Why do it? And does it even work?
It is my belief that if you asked the average person to visualize a classroom, they would imagine a square room with about 30 students and 1 teacher. This has been the popular model throughout most of recorded time. Born from necessity instead of any kind of design, from the many children who needed an education and few people able to provide them with one, teachers logically split the workload among themselves, each taking a group of children to educate. This all officially started in ancient Greece and carried on though western civilization history, so that today it’s actually not much different from what it was 2,000 years ago.
In the twentieth century of western culture, there was an explosion of education. Class, ethnic, and other discernments aside, it is now almost taken for granted that a student will eventually attend college. There is now an abundance of educated people in the world, more than any other time in History. In fact, about 6.7% of the world population has some kind of college degree. With some quick math that makes one college educated person on Earth for every 15 people who haven’t graduate college. Having more educated people in the world also means we have more teachers. So that now, instead of having a single teacher for multiple grade levels and subjects, we now commonly have a different teacher for each grade level, and beyond a certain level, a different teacher for each subject.
It’s no surprise then that the practice of team teaching, having more than one teacher in the classroom, is starting to be implemented. Team teaching can involve a lot of things: linked course collaboration, and interdisciplinary enrichment, just to name two. But I want to focus on the ways team teaching manifests within the language classroom. It has always been my belief that teachers, like boat captains and broth cooks, should undertake their task individually; but before dismissing team teaching out of hand I wanted to examine it closely. I’ve been team teaching in English as a foreign language classes for the past year and a half. From my experience, team teaching in this context can take three different forms; and I’d like to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each.
1. Teacher / Assistant Teacher
In this scenario, one of the teachers has the primary responsibility while the assistant provides support. This means that the teacher plans the curriculum, decides the teaching methodology, gives the assignments, and chooses how to assign grades. The assistant provides unobtrusive assistance in the classroom, marks assignments and tests, and may do a portion of the lesson planning.
The advantages to this style of team teaching come when there is a large difference in experience, such as with a novice or student teacher and a veteran. The learning potential and professional development can be a great benefit to the novice. Also, the marking of tests and lesson planning by the novice can take some of the work load off of the veteran. And of course, the students get the benefit of the extra attention in the classroom.
There can be many disadvantages in this style of team teaching, especially if the aforementioned novice/veteran relationship isn’t ideal. Experience doesn’t necessarily equate to ability, so if the veteran teacher is incompetent, or not up to date with current teaching methodologies, it will create discord with a perhaps much more knowledgeable or talented novice. Conversely, if the novice is a bit too green, it can require a lot of time to properly train and supervise them, and they can find themselves being merely an observer at best. Lastly, outside the realm of teacher training, this style of team teaching is rarely preordained and usually manifests from an unequal distribution of power, which can lead to unhealthy qualities in the relationship between the teachers like resentment or apathy, which may in turn spill over into the classroom and affect the students.
2. Teachers sharing equal responsibility but dividing the teaching time
This scenario can pan out in many different ways. Ideally both (or all) the teachers work together extensively to establish the class curriculum, grading policy, and assignments. The actual teaching, however, is done separately. This can happen by teachers tag-teaming different sections of a lesson, teaching on alternating days, or dividing the classroom so that it’s like two classes are happening concurrently.
The advantage to this style of team teaching is that teachers with different skill or knowledge sets can complement each other. This can work brilliantly in a language classroom where teaching teams can consist of a native English speaker and a non-native English speaker, the typical strengths of whom lie in pragmatic and grammatical knowledge, respectively; or when teaching teams in an EFL context include a native speaker of the student’s mother tongue.
The disadvantages arise from the incongruence of teaching methodologies that come from teaching separately. If one member of the team runs a teacher-fronted class while the other is student-centered, or if there is a disagreement on how communicative or grammar-focused a lesson should be, it will increase the mental acrobatics the students have to perform to keep up. Teaching styles can also foster difficulties. Anyone who was a student knows that there are as many different teaching styles as there are teachers, and each new teacher takes some getting used to. It is difficult for a student to negotiate the styles of two teachers in a single class.
3. Teachers sharing equal responsibility and sharing the teaching time
This scenario is exactly like number two above but instead of doing the teaching separately, teacher teams teach at the same time. For this to occur, teachers have to agree on a single method for teaching, and they have to make sure their styles of teaching are compatible as well.
Of the three modalities team teaching can take, this one is the most advantageous. Students get the benefit of a class that is well planned and prepared, as well as teachers whose styles and methodologies are in harmony. When done properly, the teachers can bring the full benefit of their individual knowledge to their students while simultaneously observing each other and working towards mutual improvement.
Although this style of team teaching is the most advantageous, it is also the most difficult to manage. This style has been described as “two teachers, one mind”, which shows the astronomical amount of communication that needs to occur between the teachers. Also, not just anyone can partner up and do this. Teachers who want to work together at this level have to have some form of pre-existing compatibility, whether that be in style, methodology, or personality.
There can be a lot of benefits to having two teachers in a language classroom; for example, teachers can effectively model conversations for their students, they can have a higher diversity of language to display (e.g. different dialects, accents, or second languages), and they can also pay much more attention to the students and the effectiveness of their own lessons because one teacher will always be observing while the other is teaching. But from my experience, team teaching is like communism, it looks great on paper, and that’s about it.
Many studies on the effectiveness of team teaching conclude that the benefits are negligible and that team teaching should be used with caution. But the executive decision to implement team teaching must come from something. As I mentioned in the beginning of this article, there is an abundance of educated people in the world; is team teaching merely a reaction to that abundance? If so, why not reduce class sizes by half instead of having two teachers in one class? The answer is that team teaching is implemented because it’s believed that the addition of a second teacher is also the supplement of additional expertise. This in turn leads one to believe that team teaching is a reaction to teachers who are inadequate by themselves and require additional support.
Regardless of the reason why team teaching is implemented, how it is implemented is of primary importance. From my above observations on the three scenarios team teaching can have, only the third scenario is ideal; unfortunately, this is also the scenario that is the rarest. Administratively assigning teachers to work as a team will undoubtedly lead to scenario number one, a teacher / assistant relationship. Only colleagues who mutually agree to put forth the effort to achieve true teamwork should attempt team teaching.