On co-teaching and gratitude

This post developed out of a response to Claire Maiers’s comment on Brandon’s post from last week about our co-teaching venture at Washington and Lee University. She asked us to go into a little more detail about how co-teaching actually worked for us: how we planned class time and decided who would lead what and when. I do try to answer that below, but I invite Brandon and any other practitioners of co-teaching to weigh in via comments. As I wrote this, I also found myself reflecting on how lucky and privileged we were to be afforded this opportunity in the first place. And so I’d like to take this opportunity to publicly thank Purdom Lindblad, all the fantastic people in the Scholars’ Lab, Sara Sprenkle and Paul Youngman at W&L, and Brandon, too, for taking a chance on me. Thanks also to the amazing students at W&L for their responsiveness and enthusiasm. This co-teaching venture was one of the highlights of my year.

Before we did anything else, Brandon and I met with Purdom to discuss the kinds of things we wanted the students to get out of discussions about project management and software development. Because Brandon and I are products of the Praxis Program, I think we both (more or less consciously) modeled these desired results on the things we had created during similar Praxis lessons: we wanted the students to make things, not just to talk about things. After that initial conversation, we decided to split primary responsibility for the topics: Brandon worked up a PowerPoint slideshow that conveyed his basic lesson outline for software development (including prompts for activities and discussions) and I did the same for project management. I should note that for me at least the conversation we had beforehand was very helpful here: I always like to backwards plan lessons, beginning with where I want the class to end up, so discussing “deliverables” for a lesson on project management with Brandon and Purdom before I started planning helped me shape my lesson outline. We emailed the slideshows to each other the day before our class so that we could internalize the basic narratives each of us wanted to develop over the course of the day. Finally, in all honesty, we just encouraged each other to interrupt, to add on, to redirect discussion, and to otherwise productively contribute to the lesson that was not “ours.” Sometimes that meant one of us wrote student responses on the whiteboard while the other talked, and sometimes that meant one of us contributed an example or a question to the other’s talking points, or pushed back against student comments. We both spent time in working groups with the students, helping them draw wireframes and design charter drafts. We kind of played it by ear.

We had four hours of class time to fill, which did seem kind of terrifying to both of us at first, and partly as a result of this we planned more activities than we actually had time for. But I think the most important element of our plan was flexibility: we knew what our goals were, and we each had a map of sorts to get us there, but we were both ready and willing to throw things out the window on the way—and we did. Teaching has always seemed much like improv comedy to me: you have to run with what’s working in the moment. It’s possible that not every teacher feels this way, but I think the fact that Brandon and I were both prepared to diverge from The Plan was critically important to our success.

I’ll close this by quoting the last sentence of Claire’s comment: “I imagine [planning for co-teaching] is easier when the teachers already have a rapport.” This seems exactly, precisely right to me. As Brandon mentioned last week, while we had never taught together before this trip, we had recently planned and delivered a two-person presentation. But additionally, and importantly, I have observed Brandon’s teaching, and he has observed mine. We also regularly talk about teaching and about how simultaneously challenging and awesome it is. We knew what the other person was likely to feel okay with throughout the day, which made everything nearly stress-free. This is all to say that I think rule #1 of co-teaching is: know thy partner(s) in crime. Rule #2 is: come to an agreement about what, as a team, you want to deliver to your students at the end of the day. Brandon and I had excellent co-teachers for models in this regard (here’s looking at you, Bethany, Wayne, Jeremy, Eric R., Eric J., David) and I hope they and others feel welcome to add to the conversation. Thanks for the question, Claire!

 

Sarah is a 2011-12 Praxis Fellow, former NINES Fellow, and a PhD candidate in the Department of English.

2 Comments

  1. Awesome post! thanks to both of you for sharing.

  2. Definitely agree on the Scholar’s Lab as model co-teachers! I was thinking this as well. The Praxis Program is like a giant experiment in co-teaching: get a load of people in a room together and have them learn from each other. You know from the beginning that you’re part of a team, that knowledge travels in all directions, and that you’re all in it together.

    Having done a fair bit of co-teaching in the past year, here would be some additional rules of my own:

    1) Respect your partner’s approach. I’ve co-taught with a couple other people now (shout out to Eliza Fox, Annie Galvin, and (soon-to-be) Wayne Graham!). Different teachers have very different teaching strategies and personae, often for reasons that are very important to them. You can learn a lot from each other and from the different pedagogical styles, but you shouldn’t try to change each other. Instead play to each your strengths! If someone is a consummate planner, have them take the lead on planning the structure of the lesson. If someone connects better with students, have them meet the students as they come in. If one of you is serious, let that person be serious. If one of you is funny, let that person crack jokes. If you have a good rapport with each other, show off that rapport to the students and invite them to join.

    2) Trust your partner. An obvious point, but you can’t both be in total control as co-teachers. You have to trust one another enough to let go when the situation calls for it. The world won’t end if you relinquish a little authority to your partner. In fact, life will go on just a little bit easier, as there will be less pressure on you. In this context, trusting Sarah meant that I didn’t have to think very much about project management ahead of time, and she didn’t have to think too much about software development. We both knew that we would be able to participate in both sections, but we trusted the leader for that chunk to have a game plan. Giving up that piece of authority can be scary, but I think the payoff is worth it.

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