All About TESOL Team Teaching

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.

Benign Frankenstein

English can be a powerful instrument for community building
                                                    But is it hurting as much as it’s helping?

The 2014 TESOL International Convention ended a month and a day ago. I didn’t go, but the organization conveniently live-streams the presentations of the keynote speakers. This year Dr. Surin Pitsuwan, of Thai political notoriety, gave the opening keynote address. His topic was of particular interest to me because it dealt with English in East Asia, where I teach now. Having himself been an English language learner, Dr. Pitsuwan provided some very unique insight into the use of English in this region.

He began by talking about the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), the economic organization made up of 10 countries. Among these 10 countries, nearly 1000 languages are spoken or have official status but they use English as their lingua franca. ASEAN was established in 1967 and has since become one of the most significant centers of consumerism and development. In 2012 they had a higher percent of world GDP than both the US and the EU. Of all the economic organizations, ASEAN seems to have the highest potential for growth. Could they have achieved this level of success without a common language with which to communicate?

Not too shabby

Not too shabby

Southeast Asia is a region brimming with natural resources and tourist hot spots. It’s located right between economic powerhouses China, Japan, and Australia; the proximity to, making business much less expensive. You could say that all the dominos were in place for the ASEAN countries to vault themselves into economic success. Yet this couldn’t have happened without effective communication and the ability to collaborate between the nations. English has provided that last missing domino that made the whole cascade work.

Dr. Pitsuwan said that “the heart of East Asia beats in English”. This is a significant statement. These are countries where English doesn’t play a huge role outside of their economic pact. Only 3 of the 10 ASEAN nations have English as an official language, but even in these scenarios, English is second to other more popularly spoken languages there. The language, or languages, we speak play a defining role in our personal identities. To say that the heart of East Asia beats in English is to comment strongly on the identity of East Asia.

During the Q&A after his address, someone asked Dr. Pitsuwan a poignant question. They asked if he thought of English as a “colonizing language”, having a negative impact around the world. In other words, are inner circle countries such as The United Kingdom and America using English to dominate those who weren’t “privileged” to learn English as their native tongue? Are we imposing our culture and identity on East Asia by teaching them English?

nope nope nope nope

nope nope nope nope

I couldn’t agree more with Dr. Pitsuwan’s response to this question: it depends on your attitude. If you think of English as an oppressive entity, forced upon you by those with economic power, then that’s what it will be. But as Dr. Pitsuwan said, “I prefer to see things positively”. English is an instrument of construction. In using English, the ASEAN countries have made themselves an economic powerhouse that can compete with the likes of the United States. In using English, have they sold their culture for economic reform? No, they have made English their own, and used it to better their station.

What people need to understand, and what the asker of that question didn’t know, is that there is no big-brother-esque English out there ready to put its boot into the face of those without power. There are only Englishes, like American English and Asian English, available to be used and developed by anyone with the will to do so. Dr. Pitsuwan quoted one of the other keynote speakers in his address, Professor David Graddol: “These peoples out there who learn English from the native speakers may become more influential to the world than the inner circle native speakers themselves, “so watch out”, said Dr. Pitsuwan, “we may become your Frankenstein.”

Fish & Dips

A Compare and Contrast of Two EFL Programs from Opposite Sides of the Pacific

In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. And in the land of non-English speakers, the English speaker is a teacher. This simple maxim is what makes it so easy for native English speakers, ink still wet on their four year degrees, to live abroad for a spell and gain an international-experience stamp on their resumes.

Most of these would-be teachers come from backgrounds far removed from pedagogy; business majors, journalism majors, and of course the dreaded philosophy major. They put on their teacher costumes for a year or more and find themselves, ever so easily, in front of a class full of students who are eager to acquire that ‘golden ticket to future success’, the English language. But what happens next? That all depends, naturally, on a variety of factors; but invariably, the effectiveness of this education will rely strongly on the culture of the area in which it takes place, as well as the ability of the educator.

I’ve been privileged to have experienced teaching English as a foreign language in two disparate situations during the past two years. In 2012 I taught English literature and grammar at a bilingual school in rural Honduras. Now, I teach oral communication and composition at a senior high school in rural Japan. The language education methodologies of these two schools are similar in some respects; however the language proficiencies of my Honduran and Japanese students are as different as are their cultures.

In the next few paragraphs I’ll explore these similarities and differences and maybe shed some light, from my personal experiences, on how this army of non-educators, and the cultures of these two very different regions affect EFL education. Or if no light is shed, at the very least I’ll open a dialogue on the topic.

Bilingual Education at a Honduran School

English language education doesn’t have a long history in Latin America. For a country like Honduras, Spanish speaking nations stretch thousands of miles in all directions; where is the motivation to learn a language other than Spanish? It’s not a new thing that English comes to certain parts of the world slower than others. Regions are slow to adopt English language education usually due to suspicion (it will tarnish the native language or culture) or due to lack of necessity, as in Honduras’ case. Whatever the case may be, the unequal distribution of English can lead to an unequal distribution of power. Honduras has perhaps detected this unequal distribution because more and more English language schools and programs are recently emerging. The school for which I taught, for example, was less than six years old.

Despite English language education being in its toddler years for Honduras, and in its infancy for my particular school, the students in my classes were incredibly adept at speaking English. Here’s why:

  1. The majority of students enter the school in the early primary years (the school encompasses kinder through high school) and are therefore exposed to English from a very young age.
  2. Being a true bilingual school, over half of the classes (math, science, world history, etc.) are taught entirely in English, by native speakers. This gives the advantage of students having advanced English language skills but with the caveat that their knowledge in the content of the courses taught in English often being sub-par.
  3. The school is located in an extremely small town and students encounter teachers frequently outside of the classroom, putting them in situations to use English authentically and purposefully.
  4. Latin America has a culture of interpersonal interaction and communicativeness which lends to language learning.

I taught at the lower secondary level and I would describe my students speaking and listening abilities to be high-intermediate to advanced. Their reading comprehension and writing ability was slightly lower than what it could have been given the amount of education they’ve received but it wasn’t horrible. So we can see that the above four reasons can be a formula for success in language learning, but the pedagogy also had plenty of room for improvement. Take a look at the following impediments.

  1.  Of the 16 native English speakers who taught alongside me, only 2 had prior teaching experience or a degree in education. The curricula, lesson planning, and methodology were entirely up to the individual teacher, experienced or not. The classic misunderstanding of many English teacher recruiters is that the ability to speak English at a native level also means you can teach it.
  2. A lack of quality materials leads to poor teaching methodology. Compounding the lack of teaching experience among the native speaker recruits, they are also given outdated or otherwise limited textbooks to work with. Often these textbooks are the only materials they are provided with and therefore the only thing they have to inform their teaching method in the classroom. Therefore, Grammar is taught explicitly, phonics is modeled after native speaker pronunciation models, and communicative activities are non-existent.
  3. Students who are admitted at post-primary grade levels often don’t have any English abilities at all. They are given a 6 month intensive EFL course and then placed in the classroom alongside students who have been using English for years. This creates classrooms with huge gaps in between the abilities of students and with teachers who don’t know how to deal with it.

These are typical drawbacks in EFL scenarios, yet despite these drawbacks, my Honduran school graduates students who can communicate in English incredibly well. One student even obtained a scholarship and is at a university in Florida. In the end, the mindset of the Honduran students is that English is necessary to succeed. This is not the case for my Japanese students however, so let’s take a look at them.

EFL at a Japanese senior high school

Japan has a long history with English language education, opposite from Latin America. The Japanese adopted English as their primary foreign language in the late 1940’s, and today have many programs in place that aide in the development of their English language curricula and teaching methodologies. You would think that with this experience and continued development, that Japanese students would be experts in English. This is not the case. The Japanese system suffers from the ailments that affected my Honduran school but with compounding issues. Let’s put this in list form:

  1. Japan also recruits from a pool of inexperienced educators; however these teachers are almost never given their own classrooms. They are put in the role of assistant and work with a Japanese teacher of English who decide how to utilize them, if at all. This results in the English classes being taught mostly in Japanese.
  2. Although Japanese textbooks and other teaching materials are more developed and are specific for Japanese EFL classrooms they are not geared toward communicative ability, but toward grammatical competency. Japanese university entrance exams focus mainly on grammar, very few have speaking components so teachers and students alike see little reason to speak English.

There are also several successful aspects of my Honduran school’s system which are non-existent or underdeveloped in Japan:

  1. Students don’t begin receiving English instruction until late primary school, and even then it’s just a few hours a week, in classes that are English language specific. As mentioned earlier, my Honduran school taught half its total curricula in English, starting at the kindergarten level.
  2. There is practically zero exposure to English outside the classroom. Japanese students spend hours at school, not just in classes but in club activities that go into the evening hours and even on weekends. What little free time they have is spent with their friends or families, speaking Japanese.
  3. Japan has a culture of group uniformity and togetherness which has at least two influences on language learning. One, is it makes all things foreign categorized differently psychologically, making it difficult to fully adopt another language. The other, is that students who may be naturally skilled at English will not exercise their skill because they don’t want to stand out.

In teaching senior high school, I’m getting the students who are graduating; the final products of the Japanese compulsory education system. I would evaluate them to be, at best, high-beginners in English speaking and listening, with reading and writing perhaps slightly better. None of the 200+ graduating students this year decided to pursue a higher education abroad, nor would they have been prepared to if they had decided on it. This is due in part to the fact that many Japanese businesses recruit solely from Japanese universities, and many students feel that a foreign university might hurt their chances of getting a good job in Japan. Both those businesses and the students are seemingly not considering international employment opportunities or the other strengths of bilingualism in English.

Why is all this important?

Let’s take a quick step back. It isn’t fair to compare a private bilingual school in Honduras to a national curriculum in Japan. Private bilingual schools are small, profit making enterprises; Japan’s English education system affects millions of students across thousands of schools. However, both entities have room for improvement, and looking at the English abilities of their graduates, Japan has more room. Yet although eager for improvement, Japanese students and teachers are like chips, mired in a cultural dip that slows their progress toward change.

But what changes can, or should, be made? Some of the issues affecting English language Education mentioned above are very difficult to change; the grade level at which students begin learning English for instance. But the more serious of ailments mentioned above have a simple cure: textbooks geared towards grammar, and lack of effective teaching methodologies can both be alleviated by a skilled and qualified English language educator. All English language institutions, Japan’s especially, need to stop hiring people to teach English merely because they are degree holding native speakers of the language. Fish are expert swimmers, but notoriously bad at teaching people how to swim.

In the end the responsibility always lays with the individual. The individual teacher is responsible to ensure they’re qualified to give the students the education they need and deserve. The individual hiring entities, to make sure they are giving their students a qualified teacher. And of course, the individual students are responsible to be active participants in their education.