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December 1, 2015
Vol. 73
No. 4

One to Grow On / Teaching in Tandem: A Reflection

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Over the years, I've had several opportunities to teach with colleagues, both in my public school teaching days and at the university. Most of the experiences have been quite positive and have contributed to my growth as a teacher.
My first experience teaching with a peer was also my longest experience—and my best. For five years, I was paired with another teacher who taught the same 7th grade language arts block I taught. (Students at this school had the equivalent of two language arts classes daily because many of them needed to improve their reading proficiency.) My colleague and I both taught this two-hour block. Our principal scheduled our language arts blocks at the same time, and we taught in classrooms that were next door to each other with a door in between. Students could come and go between our rooms without going into the hall. On paper, the other teacher and I each had our own roster of about 30 students to teach during those two hours. In reality, we saw ourselves as co-teaching all 60 to 70 kids in two-hour blocks.
We rearranged our students almost daily, depending on what we were teaching and how we felt we could best serve particular students. Sometimes we kept one group of kids together for the whole two-hour block, and sometimes we moved students into different groups every 20 minutes. We often taught an introductory lesson or explained a task to all of the students together in one room. In those instances, my co-teacher and I could finish one another's sentences, trade roles in direct instruction, and be a second pair of eyes in watching student responses. We magnified each other's successes and minimized each other's failures. I believe our students were as energized by our shared work as we were.

The Rewards and (Occasional) Challenges

My teaching partner and I found this partnership so beneficial that we never felt weighed down by the occasional—but inevitable—rough spots in the road. Making time for solid instructional planning is never easy, and it's more cumbersome with two lives involved. Nonetheless, it was so much more fun to plan together than alone that it seemed worthwhile to make our schedules mesh. It's satisfying and rewarding to spend time in the company of someone who understands and cares about what you spend your days doing—and cares about the people you work with!
When we had co-planning time at school, we were more focused and efficient than we were when we worked alone. And we got better and better at a divide-and-conquer approach: "If you'll plan this part, I'll plan that part, and we'll check in by phone later tonight."
There were times when one or the other of us felt jealous or nursed bruised feelings because something our teaching partner did with the students clearly worked better than what we had tried or because some kids responded to our partner more enthusiastically than to us. Even then, however, we knew we were learning from our experiences. My teaching partner had especially strong instincts in working with students who were angry or suspicious about school. I found it easier than she did to work with kids who thought outside the box or learned faster than we had anticipated. I knew much of our content more deeply because I'd been teaching longer—but my co-teacher understood young adolescents better because she had two of her own and had worked with that age group before.
I hatched wild ideas for our classes. My partner was more methodical and tethered the ideas to the ground so we didn't all fly away in my enthusiasm. We were two very different people, and those differences could get prickly in the everyday press of teaching. It was always clear, though, that our differences gave us a "reach" with our students that neither of us would've had alone. We were certainly both heirs to the truth that there's more than one right way to reach students.

Metaphors for Tandem Teaching

Shared teaching works wonderfully, when it does, for a broad array of reasons. I've thought a great deal about what made this particular partnership so rewarding. Since I seem to be a permanent prisoner of my English-teacher background, I play with metaphors to crystallize my thinking. I haven't found the single right metaphor for the co-teaching experience described here, but a number of metaphors capture elements of it.
Our co-teaching experience was a bit like singing a duet in that we knew we needed to work from the same piece of music. We were careful to begin with clarity about what we were going to teach, why it mattered, what mattered most, and how we could best engage our students with those elements. We might sing different parts on a given day or week in class, but we nearly always had a common understanding of the music before we launched it publicly.
Our work was a bit like playing jazz in that we each learned to happily play in the background when the other one was ready to riff. We came to understand the importance of both the soloist and the sustainer in paired teaching. We became both comfortable and skilled in shifting roles.
Our work was a bit like a sound marriage in that we talked about and committed to a common foundation of beliefs about young learners, how we might best facilitate their growth, and what it meant to be a trustworthy leader and model for those learners. We were synchronized in those persuasions even as we began teaching together—and shared a students-first inclination—but we were careful to put our beliefs into words so that we built a common understanding of why we greeted students as we did, responded to their behaviors as we did, structured class time and space as we did, and so on. Over time, we developed a common vocabulary to articulate our evolving beliefs.
When I see teachers working artfully in tandem in their own classrooms, I understand why they find it worthwhile. When it works, teaching in tandem is a very, very good thing.

At the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education, Carol Ann Tomlinson is William Clay Parrish, Jr. professor and chair of Educational Leadership, Foundations, and Policy, teaching post-graduate students, mainly in the areas of curriculum design and differentiated instruction. She is also co-director of the university's Institutes on Academic Diversity, where she strives to help educators understand the principles of differentiated instruction and develop competence and confidence in creating responsive classrooms that meet the diverse learning needs of today's students.

As an educator for more than 21 years, Tomlinson has worked as an elementary and a secondary public school teacher. She was named Outstanding Professor at Curry School of Education in 2004 and received an All-University Teaching Award in 2008. In 2016, she was ranked #16 in the Education Week Edu-Scholar Public Presence Rankings for "university-based academics who are contributing most substantially to public debates about schools and schooling," and as the #3 voice in Educational Psychology. She's written more than 300 books, book chapters, articles, and other materials for educators.


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