Most of us have applauded the various calls for a fuller understanding of active student learning, but long-term classroom change can intimidate teachers. Just like students, teachers need hands-on, feedback-filled practice to improve use of active learning in the classroom. Although team teaching is often seen as too expensive these days, the benefits of this kind of teacher collaboration are unparalleled. Team teaching takes the idea of on-the-job practice to a different level by blurring the lines between our roles as teachers and learners. Team teaching isn't a new idea, and it doesn't replace the articles, lectures, or collegial discussions we use to enlarge our instructional understandings. However, we believe it offers teachers a first-rate active learning experience because that's precisely the experience we had when we joined forces in teaching Basic Writing.
In the planning stage, before students' backpacks and personalities fill the room, professors use their own assumptions to create course structures, fashion assignments, and decide on content. Habits, rarely questioned during solitary walks from office to classroom, sometimes clash when two professors try to finalize class plans. They discover that their perspectives on the success of a class activity aren't the same, and that causes them to have a conversation during which their individual assumptions are examined. Resolution of differences often requires each team member to try new methods or refine old ones, which can feel uncomfortable but leads to professional growth. It happened that way for us. Instead of holding a new method at arms' length, we found ourselves learning from each other during planning as well as in class.
Learning to teach as you're team teaching a course is not at all like getting advice after a colleague has visited your class. In that case the decision of whether or not to follow the advice is an individual one. In team-taught courses, faculty share power, which means the switch from teacher to learner and back isn't optional; it's automatic. It forces faculty to try the new methods and learn from each other how to execute them effectively.
Even instructors who share teaching philosophies may disagree when they're evaluating an activity's success or deciding what needs to happen next in class. Team-teaching conflicts offer sustained practice that goes beyond a brief observational conversation. Learning, as our students often tell us, can be uncomfortable. Team teaching has forced us to do things we haven't done before and to learn from the experience.
Teaching-learning literature offers a robust conversation about the benefits of team teaching for students, but perhaps we need more focus on how its shared power structure so effectively transforms teachers into learners. As team teachers move separately around the room in a referee-style dance, each inevitably collects different information about what is happening in small groups or independent practice. Gathering more real-time information on student performance can clearly help students if used accurately, but what professors learn from each other needs deeper investigation. In our classrooms, we don't question each other's on-the-spot decisions, but as we teach together, we're forced to acknowledge that, like referees, we don't always see the play in the same way. With two experts in the room, it's difficult to bluff about student learning and even harder to make informed instructional decisions.
Team teaching is harder than it looks but has ongoing benefits. As we work together, we've gotten clearer about the assumptions we're making and the habits that characterize how we teach. We're also finding it easier to move our teaching styles in different directions. Though team teaching requires vulnerability to put work that feels personal in front of colleagues, it offers sustained practice that can't be had from a come-and-go peer review.
Team teaching shouldn't be ruled out automatically because of its costs. When it comes to an effective way to promote the growth and development of individual faculty members, it may be an investment more departments, programs, and institutions should consider. In our cases, it has been one of the most memorably active learning experiences of our careers. We teach differently as a result of having taught together.
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