From the Director: Talking Points for Team-Teaching

March 11, 2015 / By: Dr. Ann Johnson, Director of Faculty Development, Professor of Psychology

By: Dr. Ann Johnson, Director of Faculty Development, Professor of Psychology

Ann Johnson Headshot From Director SynergiaFaculty who team teach regularly can be effusive in praising the experience and recommending it to others. Like them, I’ve found team-teaching to be immensely gratifying, fun, and professionally fulfilling. But it comes with challenges. Maybe you’ve considered team-teaching in the context of a study-abroad course, an interdisciplinary program offering, or the Aquinas Scholars program. I encourage you to try it, and here are some tips and thoughts about the process that I gathered by consulting with a number of UST team-teaching veterans.

The joys of team-teaching: Team-teaching offers that rare opportunity (and really, it ought to be more common) to observe and learn from our colleagues – up close and in action. Faculty pick up new pedagogical strategies and also report developing an enhanced understanding of the connections between their disciplines and others’ that they can carry into other courses. As Amy Levad (Theology) notes, “Every time I have team taught, I have generated new ideas for how I teach.” It’s also a great way to acquire new classroom management techniques, and the team approach allows a “two-person ‘parent’ model” when dealing with challenging students, as Vanessa Cornett-Murtada (Music) points out.

The challenges: In a word – time. Most surveyed mentioned the special time demands inherent in this approach; As Katharine Hill (Social Work) put it, “it’s not LESS work to team teach, it’s actually more, because of the time necessary to coordinate all the moving parts.” From drawing up the syllabus and schedule to developing joint grading practices – it all takes time. But, as Hill adds: “to me the effort is totally worth it!”

Others note the importance of acknowledging style and temperament differences between teaching partners and planning around them in a deliberate manner. One person may be a dedicated advance planner while the other thrives on the last-minute scramble. One may be a talkative extrovert while the other possesses a more quiet temperament. The differences don’t have to be negative. But navigating them successfully does require communication (as in every successful partnership) and this idea led me to think that it might help to have a list of talking points to organize planning.

Talking points for team teachers:

Contemplate compatibility.  Steve Laumakis, Director of the Aquinas Scholars program, advises faculty to “consider your intellectual curiosity” when thinking about team teaching and locate a partner whose discipline is close enough to nurture a successful match. Ask colleagues to name teachers they know and respect. Cornett-Murtada suggests finding a partner whose strengths/weaknesses complement your own. Are you great with the small details of grading and record keeping, but known for slow turn-around time on assignments? It helps to find someone a bit compulsive about returning tests and papers promptly. Talk openly with potential teaching partners about strengths, weaknesses, and look for areas of complementarity.

Talk about time expectations. One of my consultants advised that work load distribution is rarely 50/50 in a team taught course. One person may be facing a particularly heavy semester or dealing with unexpected family/personal demands. It’s not uncommon for the other partner to step in and the shoulder the extra time burden, with generosity and gratitude both in evidence. But it is important to talk openly and early (during the planning process) of expected course-related tasks and how they will be divided. Getting it on paper (or in a spreadsheet) makes it easier to revisit the question at mid-semester and confirm that each partner is fulfilling commitments – or make necessary adjustments in expectations. For experienced teams, this conversation is likely unnecessary but for new partnerships, it can help to bypass miscommunication and resentment.

Clarify communication style. Students benefit from seeing how two very different styles complement each other in the classroom, and faculty often thrive in this kind of situation, playing off each others’ style or persona. But differences can also cause strain, as when one partner dominates in the classroom. Frank discussion of classroom style preferences can minimize difficulty (how does each partner view conflict/debate? What is the desired balance between lecture and discussion?). It’s great for students to see civil and respectful debate and disagreement modeled by their professors, but if one partner is uncomfortable while the other is blithely oblivious, it creates an elephant-in-the-room situation – and students always see the elephant. For new teams, try choreographing these disagreements before class and rehearsing. For more on the pedagogical value of structured debate, see the article cited below from Stanford’s Center for Teaching and Learning.

Related to this: What do you like students to call you?  What are your preferences about informational emails to students between class sessions? Do you want all communication to students to come from both of you jointly (united front) or are you comfortable dividing the email tasks (the divide-and-conquer approach)?

Connections between your disciplines. Talk about connections between your disciplines that you want students to notice and how you will build them into your course, but be aware that unexpected connections will arise. Amy Levad suggests an exercise to promote and clarify thinking about connections: “Each professor gives a short lecture on his or her top ten concepts in the course from his or her discipline. The students then have 20 minutes in small teams to create a concept map that ties those ideas together. This exercise helps us to see the connections that students are making, encourages them to discuss the course material together, and shows us the areas where we need to clarify our thought and teaching.”

More advice

Plan weekly and mid-semester check-in meetings. Cornett-Murtada suggests that team-teachers meet at mid-semester and “have an open and honest conversation about what is working, what isn’t, and if you could ‘change one thing’ about the class.” Brilliant idea. She also advocates for regularly scheduled weekly planning meetings: “This really helped me stay on track and not feel behind.” If meeting in person is too much, use phone or skype.

Finally, remain open to the unexpected and do not be afraid to fail. As Steve Laumakis puts it: “you must be willing to learn—by trial and error—and you must be willing to fail.  I think it goes without saying (but I will say it anyway), that every experienced teacher knows that the first time you try new things in the classroom, things may not and usually do not go as well as planned.” Team teaching, like any newly adopted teaching innovation, involves some risk, but those who engage it attest to its worth and repeat the experience again and again.

Do you have more advice to offer on team teaching? Let me know at a9johnson@stthomas.edu.

See also:

Team teaching: Benefits and challenges (2006). In Speaking of Teaching, Vol. 6, newsletter of the Stanford University Center for Teaching and Learning, pp. 1-4.