Advantages and Disadvantages, (n.d) lists the disadvantages of team teaching as follows (para 12):

Team teaching is not always successful. Some teachers are rigid personality types or may be wedded to a single method. Some simply dislike the other teachers on the team. Some do not want to risk humiliation and discouragement at possible failures. Some fear they will be expected to do more work for the same salary. Others are unwilling to share the spotlight or their pet ideas or to lose total control.

Despite the challenges team teaching presents, students do indeed value its impact on learning. Here are the results of a survey of 440 students taking a large undergraduate marketing class in Australia where team teaching was employed (Yanamandram & Noble, 2006, Abstract):

Despite the relatively weak forms of team-teaching adopted to teach this subject, the majority of the students liked the concept of team-teaching. The findings in this study suggest that team-teaching can facilitate student learning through the generation of interest and exposure to ‘experts’, but can hinder student learning if the team fails to act as a cohesive unit and work together to adequately link learning concepts. This study also argues that the most critical factor in determining the success or failure of a team-teaching effort is the actual composition of the team. A key implication of this study is that a team that comprises of ‘good teachers’ (perceived as those skilful in teaching large classes) is far more important than a team comprising of ‘experts’ in different knowledge areas.

Team teaching requires strong communication skills, dedication to ensuring skillful teaching is taking place, commitment to the team effort and a thorough understanding of the key concepts in order to reach the potential it can have on student learning. In order for this to take place, team members first have to be able to work together.

Tips on Working Together

For me, the clearer I am with myself about what is important to me the better I am able to communicate my expectations to team members. Murawski and Bernhardt (2015) suggest using tools to help a supervisor be able to understand how best to pair teams together, but if like me, you don’t always have a choice in who you will be team teaching with, understanding where everyone is coming from sounds like a good idea. Some tools to use to help identify teaching perspectives include:

Murawski and Bernhardt (2015) also acknowledge that sometimes teams may need “ . . . couples therapy” (para 30) if problems continue. For me, I feel that accessing my manager and or the teaching and learning centre in my university may also provide some more ideas of how problems can be worked through.

Once the team in on the same page in terms of teaching perspectives and approach the next step is to implement best practices with the approach. Here is a list of 10 ‘commandments’ that I thought really outlines these key concepts and will help pave the way to successful team teaching.

 The 10 Commandment of Team Teaching

For all of the commandments that Anderson and Landy (Leavitt, 2006) made, I was able to find supporting evidence from Brookfield (2015). I will definitely need to post these in my office!

  1. “Thou shalt plan everything with thy neighbour” (Leavitt, 2006, p 1)
    • “Team teaching is not two or three people agreeing to carve up a course into sections so that each person does 30 or 50 percent of the sessions. Properly conducted, team teaching involves all members of the team planning the course, writing the syllabus, specifying learning objectives, conducting the class, and evaluating student work” (Brookfield, 2015, p 141).
      • For the online course I teach, I need to ensure that my co-teacher and I are involved in all parts of planning by preparing content material jointly – either each taking on different parts and then providing constructive feedback or actually sitting down to the work together.

2. “Thou shalt attend thy neighbour’s lectures” (Leavitt, 2006, p 1)

  • “ . . . (E)very team member is in the class all the time so that she or he can complement and support whatever the lead teacher is doing (Brookfield, 2015, p 142).
  • An online course doesn’t have lectures per se but there are Discussion Forums and a Clear as Mud Post where we as instructors provide feedback to students about their anonymous muddiest survey questions (there are 5 surveys throughout the course). Instead of just having one instructor answering the questions, we could each take turns and then provide comments and debate concepts with each other in the forum (see commandments 3 and 4).

3. “Thou shalt refer to they neighbour’s ideas” (Leavitt, 2006, p 2)

  • “In team teaching we can hear a colleague explain and idea or contribute some information then show students how we connect it to our own stock of knowledge” (Brookfield, 2015, p 145).

4. “Thou shalt model debate with thy neighbour. (Leavitt, 2006, p 2)

  • “One of the meta-agendas of higher education is teaching students how to disagree in ways that don’t shut down further communication” (Brookfield, 2015, p 143).

5. Thou shalt have something to say, even when thou art not in charge (Leavitt, 2006, p 2)

  • “There will always be time when one instructor has more knowledge or experience than another, but when this is the case the teacher with less content knowledge has an important role to play as a skilful questioner and also as an observer of the class to ensure that everybody is getting the chance to participate” (Brookfield, 2015, p 152).
  • While this may be hard to make happen online, there is a face-to-face workshop where case studies are reviewed as a group. Having one person field questions, while the other observes classroom dynamics and takes a closer look at the students’ work would help to ensure that everyone is able to participate.

6. “Thou shalt apply common grading standards (Leavitt, 2006, p 3)

  • “Specifying the criteria by which students work will be assessed is crucial in any classroom but never more so than in a team-taught course. Ideally, it should be possible for either faculty member to slot into the grading role and assign the same grade or number of points for any particular piece of work” (Brookfield, 2015, p 151).
  • In the online course, there are rubrics for marking case studies and discussion forums, but one of the problems could be that my co-teacher and I may mark differently if we identify different issues, recommendations and relevant evidence to support decisions for the cases. In order to mark the same, we need to be able to work through the case studies together first, come up with a list of key issues etc. and then use that when we mark.

7. Thou shalt attend all staff meetings (Leavitt, 2006, p 3)

  • “Team members plan, conduct, evaluate, and debrief all activities together. This is the sine qua non of team teaching.” (Brookfield, 2015, p 150).
  • I feel that my co-teacher for the online course and I need to meet by phone every week to ensure that grading, discussion forums and plans for the next week’s module are discussed.

8. Thou shalt ask open questions (Leavitt, 2006, p 3).

  • “When a solo teacher tries to convey the different viewpoints or theoretical frameworks that exist on an issue, he or she is always working within the confines of being a singular voice . . . Team teaching allows your partner to pose a question or contribute an insight that opens you up to a genuinely new way of thinking about something” (Brookfield, 2015, p 145).
  • The online forums and Clear as Mud post provide wonderful opportunities for both of us to pose questions to students and each other.

9. Thou shalt let thy students speak (Leavitt, 2006, p 3).

  • Team teaching reaches a wider variety of learners. Solo teachers teach out of their preferred learning style. Although we can all expand our repertoire of teaching practices, there is a limit to how much we can change who we are (Brookfield, 2015, p 142).
  • I love researching information and will often take a very theoretical approach to a topic – an approach that may not work for all people. Engaging my co-instructor into the discussion forums will encourage more participation from the students, as it will appeal to a broader range of learning needs.

10. Thou shalt be willing to be surprised (Leavitt, 2006, p 3).

  • In team teaching there is no clear source of authority and knowledge in the classroom. This can create an environment of discovery and inquiry (Brookfield, 2015, p 144).
  • One huge advantage of teaching online is that you have time to think something through before you post it, but this is not the case in the workshops. Team teaching sounds like a very exciting adventure in learning!

 

References

Brookfield, S.D. (2015). The Skillful Teacher: On Technique, Trust, and Responsiveness in the Classroom 3rd Edition. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

Dabbs, L. (2013) Back to School: Teaching with Authenticity Edutopia George Luca Educational Foundation. Retrieved from: https://www.edutopia.org/blog/teaching-with-authenticity-lisa-dabbs

Leavitt, M. (2006) Team Teaching: Benefits and Challenges The Speaking of Teaching Center for Teaching and Learning at Stanford University Fall 2006 Newsletter Vol.16, No.1. Retrieved from: https://web.stanford.edu/dept/CTL/Newsletter/teamteaching.pdf

 Ludden, D. (2016) Are Two Heads Better Than One? It depends on how they interact. Psychology Today Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/talking-apes/201602/are-two-heads-better-one

Murawski, W.W. & Bernhardt, P (2015) An Administrator’s Guide to Co-Teaching ASCD Learn Teach Lead Educational Leadership December 2015/January 2016 | Volume 73 | Number 4 Co-Teaching: Making It Work Pages 30-34. Retrieved from: http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational_leadership/dec15/vol73/num04/An_Administrator’s_Guide_to_Co-Teaching.aspx

Team Teaching – Advantages, Disadvantages (n.d.) Education Encyclopedia – StateUniversity.com. Retrieved from: http://education.stateuniversity.com/pages/2493/Team-Teaching.html

Yanamandram, V.K. & Noble, G. (2006) Student Experiences and Perceptions of Team-Teaching in a Large Undergraduate Class University of Wollongong Research Online Faculty of Business Faculty of Commerce. Retrieved from: http://ro.uow.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1238&context=commpapers

 

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