As the world of education continues to evolve, new education technologies and findings can be a great supplement to the already existing methods. In our discussion with some of our students, we have noticed that they have become quite accustomed to our co-teaching relationship. As a result, they enjoy sharing their opinions and feelings about what makes our class successful. In addition, the students have noticed that we have become more open to sharing our own experiences, positive or negative, relating to our teaching practices.
We are a mother and daughter team and have been teaching together since we were both young adults. My daughter started teaching with me in the lower elementary grades a few years ago, working her way into middle school. In 2015, she began teaching with me in the upper elementary grades. Our daily interactions as teacher and student, as well as as parent and educator, have been extremely valuable in helping us see the world from each other’s perspectives. We’ve seen the challenges of preparing for and teaching in a high-stakes environment firsthand, just as we’ve seen the courage and resilience of our students at an even higher level.
It was early March 2020 at Boston Collegiate Charter Public School in Boston, Massachusetts. We, two experienced public school teachers, were preparing to begin our second year of teaching together. Despite 25 years of teaching experience together, the beginning of our teaching career together was marked by a familiar feeling about our first years in education. Anyone who has experienced or observed co-teaching understands that it is not easy to effectively lead a class by two people with different backgrounds, styles, and work habits. Two adults in a classroom is not a panacea that improves a student’s experience or guarantees academic growth in that class. It takes trial and error and more to understand how to be an effective co-teacher.
While there are guidelines and strategies for this practice, we realized as we began this journey that there was no perfect model for collaborative teaching – we had to find what would work best for us. In the late winter of 2020, as we approached the two-year mark, we decided to pause, reflect, and write down what we had learned about collaborative classroom management and the impact it had on our children’s learning, hoping that these lessons could serve as food for thought for other educators who want to try collaborative teaching in their classrooms.
Over the course of our mentoring period, we have come to believe that this model can alleviate teacher stress and reduce workload, which we believe is essential as our country continues to look for ways to improve teacher recruitment and retention. What we didn’t know was that in a few weeks we would not only be facing the biggest challenge of our professional and personal lives, but we would also discover that what we thought we knew about co-teaching and its benefits – both face-to-face and virtual – was just the tip of the iceberg. Mr. Brian Ellis works with students.
We carry out both in class.
First: Whether we communicate face-to-face or virtually, our vision for teaching together is simple: If you asked our students who their most important teacher is, they wouldn’t know how to answer. This is not always the case when it comes to coaching. From our observations and experiences, cooperative education usually involves a lead teacher and a support teacher. The lead teacher is usually responsible for grades and instruction, and the support teacher provides assistance.
At the beginning of our collaboration, we decided that our roles would be interchangeable – we would share the central stage and support the students equally. It also means that we don’t divide the class into sections – all our students are our children. The students we teach come from a variety of backgrounds and abilities – approximately 30% of our students are disabled students. With two fully engaged adults in the classroom, we can build more meaningful relationships, get to know our students as learners, and meet their individual needs.
When we went to work virtually this fall, the person who created the lesson plan presented and another teacher offered support, assistance and motivation. The teacher, who did not speak verbally, asked questions or talked about misunderstandings that occurred during class. When we had more full-time students, one of us presented the lesson virtually to all the students at home and at school, and the other presented the lesson in person, giving the students in the building additional support, examples, and challenges. The fact that we have always been true co-teachers has made this transition as smooth as possible for our students.
We share the work and allocate our time
Second, we share the daily routine, in person and virtually. We both plan lessons, create and copy documents, and review student work. One of us plans three or four classes in a row that cover a particular concept. This teacher will assist in the creation of all materials and provide the content. The advantage of a single teacher responsible for all conceptual planning provides continuity and guarantees the use of the forest. A teacher who does not create ongoing lessons concentrates on planning future lessons and keeping student records.
This system allows us not only to manage our time, but also to hold ourselves accountable for the quality of education provided to each individual. Although the responsibility for the lessons is shared, the lessons are not made in total isolation. We plan together, review lesson plans and materials to ensure they are accessible to all students. The structure of the program ensures that all lessons are purposeful and, most importantly, that they take into account our workload. In the virtual world, one urged the other to keep the lesson focused and concise. Another incentive to focus on concepts.
We also became more comfortable with improving the lessons as we went along (hey, it wasn’t working, why not try this…). It quickly became clear that we could not feel purposeful when one of our polite lessons did not work for the children. It was important that we could trust the other party to create well-designed lessons in a timely manner. During our distance learning it has become even more important to be able to rely on each other.
We set expectations together
Third: We always set the tone together. Leading a high school class is not easy, but a shared vision of how the class should function and high expectations for behavior and academic achievement keep everyone on track. While one of us is leading the class, the other is constantly walking around clarifying instructions or adjusting behavior so as not to distract the rest of the class. Our expectations are clear, it’s easy for us to stick together – we are always on the same page with our students. Moreover, we model these same expectations with each other.
If one of us makes a mistake in front of the class, we quietly (and sometimes happily) call out to each other – Oops, Miss Adam, you forgot the correct units in your last answer! Not only do we benefit, but our students know that feedback and mistakes are part of the learning process. Our strong relationship in the classroom was achieved by always being attentive to each other’s needs throughout the day.
Our way of working relieves the invisible stress of standing in front of a room full of students day in and day out. When we moved to fully online learning, we had to learn to understand each other in a new way. We still give the tone, but now we use hand signals, thumbs up and speed signs. We also had to feel free to interrupt each other: Excuse me, Mr. Ellis? There is a great question in the chat room that I would like to answer. Our strong foundation and collaborative teaching methods not only make us better teachers, but also reduce our daily stress during this extremely difficult time for teachers across the country. After this year of crisis, teacher retention and attraction will remain a national problem, and ways to make the profession more sustainable must be found urgently.
The strong bonds between the teachers allowed us to reduce the daily pressure, share the workload and make the classroom more enjoyable. We believe that investing in co-teaching is an investment in teacher sustainability, student learning and long-term growth. As we prepare for the third year of teaching together (now in face-to-face and virtual classrooms), we no longer feel the anxiety of freshmen; instead, we are excited to become better teachers. Photos reproduced with the kind permission of the authors.