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What We Learned from Co-Teaching

Mountain Prairie reflection

[This post is co-authored with my colleagues, Hoda Mostafa (@hodamost), Associate Director of the Center for Learning and Teaching, American University in Cairo and Sherif Osman (@the_sosman), senior officer, pedagogy and assessment at the Center for Learning and Teaching, American University in Cairo]

Co-teaching means sharing your students, sharing your resources and sharing the joys and challenges of each step of the learning. The authors of this article have co-taught courses and workshops with each other and with others, using different models, sometimes each co-teacher was responsible for a separate module, sometimes both teachers attended all classes, sometimes a mix between these. We all feel we learned from co-teaching.

  • Co-teaching as co-mentoring. It is always useful to think through our courses with other people, be they peers or more experienced mentors. For Maha, co-teaching a course (or even co-developing a workshop) with another person provides the best reciprocal mentoring: you get to think through your teaching with someone who fully understands your context and even your particular students. It becomes a natural process of constantly exchanging feedback

  • Co-teaching as observation. As George recently posted, observing another teacher can be in itself a form of professional development for the observer as well as the observed. Sherif noticed how one of his co-teachers used the Socratic method brilliantly, got the students to think in-depth about the concepts being discussed. This inspired him to utilize that approach more effectively, so he tried to use a model of inquiry, where he got students to ‘feel’ or ‘experience’ what the topic would be and then use reflection and Socratic questioning to dig deeper. This seemed to get the students to think much deeper about the topics than his previous approach of active learning with application.

  • More ideas: When there’s another person thinking about designing and teaching the same course for the same students, you can bounce ideas off one another. Hoda has different experiences with different co-teachers, where in one pair they think very similarly, coming up with ideas that align with their combined teaching style, and in another pair they think differently but by merging their ideas together, they transform them into something better than the original ideas had been. When we collaborate as co-teachers, incubate and design individually, come back and share once again, iterating ideas back and forth, good things happen. It is time consuming, but we all feel it is worth it in the end.

  • Learning from difference: When Sherif co-taught, he and his co-teacher quickly realized how differently they go about course design and lesson planning. This made the course much richer and detailed in its approach, content and assessments.

  • Sharing students: Hoda notices when students sometimes look at both teachers for a reaction, similar to how children sometimes look simultaneously to both parents. Are students looking for validation of a job well done? Feedback? Are they anxious about failing? At the end of the day, students get double what they signed up for any time co-teaching is done cooperatively and effectively.

  • Looking out for opportunities beyond what we would notice on our own: Because both teachers are thinking about the same course and students, when they share resources together, the pool of resources and opportunities for learning increase. Maha also learned from her co-teacher how to keep an eye out for local authentic learning opportunities to connect with the class – so not just benefiting from the opportunities found, but also from the process of mindfully keeping an eye out for suitable opportunities.

  • Backup: logistically, it is useful to have another person who can smoothly be one’s backup in a class if an emergency or important trip comes up in the middle of the semester.

Challenges of co-teaching

It’s not all rosy, of course!

  • Difference as conflict: sometimes differences between teachers can result in conflict, where one feels strongly about one thing or another. Sometimes coming up with a new idea can mean the co-teachers argue over who gets to lead in teaching that part – Hoda and Maha usually compromise by agreeing to teach it together in what Hoda calls a “segway” between two modules.

  • Co-teaching and student acceptance: Hoda has been a co-teacher for the first leg of the course and final stretch co-teacher. When you start you get an advantage of being with students exclusively when they are keen to fit into the pace and culture of the course. It is more challenging to take over the second half of the course when you are in a subtle but real comparison with the previous co-teacher. We find it helpful when students see both co-teachers in the first few weeks of the semester and when co-teachers appear in each other’s modules. It may be better to teach classes in clusters and not half-semester modules if both teachers are capable of teaching all parts of the course (which isn’t always the case of course).

  • Student Confusion: one instructor offers students clarity: One person to please, one person that they perhaps incorrectly assume is in charge. Different attitudes and policies of each co-teacher can throw students off guard mid-semester after they get comfortable with one style and set of “rules”.

We would love to formally assess student perceptions of co-taught courses at the end of semester. Writing this piece together is inspiring us to do so.

Have you co-taught before? What benefits and challenges have you found? Tell us in the comments!

[flickr photo by USFWS Mountain Prairie shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license]

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