Collaborative Teaching: Reflections and Lessons Learned

It’s not “serial teaching” or “a lot of little mini courses stuck together” or “sequenced solo teaching” as team teaching too often is, but rather teaching where “we are both planning, we are both making sure we understand the material as it needs to be presented, and we are both standing up there.” That’s how Jessica Lester and Katherine Evans describe their goal for team teaching a senior-level educational psychology course for preservice teachers. (p. 375)

Using a phenomenological method that included detailed analysis of unstructured, open-ended interviews with each of them, Lester and Evans report one grounding, overarching theme out of which five other themes emerged. Together these themes reflect those collaborative teaching experiences that stood out for each of them.

Grounding theme: We didn’t have a manual for finding our way through. Despite previous experience in teaching, both teachers were unfamiliar with the practical aspects and personal interactions that this kind of team teaching required. “We had no idea what this was going to look like and feel like … and we didn’t know each other well enough by that point to even ask what it was going to look like.” (p. 376) As might be expected, the process was most unfamiliar at the beginning of the course. “We were very individualized when we first started, and we didn’t really mesh at first because we weren’t sure how until we actually started doing, and then we figured it out as we did it.” (p. 377)

Theme 1: You can’t just shoot from the hip. This kind of truly collaborative teaching demands a major time commitment. “There’s just a lot more involved in making sure you are prepared …. You can’t assume that you know what you are going to say and roll with it as easily.” (p. 377) This kind of teaching takes more time than it takes to teach a course solo. Lester and Evans do report that their perception of the time required changed. They don’t know if preparation took less time as the course progressed, but as they became more efficient in how they worked together and with their students, it seemed as though it did.

Theme 2: Following and leading … all of us together. The teachers discovered a kind of “flow” that occurred as each of them moved from leading what was happening in class to following as the other teacher and sometimes the students were leading the action. There were times when the flow really worked, becoming a beautiful cord of connection. However, there were times when they reported falling totally flat on their faces. They learned that the flow was hard to find when each followed her own agenda too resolutely.

Theme 3: If we walk away disagreeing, is it okay? Conflict is an inevitable part of this kind of teaching, and “working through such disagreement is not about conforming or about assimilation.” (p. 378) Committed to preserving their relationship, these teachers discovered that they could learn and grow from their disagreements. They could walk away not agreeing, recognizing that they wouldn’t have done something the way they had if they were teaching alone, but still seeing value in what occurred for the students and the other teacher.

Theme 4: The presence of another pushed us to go deeper. When there was conflict, both teachers reported that they learned much about their own teaching. “When you collaborate with someone else you see yourself … you see a lot about your assumptions ….” (p. 379) Ultimately both teachers ended up understanding themselves better.

Theme 5: You build something bigger. The course and the knowledge gained from the experience of teaching it were bigger, and these teachers would say better, than what teachers can create when they teach on their own.

Here’s how Lester and Evans sum up their experience: “As we found our way through this process, the time spent allowed us to deepen our understanding of the course content, improve interactions with students and each other, develop a capacity to embrace differences, and work toward a more collaborative approach to teaching and learning.” (p. 379) This interesting account of two teachers who truly collaborated as they jointly taught shows how much teachers can learn when they work together. Their endeavor was time-consuming, but it provided a commensurate amount of personal growth and development.

Reference: Lester, J. N. and Evans, K. R. (2009). Instructors’ experiences of collaborative teaching: Building something bigger. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 20 (3), 373-382.

Reprinted from “Truly Collaborative Teaching.” The Teaching Professor, 24.3 (2010): 4,6.