Teacher Squared & The Power of Two​: ​​ ​Collaborative Teaching with Notes and Insights.

By Kelley Brill and Dr. Paul DeAngelis, Miami Country Day School, Miami, Florida

Few things can be as isolating as the profession of teaching alone in a student-filled classroom.​​ ​ ​​Teaching is a profession that, for an instructor, offers limited opportunity for interaction with adults and little intellectual exchange and sharing of ideas for extended periods of time during the day. We have heard this sentiment voiced many times in teacher meetings we have attended over the years throughout our teaching experience.

Having had the opportunity to work in collaborative settings, I shared my experience with Kelley and found a willing partner who became excited about the idea. We wanted to explore the joy of collaboration and also the challenges. Kelley and I knew we could create a collaborative environment in which we could extend our student’s learning and was also supportive of one another. Thus began our foray into collaborative teaching.  Collaborative Teaching is an animal that comes in many shapes, sizes, and colors. However,​​ ​​as a teaching practice it is rarely used, hard to successfully enact, and requires more effort than that of the single educator working alone in a classroom. If this is so, then why would any sane professional want to try collaborative teaching?

Overall, collaboration within school communities has been shown to improve student academic outcomes. Personally, we have also found an improvement in social behavior. We observe the students interest in us as we interact with one another during the day and, they use our behavior as a role model. Many professionals who engage in collaborative teaching attest that it is the most gratifying professional and personal experience of their careers. When it works well, it is a graceful dance, a successful marriage, a meeting of the minds, and with that, comes the thrill of accomplishment. It is rewarding for both students and educators.

Kelley and I discovered one another at Miami Country Day School. At that time Kelley was teaching second grade and I was in fifth. After some communication and a “sizing up” of one another, we decided to partner in science. Combining our second and fifth grade classes created an atmosphere of multi-agged collaboration and excitement through buddy teaching, allowing the students to chose and conducted experiments. Our views about children as thinkers, explorers, changers of the world they live in, melded, motivating us to pursue a partnership based upon a similar philosophy of education. As we began to explore the possibilities, two third grade positions opened, as did a double sized space for two classrooms. The universe had opened the doors, providing us the opportunity to “pitch” administration, pursuing our teaching goal. We were elated to find the support we had hoped for and, began our​ ​journey towards a collaborative teaching effort.

Finding time and finding a rhythm. ​​ ​If you and a colleague (or colleagues) are considering engaging in this type of teaching it is imperative that you spend time together talking. An honest conversation about goals, curriculum approaches, your teaching strengths and challenges, and how you plan to work together it is must! You can not expect to “meld” together because you like one another. Friendships do not necessarily make good collaborations.

Collaborative teaching takes conversation and work. Kelley and I asked our administration for some planning time in January, the year before we were to begin our collaboration. Over the next few months, we spent a few afternoons alone, talking and listing to one another. We made lists of ideas and looked for common ground. We discussed who would take the lead in specific subjects. This was a “give and take” because both Kelley and I enjoyed teaching all subjects. In the end, Kelley took the lead on Language Arts and I would take the lead on Math and Science. All else we planned together. Identifying the “roles” each teacher will take in the classroom is imperative for a successful experience.

As Kelley and I became more involved in planning, we naturally developed a rhythm. We knew when to speak and when to listen. We did not fear the other’s clarifying questions. We began learning the steps to this dance which would transfer to the classroom. Listening will be the biggest asset you will have. We adapted our ideas because we were now two. For this collaboration to be successful we knew we needed to leave our egos outside the classroom. It was during this planning time our trust developed. Our experience tells us that you will require much more time to plan than you think.

What kept us moving forward through each step of the process included identifying our roles, planning curriculum (using backward design and project-based learning) and the nuts and bolts of scheduling, was our sense of commitment to learning, our students and to our profession. We also shared the excitement of a new adventure, and a similar sense of humor. We could not have gone forward without our commitment to the process and a deep level respect for one another.

The importance of a common philosophy​​ ​between the collaborating teachers is of the utmost importance for this adventure to be successful. The educational philosophies must align. There needs to be a discussion about homework, classroom environment, evaluations and grading. This needs to happen even before the first meeting. Unless all participants agree on some basics operations like: classroom management, use of space, time, etc…the nuts and bolts that make a classroom a community–this experience will ultimately fail. Remember, you are melding two individuals. As the classroom “team leaders”, you must present a united front for the students to be able to find success. Kelley and I are proponents of Project Based Learning, we use Backward Design, and we believe students should have a voice in planning their learning and the sharing of their knowledge. Our educational philosophies are very similar and have actually deepened due to our continual learning and our discussions. When we disagree on a specific, we are always able to share our point of view and come to common ground.

Our students see us as a team, shifting the “lead” teaching role as we maneuver through our day. They know we are always in the rooms, supporting each other. Students come to one, or both of us depending on their comfort level or what their challenge may be–or what they want to share. They know us to be honest (Responsive Classroom, Morning Meeting, Leader in Me), respectful, friendly, and trusting. Some parents have shared with us the conversations that happen at home, and how the children view us and speak of us with a sense of pride because we are their teachers. This is an amazing by product of our collaborative teaching.

We are a team ​and in our style of collaboration, we are always in the room (s) together. The support from the collaborator is critical for us. As Kelley goes through an exercise, I am able to walk around the room observing, stopping at times to clarify for a student, ask a question, etc. During a math class (students work at their own pace) Kelley may take an individual student or a group of students to work on a skill while I lead a lesson. In the moment, we are able to ask each other for what we need to support what we do in learning. We are comfortable interjecting during each other’s lesson as we trust the other’s motive and knowledge. We use each other as a resource as we react to what we see in the classroom, in the moment. This support comes through our trust, and comes with time. We keep focused on our goal–to educate our students. There may be bruised egos when you begin to work as a team, but give voice to that. Remember, collaborative teaching requires that you share, support and explore your teaching together. We promise, this will improve your talent as a teacher. Both Kelley and I have become more proficient at what we do because of each other.

As our second year together is about to end we hold sacred our commitment to one another. We continually carve out our collaborative relationship,​ ​focusing on students, fostering inquiry and our role as facilitators. We never take one another, or the process, for granted, and we make time for honest communication and evaluation. This must be done for our students, but also for the sake of our teaching (and sanity). And, we make sure, that at any time of the day, when we feel like laughing, we laugh. Our students share in the joy of our friendship as they observe an adult relationship.

Teacher and student feedback and evaluation ​is an aspect of the collaborative process that is not always present when used. It is necessary that each collaborative teacher have the opportunity to evaluate the success of any lesson and the same opportunity has to extend to the students. Kelley and I make sure to write into our schedule time to talk about “how a lesson went”. In fact, we use those words. Non-judgemental feedback is important in developing trust between collaborators and between students, as well as supporting better prepared lessons. With our students, Kelley and I use SurveyMonkey, short answer feedback forms, and longer free writing paragraphs to obtain the feedback voice from our students. We include such questions as, “Do you trust your teachers to make good decisions?” , “Do you feel your teachers care about you?” “Do you like having two teachers in the room?”, “What can your teachers do to improve your learning?” “How could this project have been made better by your teachers?” It may be hard to read some of the answers, especially if your students (or collaborators) trust you enough to tell you the truth, but you are the adult and you are getting honest feedback. Kelley and I feel this is truly one of the greats gifts from which we grow.

Every road to a successful collaborative partnership​​ ​takes a slightly different course. You may partner with one other professional, or it may be a group. I was in a Collaborative Teaching setting with four other teachers. But whatever you decide, here are some things we recommend that will make this journey easier. 

Before you begin you must have administrative support. The administration must be knowledgeable and comfortable with this style of education. They must believe and be supportive of your effort. Without that, your collaboration will not work. If you have that, then

  • ​Ask for planning time months (a year ahead?) before you will begin the collaboration–make it a weekly event to meet.
  • ​Come to the first meeting with your partner (s) with questions–a lot of questions. “How are we going to….?” “What will we…?” How will we do…?
  • ​Establish who will lead and in what areas. Do not try to co-plan all areas together. That is a waste of time. Begin to trust one another.
  • ​If you lead, tell your collaborative partner what you need them to do. And when they lead, they will tell you what they need you to do. Lose the ego (or most of it).
  • ​Plan the first few weeks, then first three months of what you want to accomplish. You will never get to it all, but do not worry.
  • ​Ask the administration for simultaneous “specials” time so you can be free to plan. The more time you have to plan, talk, evaluate, the better you will become as a collaborative team.
  • ​Think of yourself as ONE class. The collaborative team needs to make decisions about each child.
  • ​You both teach each and every child.
  • ​You are a team…share the work.
  • ​Never forget to laugh together–even if it comes in the middle of a lesson. Your students will remember. Joy is contagious.

If you are interested in discussing the journey of collaborative teaching, please reach out to us. We relish the opportunity to discuss what and how we do what we do.

Kelley Brill (​brillk@miamicountyryday.org​)

Dr.Paul De Angelis (​deangelisp@miamicountryday.org​)