School House Wonk

"Genius without education is like silver in the mine." Benjamin Franklin


In Rating Your Team Teacher, Vivian Troen and Katherine C. Boles provide a useful primer on best practices in team teaching. Boles is the director of Learning and Teaching Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Boles and Troen co-authored The Power of Teacher Teams (Corwin Press, 2011).

After 15 years of studying and observing classrooms across the U.S., the authors identified common barriers to successful implementation of team teaching. Here are some of the more significant barriers:

  • Absence of skills and support structures that would “allow them to orchestrate significant pedagogical and curriculum changes”
  • Building administrators who are not trained to supervise team teaching, and don’t have the time to guide teachers through it
  • Teams aren’t trained in the basic skills of team work, such as time management, goal setting, and conflict resolution

The authors describe a school culture that prefers affable exchange over constructive criticism as a major impediment to team teaching.

Since teachers are a congenial bunch, caring very much that everyone gets along, they tend to avoid conflicts and dismiss or ignore alternative ways of doing things.

Boles and Troen’s research reveal that in teaching, as in life, conflict is a necessary ingredient for progress; we can’t get better if we don’t know what needs improvement.

The culture of teacher of autonomy is offered as another barrier to team teaching’s effectiveness. Boles and Troen frequently observed that when one teacher asserts a leadership role by suggesting a new approach to a colleague, the “automatic response” is often “Who are you to tell me what to do?” The result? “Teacher teams often fail to make headway in improving teaching and learning because they fall into predictable pitfalls, such as poor use of common planning time, failure to pursue expert advice, a focus on issues that are peripheral to learning, absence of clear goals, or lack of team accountability for the success of all their students.”

How can team teaching be improved? Boles and Troen devised “Five Conditions” that should be in place to encourage productive use of team teaching.

  • Well-defined task focus that is centered on improving student learning, not crisis management
  • Leadership from all team members, regardless of veteran or novice status, recognizing that all teachers bring certain strengths to the table
  • A collaborative climate that recognizes the need for legitimate criticism, and sees the value of it
  • A level of personal accountability that holds members accountable for their performance, for the team’s success and for the success of all its students
  • Structures and processes that allow the team to measure whether its goals are being met

My Take – Successful team teaching looks and sounds a lot like special education. The lynchpin of special education is the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) – a yearly plan developed by everyone working with the student, including the parent. It sets forth annual goals, describes how these goals will be measured and achieved, and in what settings. If the student does not make progress, the team revisits the plan, and looks to data and related information to determine what should be adjusted so that the child can make progress. These changes can include any number of remedies, e.g., more pull out instructional time, extra support in the classroom, new placement, etc. At the center of all this decision making is an IEP team composed of teachers, therapists and the child’s parent, all acting as equal partners, and all with vital roles to play. Thus special education, when done correctly, has always required the type of conditions Boles and Troen’s describe in their team teaching analysis. It’s a robust process that relies on constant examination of whether a student is making meaningful progress, and if not, why not.

Beth T. Sigall

December 28, 2011

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One thought on “Teamwork

  1. John Stokes on said:

    Excellent commentary, Beth. Team teaching is, as the article notes, something that has been around for some time. My daughter’s elementary, Woodridge in Bellevue, had several teams at the time, and some multiple year classes, so that the team of two teachers had the kids for at least two years and grades. It was fantastic, but also drew parent concerns (not school like they had of course), and eventually the idea slipped away when one of the teachers left and administration wanted more “normal” configurations. In fact, her 1st grade in Dallas (Richardson ISD) was a team teaching arrangement.

    The concept of differentiated instruction and learning relies to a great extent on elements of team teaching, and in effect an IEP team. There is a lot of team or group work going on throughout the district in Bellevue and it really makes sense. Thanks for bringing this idea up for re-inspiration.

    John Stokes

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