For many educators the professional experience can be a paradoxically lonely one. Teaching is all about communication and relationships, they spend most of their time with large groups of people, yet their position is unique and in many ways isolating. They spend class time as an ‘other’ in a large group of peers, conceptually if not physically alone, and when the classes leave and the work of planning and assessment begins they are often physically alone as well.
The personal implications of this are obvious but there are professional implications as well. In an isolated situation is is hard to develop and progress in what you are doing, as the impetus to do so must come entirely from within, and the models and ideas for next steps must be created from nothing or very deliberately sought out. Why else are so many teachers eagerly communicating through platforms such as twitter, blogs and other social media? Developing on your own is hard, and truly moving forward often requires the ideas, encouragement and challenge of others.
In some settings attempts are made to address this in the form of ‘team teaching’. On our own BEd course at Plymouth our students spend some school placements working in pairs, ‘team teaching’ lessons together, the thinking being that they can help each other develop by providing ideas, the challenge of peer feedback and the emotional support of someone in the same situation. Some schools practice team teaching for their permanent teachers as well, usually only in some contexts.
The potential of team teaching has always been articulated to me in fairly instrumental terms. Teachers working in teams can bounce ideas off each other when planning, they can better cater for ranges of student needs, they can offer a different perspective when evaluating lessons due to their different experiences and the ability to notice different things. They can also cater for potential weaknesses in the practice of the other, or add a different style of communication to proceedings.
Such benefits, it seems to me, are conceptualised as an additive benefit, that ‘two heads are better than one’, and the diversity of staff in a single lesson adds specific elements that might otherwise not be present. If only we were able to have enough staff we might between them have all the elements needed for a perfect lesson. Teaching skills and methods add up quantitatively to a larger whole.
Recently I have been working with the staff at Plymouth School of Creative Arts, who ‘team teach’ for much of the week in a deliberately collaborative environment. After observing two BEd students taking part in such a collaborative lesson it struck me that there is perhaps another way of seeing the qualities of ‘team teaching’. When the lesson concluded and the children disappeared for their lunch the staff congregated together informally, not for a planned lesson evaluation, but for a natural chat. They reflected on the successes and challenges of the lesson, not so much identifying what worked and what didn’t, but rather exploring their understandings of what had happened, how the children had interacted with the content, presentation and activities, and the qualities of the resulting experience.
This wasn’t about identifying specific aspects of the planning or execution that one person had executed more successfully than another, it wasn’t an attempt to find the specific things they needed to add together to make the perfect lesson. Instead it was at attempt to make sense of a shared experience, to understand the different perceptions of what had just happened and to understand not just what was done, but what was understood by both the teachers and the learners through the experience.
There is something in there that I had never considered before, that ‘team teaching’ might not be completely about pooling resources but also about being a part of a shared experience, an experience that brings with it a different understanding for having been shared. This isn’t just about observing someone else’s good practice or being the recipient of their advice based on what they have seen of yours, it is about moving forward with something as a group. I’m struggling to articulate this because I am talking about something qualitative in an area which I am accustomed to thinking in quite quantitative terms, but I am convinced there is something in the quality of experience of working in this way that is an area ripe for more exploration. It isn’t about ‘more’, it’s about ‘different’.