The Team-Teaching Tango

Mark Shaver for The Chronicle

November 13, 2012

Seven weeks into the course, we were trying everything we could think of, reaching down further and further into our pedagogical bag of tricks. Neither of us had yet used the term "dead horse," but we shared a sinking suspicion that this nag was nearing its last gasp with half the semester ahead of us.

I was team teaching an "Environmental Literature" course for the third time with my colleague, Scott. It had gone well in the past, but this time we were floundering. Too many students in the class had just received low midterm grades—for no good reason beyond the fact that they weren't doing the reading and weren't participating in class.

Feeling like we had little to lose, I said to Scott, "Let's get creative next week. Let's bring paper and crayons and have them draw in their groups instead of just discuss or write." Scott replied, "Let's do it."

I'm not sure if team teaching should be described as an art, a science, a game, or a performance, but it has definitely proved to be energizing. Besides teaching our "Environmental Literature" course for the third time this fall, Scott and I had also team taught first-year composition. From that composition course, we learned that just because both teachers are passionate, experienced, and prepared doesn't mean the class will be great. That's because it takes more than two teachers to tango. A dynamic classroom requires at least the moderate buy-in of the majority of students—that feeling you get when students reciprocate your energy as an instructor.

We had managed to evoke that critical yet elusive x-factor when we taught the "Environmental Literature" course last spring. But this fall, it had gone missing. On the day we planned our drawing exercise, we faced our 30 students, some of whom seemed alert and receptive while others leaned toward resigned and somnambulant.

"So today," I said cheerfully, "we're going to get creative. The theme we want you to keep in mind during today's activity is: How do we come to form our attitudes about the value of certain life forms and environments, and why? Humans tend to create hierarchies about which species seem to be more important than others, as we've discussed before. So we want you to think about the two readings for today—Jan DeBlieu's "Bounded by the Sea" and Rachel Carson's "Mattamuskeet"—and ask these texts some questions. How do you see these authors creating hierarchies around the plant and animal species they write about? And how might we as readers question the texts, and the messages we receive through them, about these invented hierarchies, especially when it comes to environmental policy making, preservation, and advocacy?

"After you've discussed these ideas with your groups, use the paper, crayons, and scissors we brought to draw the creatures in the articles. If you don't know what they look like, look them up on your device—or just make them up! Wonderful artwork isn't necessary here. Just keep thinking about the authors' representations of life forms, and order them in a kind of hierarchy of value that you believe the authors convey, then fill the entire space of the paper. Next, be prepared to explain to the class why you've ordered them this way. We'll put together all the drawings on the floor up front here to create a larger canvas and make connections relating to our environmental understandings."

I paused, then looked over at Scott. "Anything you want to add, Dr. Hicks?"

Scott shook his head and said, "Nope. I think you covered it."

I turned to the students. A few were nodding their heads while others pulled out their readings or clicked on their laptops. "OK," I said. "Before we get started, what questions do you have?"

After a beat, a lone hand went up. Of course it was "Albert." With a glum look on his face, Albert asked, "What does any of this have to do with the environment?"

It was one of those moments in the classroom when time seems suspended. As a veteran educator of 23 years, I have become quite skilled at maintaining my patience when a student asks a stupid question. Yeah, I said it: In my teacherly universe, there is such a thing as a stupid question. I will cop to giving unclear instructions on occasion but this wasn't one of those times. I was forged in the blast furnace of high-school teaching for eight years before going to graduate school and becoming an academic, so I'm proud of the armor that I've developed to field all manner of questions, slings, complaints, and arrows.

If this had been a high-school classroom, two or three students who were also sick of stupid questions, and were not paid to be gentle, would have turned to Albert at that point and said, "She just explained that!" or "Try listening for a change!!"

The university classroom is quite different, however, as students have adopted at least the veneer of interpersonal civility toward one another—on most occasions. So now our students sat quietly (though a couple did roll their eyes) as I attempted once again to clarify the connections between the environmental artwork Albert was about to make and, well, the environment. Meanwhile, Scott was doling out crayons, scissors, and glue sticks to student groups, helping them get started and shifting the focus from Albert. We exchanged glances and let the students get to work.

Yep, we both were thinking, this is just one of those classes we'll have to slog through, then forget about.

After allowing students time to draw, we created a patchwork of their art on the floor, and they gathered around. Scott took over the discussion at that point, making links between their artwork and ideas in the writings. On the best of days, team teaching energizes both of us, while on the more frustrating days (like this particular day), we can tag team to give each other a break from being the lone prof of the day's lesson.

I left that day feeling frustrated again for multiple reasons: We had let the students draw longer than we'd planned and rushed through discussing the readings in depth. We were irritated by Albert's seeming refusal to understand the assignment before even attempting it. And we were frustrated that his passive-aggressive question unfortunately reflected the attitudes of too many students who were failing the class because they refused to meet us halfway by doing their work.

Although students occasionally asked stupid questions, we knew none of our students were stupid. That includes Albert, who is capable of making insightful comments on those occasions when he has actually decided to do the reading and come to class prepared.

Carpooling home with Scott that afternoon, we debriefed about the day's events. Another balm provided by team teaching is the chance to reflect upon lessons, both positive and negative, with someone who has an equal stake in the course. It's a professional luxury that goes a long way toward ameliorating the feelings of isolation we all experience as educators when a certain lesson crashes and burns but we don't quite know why, or when we realize that an entire class is just never going to get off the ground, or when, conversely, a lesson we weren't expecting to matter bursts into something exhilarating and transformative.

Team teaching gives you a witness to such moments and allows you to bear witness in turn. It makes it that much easier to dive back into the fray and keep innovating.

And even in a flagging class like the one we're teaching, our students continue to motivate us. Once they leave our classrooms, we may never see or hear from them again. Yet we all know students who say nothing in class—or say something that seems stupid—yet later present themselves much differently in another context.

On the day of our draw-the-species-hierarchies assignment, Scott and I also decided to provide an extra-credit opportunity for those who'd been sobered by their poor midterm grades. We asked students, for extra credit, to write about how the approach we'd used in class that day could be applied to another environment with which they were personally familiar. We didn't give much thought to the extra-credit option. Mostly we thought it would be easy to grade and would demonstrate our support for their improvement.

The first response we received was from "Sarah," a biology major in the honors college, who wrote: "I thought this assignment was very thought provoking. In many of my classes we have discussed the concept of human-assigned hierarchy of megafauna. Honestly I had never thought about how these concepts are conveyed in literature. Dissecting the literary suggestions of which species the authors find to be more 'important' gave a dimensional look into the reading. I am choosing to expand upon the environment of microbes." Thought provoking? The environment of microbes? Wow!

Albert submitted the next response: "People should be more aware of the dangers that we face when we downgrade our environment and treat it like we do not need the contents it provides for us to live. Humans are creating the biggest dangers to our environment and to the animals and plants below us in the hierarchy system through deforestation and the pollution that is in streams that animals drink every day."

Hold the phones, I thought as I read those and other responses. The whole experiment in class that day had felt like a failure while we were engaged in it. Maybe letting them draw longer than we'd planned hadn't been so bad. Could it be that our students actually learned more than we had imagined? For that matter, might things in the class be going better than we had thought, after so many dull moments and flunked quizzes? Hope does spring eternal in the classroom. I am always happy to admit my earlier impressions might have been wrong, and to recalibrate.

As seasoned educators, we do what we can to choreograph the classroom tango so that everyone is able to follow the steps and enjoy the dance without getting too dizzy. Scott and I hope to keep "Environmental Literature" on our team-teaching dance card for as long as we can.

Jane Haladay is an associate professor of American Indian studies at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. Her team-teaching colleague is Scott Hicks, an associate professor of English at the university. Students' names have been changed in this essay.