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Building Relationships With Team Teaching

March 19, 1992|MARY LAINE YARBER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Mary Laine Yarber teaches English and journalism at Santa Monica High School

As schools rethink the ways they teach, team teaching is making something of a comeback.

In its most common form, two teachers of allied subjects share a larger class for a doubled class period.

This means that the teachers coordinate their curricula to show the connections and influences between the subjects.

English-history pairings seem especially common, although it can be done with any related subjects.

At my school, for example, there are two teams made up of U.S. history and American literature teachers, and formation of more teams is being encouraged.

The classes are two periods long, instead of one, and each contains about 70 kids.

My colleagues who team-teach see good and bad in the method, but all seem to agree that the pluses outweigh the minuses.

The biggest benefit is that students see that subjects generally treated in isolation are in fact related, and sometimes interdependent.

Studying literature is a richer experience, for example, when done in a historical context.

"It helps students to understand the material more thoroughly," said English teacher Sheila Goldstein. Students gain a much better understanding of literary trends, she said, if they can also learn "what was going on at the time politically, economically, socially."

Another advantage is the increased creativity and variety in learning activities that results when teachers of different backgrounds and styles are paired.

"You now have two people bouncing ideas off each other," said Dana Garcia, an English teacher. "Together you can come up with an idea or program that, individually, you would not have even thought of."

Students can explore the activities in greater depth because of the doubled class period.

For example, while teachers in normal settings may need two days to show a film, team teachers can often show one without interruption--and maybe have time left for some discussion.

In the same way, guest speakers are less restricted by the clock. Instead of an uninterrupted speech, you get more dialogue between speaker and students.

Discussions are more productive and enjoyable because of the longer period. More students have a chance to speak, and more levels of the topic can be tackled.

Team teaching also frequently allows students to see a phenomenon they wouldn't otherwise: disagreements between teachers.

Thus they learn that there's often more than one credible view on a topic, and that people can disagree without becoming enemies.

Since only one teacher is usually in the lead at any given time, the other can provide support that someone teaching solo doesn't have.

The second teacher may, for example, circulate to ensure that students are paying attention--not sleeping, writing notes or doing work for another class.

The supporting teacher can also tutor or confer with students who are having problems.

Garcia adds that the longer classes create "more familiarity among the students and teachers, so there's a real sense of family." That can help motivate students.

Team teaching produces some benefits for teachers' professional lives, including moral support and a break in the usual isolation from colleagues.

"We can evaluate each other's teaching," Garcia said. "We learn from each other and help each other to become better teachers."

Professional growth also comes from learning more about a partner's subject, and then applying it as background for one's own.

"Knowing more of U.S. history has helped me do a better job of presenting American literature," Garcia said.

Team teachers also exchange methods of teaching, grading and disciplining, as well as ways to get parents more involved in kids' schoolwork.

There are some drawbacks, of course.

For example, teachers must spend a lot of time outside of school coordinating curriculum and discussing students. This is usually done on the phone.

Team teachers at my school have even planned a weekend working retreat, at their own expense.

The hunt for resources can be a problem too. No single textbook can suffice for both subjects, so team teachers must often find and pay for needed readings themselves.

And since many schools, including my own, have severely restricted teachers' photocopying privileges, this necessity sometimes comes out of teachers' pockets too.

Generally, though, the complaints are relatively minor. All my colleagues who have done it say they enjoy team teaching, and would do it again.

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