This article first appeared in the March 2004 issue of The Teaching Professor.
In his excellent book on team teaching (Interdisciplinary Courses and Team Teaching), James Davis posits two extremes on the continuum of team teaching. One pole consists of “courses planned by a group of faculty and then carried out in serial segments by the individual members of the group” (p. 7). At the opposite pole are “courses planned and delivered by a group. . . . They take primary responsibility for individual class sessions, but sometimes [italics ours] two or more faculty are involved in planning and delivering the instruction of a particular class” (p. 7). The two of us take the latter extreme even further, going into what we call Total Team Teaching (TTT), and we find the results highly effective.
TTT means that each of us contributes equally to Davis’ four criteria of collaboration: planning, content integration, teaching, and testing and evaluation. In the 30-plus classes we’ve team taught, we’ve changed a thing or two, but one factor remains constant: we both appear in every class session and share equally in preparation, presentation, and assessment. We create the thrust of the class, develop the course objectives, select the texts, construct the syllabus and procedures, and plan each class session together. In our most recent TTT class (a graduate seminar in creative writing pedagogy), we even spent several months together doing research and establishing a theoretical approach before writing up a class proposal for the department’s graduate coordinator.
Based on our 32 years of experience, we’d like to offer you some advice.
- Choose a colleague who is compatible. We began as a team in tennis as doubles partners, became ITV script collaborators, and only then decided we might be able to teach together. It wasn’t so much a matter of similar disciplines; in fact, Hal was a Restoration specialist while Charlie was a Modern Americanist. What brought us together was similar temperaments: a good sense of humor, a sense of self-deprecation, a desire for excellence in all things, a commitment to the profession, a willingness to experiment, a respect for pop culture, and, mostly, a passionate enthusiasm for our field. Now we can literally finish each other’s sentences in class (would you believe that some of our colleagues who have known us for more than 20 years as team teachers occasionally call us by each other’s name?).
- Play off each other’s strengths. Sometimes opposites do attract. Charlie tended to be a one-man think tank while Hal possessed superior organizational skills. Charlie adored the moment of genesis and Hal loved vanquishing the devil in the details. In our case this right brain–left brain combination clicked. Additionally, while neither of us would likely be mistaken as poster children for low self-esteem, each of us found it easy to check his ego at the door. Finally, we each believed that we’d be better together than we would be separately.
- Don’t always “agree” either in preparation or class. While in real life, we have published some 600 co-written pieces, in class we often stage intellectual disagreements that go beyond “Tastes great” and “Less filling.” Hal might model the workshop approach to creative writing or insist that Whitey was duped in Lardner’s story “Haircut,” while Charlie fights for the techniques approach or demonstrates Whitey is actually Lardner’s chief conspirator. One caveat: modeling intellectual debate works more effectively the higher you go in higher ed; in first-year classes, student evaluations often wonder, “Why do two people who fight so much teach the same class?” or “Please just tell me one way to think.”
- Carry your load. Just as researchers have found that in successful marriages each partner believes, “I’m doing more than 50 percent of the work,” so in every team-teaching situation try to do more than your collaborator. Another positive result of this effort will be that you keep raising the bar. Also, before and during class, listen to your collaborator. While your partner is teaching, for example, don’t take the mental time off. Be thinking of that perfect example, that over-arching concept being discussed, where to go next, whether to go with the flow of class or stick to the planned routine.
- Push the envelope of administrative guidelines for compensation. Some universities, like ours, don’t like to offer extra incentive for team teaching (e.g., reduced load), but don’t give up. After team teaching for a long time simply because we liked it and found it effective, we began to search for other compensations. We have used TTT successfully for increased merit pay. We have found obscure guidelines in the Faculty Handbook that allow chairs and deans to negotiate reduced loads. We have located grants that pay for reduced loads. We have talked the university’s Teaching & Learning Center into offering incentives to us. We have discovered that the administration will actually allow more latitude in honors courses and that provosts and deans have little-known discretionary funds. And finally, when Charlie became chair, we arrived at a creative solution. We set the individual class cap high and when a plethora of students enrolled, we split the class (on paper only so that we each got credit for a section) and continued to team teach.
Hal Blythe, PhD, and Charlie Sweet, PhD, are resident authors at Eastern Kentucky University.
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