Team-teaching – a TDSIG ebulletin exclusive

words by Laura De Robertis and Phil Painter
When, at the end of summer 2016, some of the newer teachers at St Giles London Central were invited to give feedback on what could make them feel more prepared when coming into a busy year-round school, one suggestion which stood out was the opportunity to team-teach. Laura had already had experience of this in her native Luxembourg, where she taught 1-2 times a week with a colleague over three months. After completing her CELTA, she also taught alongside her DoS in her first school in London. Despite Phil having taught for over 20 years, he had far less experience in this area. In the autumn, a problem arose with Laura’s General English Intermediate class. The students could appear unmotivated and unresponsive and were often reluctant to give opinions. Having been offered the opportunity to be observed, after some discussion it was thought it would be more useful to see how they interacted with another teacher. From this point, we decided to work on a project on team-teaching, which is still continuing, even though we now work in different countries.

An opportunity to develop

Of course, we are aware that what we are doing here is not unique, or revolutionary. Although neither of us have worked in such a school, there are many places around the world in which teaching alongside a colleague is a standard part of the curriculum. This, however, was intended initially to help us develop in our own teaching and then look at what could be done to help other teachers in their own development, alongside more common methods such as observations. Our definition of team-teaching, then, is the preparation (the discussion of stages, methods, ideas and resources) then the delivering of a lesson as co-teachers, followed by the sharing of feedback. As well as being of benefit to the students, both teachers should be able to develop professionally from each lesson by combining their strengths.

Setting up team-teaching

To deal with the issues of the specific class, we wanted to find a universal theme which everyone could relate to and to include discussion questions which were about their experiences rather than opinions. We chose the theme of happiness and featured a lead-in with things that make each of us happy. This was done in part so the students could learn a little more about us. Beyond this, we faced the challenge of combining styles – although we were already friends, we had different ways of teaching and different things we wished to learn from each other. Ahead of the lesson, we assigned which stages of the lesson we would do, so that we could learn by watching rather than by getting feedback from the other. Although the lesson was successful in dealing with the issues which prompted the decision to team-teach, Laura was less satisfied than Phil. Students were more forthcoming in talking about their experiences than opinions and Laura realised that the dynamic was the same with other teachers, making her reassured and more relaxed for subsequent lessons. She felt that this was a better way to deal with this rather than through an observation, which would have been more stressful. On the other hand, we didn’t communicate enough during the lesson, and didn’t want to feel we were dominating when the lesson should have been shared. We maybe had too much respect for each other in this regard or felt it was not appropriate to discuss things in front of the students, but this had an impact on our timings. The allocation of stages meant that we were following each other rather than teaching together. Prior to this, we had also underestimated the time it would take to plan a lesson – it’s a lot more than when you are on your own as you need to talk more about your chosen methods, for example. However, you do end up with a much more solid lesson.

For our second lesson together (with a Pre-intermediate group), we were conscious of including elements which required two teachers. This featured primarily in demonstrations of tasks, but also in closer monitoring than would otherwise have been feasible (with the seating changed so that there were two groups each around a large table), feedback where there could be a genuine information gap if students were reporting back on what the other teacher had just monitored, and the elicitation of vocabulary, which during the lesson turned into a team game with concept-checking and drilling shared between the two teachers. Importantly, we gave ourselves more time to prepare this one, combining and grading materials that each of us had already used then adapting the final activity to produce a task which was more structured than Laura was used to and looser and more experimental than something which Phil would normally try. During the lesson we addressed all the issues we discussed in the first feedback so we interacted, consulted as we went along and didn’t assign roles strictly – this changed the atmosphere into something much more positive. We were particularly pleased with the demonstrations for task – they felt more authentic and students could see how we would really use the language and ideas. From the feedback questionnaires at the end of the lesson, the majority also said they enjoyed this aspect of the lesson as they don’t normally see teachers interacting together. (Comments included: “We were entertained and we learn more… I think you learn more [with two teachers].” “Two teachers help us easily.”)
At the time of writing, we continue to produce lesson materials together via Skype, and team-taught lessons are planned with other colleagues. As we had hoped, we found benefits for the students and for ourselves. (Laura is more selective in the way she looks at language in feedback, for example, while Phil has learnt more about building rapport and motivating students.) In addition, we have compiled advice we would like to pass on to other teachers interested in team-teaching.
Benefits for students:
  • You have two teachers playing to their strengths, which should lead to a better quality of teaching.
  • Though the demonstrations, students can see and hear the teachers’ interaction which gives a good model for speaking activities; you also have live listening practice.
  • The teachers can combine to monitor more closely, meaning more individual attention.
  • There can be a greater variety of interaction patterns.
  • It makes the lesson more lively.
Benefits for teachers:
  • You can discuss ideas and methods in detail.
  • You may be encouraged to do things you may not have tried previously.
  • You notice things about your partner’s teaching and learn from each other. It’s not just the less experienced teacher who takes something away from the lesson.
  • You can share resources.
  • You can be more confident that you have a good lesson as you created it together. (We have both used the material from these lessons when teaching individually, with just a little adaptation.)
  • You can solve a practical problem specific to the class.
  • Team-teaching can create or build on a rapport between teachers.
  • It’s less stressful than an observation.
  • You can be more ‘yourself’ than you might be in an observed lesson. Similarly, feedback can be given more on equal terms.
Want to give team-teaching a go? Here's some advice
  • Ideally, make sure you have elements which require two teachers. Use both of you to give demonstrations.
  • Communicate and interact during the lesson. Exchange your viewpoints on how the lesson is progressing as you go along. Don’t be scared to interrupt or help each other out (but don’t contradict).
  • You are a team. It’s not just one person’s class. This is especially important to remember when you are with a group which is normally taken by your co-teacher only.
  • Remember that preparation takes more time, so you will need to schedule this accordingly.
  • Teach together (as opposed to one after the other) and complement each other.
  • Leave room for spontaneity.
  • Explain to the students why you are doing the lesson together and particularly how you feel it will benefit them.
  • It’s worth meeting the students before the lesson. That way you will save time at the beginning of the team-taught lesson – and you might feel more relaxed if you tend to be nervous when meeting new groups for the first time.
  • We believe that this needs to be done at least twice with the same teacher to iron out problems and better understand how the other one works.
  • Have fun!

We are pleased that one result of this project has been that our DoS at London Central is now offering team-teaching alongside observations as a means of Teacher Development and that there is the intention to build it into our mentoring scheme for new teachers later this year. Obviously at schools where team-teaching is not standard regular practice, there are limits in what can be done. It means releasing a senior teacher or mentor to teach at a time outside of their usual timetable (or finding cover). On top of that, the teachers need to organise time when they can both prepare. Nevertheless, we certainly feel that, in terms of being able to share the process of planning and making feedback a two-way thing, as well as in removing stress that may come from compiling the paperwork and the anticipation of a formal observation, team-teaching has a lot to commend it.