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Team teaching is a strategy used at many grade levels in many schools -- but how teams are structured and how well teaming actually works varies widely. In this article Education World writer Sharon Cromwell explores two essential questions -- What constitutes an excellent teaching team? and How can teachers strengthen their teams? Included: Practical tips to share with teaming teachers!
What elements help make a teaching team strong? Team teachers cite several characteristics of an outstanding team that really works for the benefit of students. The one trait they all seem to agree upon: Team members must laugh when appropriate to maintain the proper perspective about whats happening with students and themselves. Use humor, teachers say, to keep the team positive and on target.
"Dont hold grudges against team members," Glen Lawson, who teaches science and reading at Davis Middle School in Flowery Branch, Georgia, told Education World. "You should laugh together, eat together, and make copies together at least twice a week."
TEAMING TEEMS WITH ISSUES
Approximately 77 percent of middle schools in the United States now employ some form of team teaching, John Lounsbury, publications editor for the National Middle School Association, told Education World. Lounsbury, who is often referred to as one of the "godfathers" of the middle school movement, says, "We have come to realize that teaming has not been exploited fully by teachers to make the kinds of changes in instruction that are possible." When team teaching is fully implemented, however, research has shown it leads to an "improved work climate, more frequent contact with parents, increased teacher job satisfaction, and higher levels of student achievement."
"We organized teams and declared victory," Lounsbury continued, "but we havent taken full advantage of teachers working together to create a more integrated curriculum."
Lounsbury outlines the major problems that sometimes dog team teaching:
Lounsbury quotes the nineteenth-century American writer Henry David Thoreau on the subject of change: "Beware of enterprises that require new clothes but not rather a new wearer of clothes." In introducing team teaching, Lounsbury says, changes have too often been superficial without truly transforming the middle school curriculum so that subjects are interrelated rather than remaining compartmentalized.
To read more, see How Teaming Influences Classroom Practices, published in the November 2000 issue of the Middle School Journal.
"For a team of teachers to be strong and productive, everyone must work together in a collegial manner," Melba Yvette Smithwick told Education World. She is a professional staff developer at the Paul R. Haas Middle School in the Corpus Christi, Texas, school district. "We always share teaching strategies, critique each other with respect and honesty, laugh a lot, and keep each other focused when we get sidetracked.
"We remind each other," Smithwick goes on, "that these people [whom we teach] are still children regardless of their height and that we are the adults who must guide them."
Echoing Smithwick, Lawson says that team members must treat each other with respect. One member, he insists, should not "hog the ball"; rather, all members should cooperate for the good of their students. He believes a team with teachers who are "male or female, older or younger, and having more or less experience" can "identify and reach kids with all kinds of needs."
Further, Lawson recommends "a variety of teaching styles" on a team. "A good team" Lawson says, "includes different styles, such as an authoritarian, a caregiver, and a cheerleader. Students will respond differently to these different teachers and all will get their needs met. It is also essential that the teachers value and support each other in those roles."
A strong, productive team is one that recognizes its strengths and weaknesses, Michele Lash of Regis Middle School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, told Education World. Lash teaches eighth grade Spanish as well as religion. "On our team, each of us is better at some things and tries to take on those responsibilities while others do what suits them best. No one can do it all."
Team members must "be flexible," Lash emphasized. "Especially in middle school, things change. If youre too rigid, you will quickly become unhappy, which soon becomes apparent to the students and sometimes to the parents. Also, you must be an advocate for the students. Every child needs someone in his or her corner. Sometimes, their teachers are all they have."
Working together to create curriculum that makes sense should be a goal of all teams. Lounsbury, who has more than 50 years involvement in the development of middle schools, believes a powerful team will "break down fragmentation among subjects" and interrelate the content of subjects taught by team members.
STRENGTHENING A TEAM
Many teachers know how an especially good team works and are always searching for ways to improve the performance of their teams. The teachers we talked with offered some tips on building strong teams.
"We cant let the difficult teachers win," Lawson says. "We cant just let them have their way because it is easier for us. We are teachers, after all. Everything we do teaches, including [teaching] the teachers we teach with."
Lounsbury thinks an "open, honest discussion of Why teaming? should be held. Too often it is viewed as an end, not a means, and when administratively in place, teachers can go on teaching as they did before. ... Unless teachers attitudes about teaming are positive, or at least open, trying to make teams effective is tough."
"Set an agenda for the week," is Lashs advice. "Include discussions on students about whom there are concerns. Include some type of professional development reading or discussion.
"If things are really getting hectic, and people are starting to grumble," she continued, "plan a time for everyone to share something positive that recently happened that involves a student. Usually, that gets us smiling or even laughing, which always brightens the mood.
"Dont allow team members to do other things during the meeting," she says. "You wouldnt allow it from students, so dont accept it from colleagues."
COMING TOGETHER IS A BEGINNING
Henry Ford once said, "Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress and working together is success."
Melba Smithwick puts it a little differently: "Lay all the cards on the table, dont speak with hidden messages, be direct, honest, kind, professional, friendly, and -- for goodness sakes -- keep a positive attitude and a good sense of humor."
Clusters and Team Teaching Building Connections Between Students and Teachers
Thurgood Marshall Middle School in Lynn, Massachusetts, which is surrounded by low-income and government-subsidized housing, restructured beginning in 1987. With student clustering and team teaching, the school has dramatically improved student performance and teacher morale.
Learning Teams: When Teachers Work Together, Knowledge and Rapport Grow
This article, published by the National Staff Development Council in 2001, explores the concept of learning teams, which is somewhat different from that of team teaching. A learning team focuses on teacher learning to improve student learning. Such teams may also be called study groups, impact groups or collaborative teacher groups.
Key Resources About Middle Grades Teaming
Middle school researcher and policy expert Tom Dickinson provided this information to MiddleWeb Listserv members during an extended conversation about effective teacher teaming in the middle grades.
Team Teaching: Advantages, Disadvantages
This resource explores the advantages and disadvantages of team teaching.
BOOKS OF NOTE
Camel-Makers: Building Effective Teacher Teams Together (A Modern Fable for Educators), by Daniel L. Kain, National Middle School Association (1998; 102 pages/paperpack). A book about the Jamal Group, a fictitious team that must design the ideal beast of burden for the desert. The teams process and product reveal what is necessary to create a productive team that will accomplish the necessary tasks to improve teacher relationships and student learning.
Implementing and Improving Teaming: A Handbook for Middle Level Leaders, by Jerry Rottier, National Middle School Association (2001; 176 pages/paperback). The author examines the strengths of team teaching from different perspectives. He discusses teaming theory, various schedules and systems used, and basic traits of excellent teams.