As a teacher, what you do matters — every day, with every student, in every interaction. That’s part of what makes teaching such an enjoyable profession.
However, because every moment matters, it’s also stressful, intense, and completely exhausting. Teaching is always at its best when the teacher is well-prepared, clear-minded, and enthusiastic.
So how do teachers do it? How do they bring their best selves to every moment in a job that takes so much out of them?
Well, we’ve got a secret to our success: two selves! We share two minds, two education degrees, two perspectives, two personalities, and one classroom through a co-teaching model. This fall, we will reunite for the seventh year to welcome 16 students into our Upper Elementary classroom of fourth through sixth graders at the Montessori School of Northampton.
As more classrooms move to a co-teaching model, it may be useful for us to share the benefits we’ve experienced and the practices we’ve developed to create an optimal learning environment.
Many teachers report feeling isolated in their classroom; there is often no other adult around for the sharing of success stories or brainstorming about difficult moments. As co-teachers, we don’t encounter this problem. In fact, one of the benefits is that we feel supported by each other — which of course results in better teaching. This support can take many forms: observing the other teacher’s lesson to give feedback, deciphering the specific assistance a student may need, or playing a role in each other’s lessons. Co-teaching offers the gift of a built-in support system that all teachers need.
We build on our camaraderie to do the harder parts of our job, such as finding ways to appropriately challenge each learner. Last year, during a series of lessons on mathematical problem solving, we noticed a group of our students struggling with creating scale models. After conferring with each other about what they needed, one of us met with that group for a few days to practice the skill. Soon the students who had been floundering with their graph paper and models were confidently creating scales that worked, and using them to solve problems.
Without a co-teacher, we would not have had the flexibility or resources to teach two classroom groups simultaneously. What teacher hasn’t wished to be able to clone herself to better differentiate learning?
Not only are we partners in our shared goals and experiences, though; we each use our individuality to its fullest as well. Because we have two different backgrounds and personalities, we have vastly different strengths. In many ways, we complement each other beautifully. Marian thinks big-picture; Johanna focuses on details. Johanna loves mathematical problem solving and literature; Marian is passionate about the science of sustainability, alternative energy sources, and pollinator gardening. Marian is an artist; Johanna is a knitter.
We’ve both brought our strengths into our classroom’s curriculum. This way, students get to experience a greater number of lessons imbued with passion and enthusiasm.
Perhaps the greatest benefit to our students is that our co-teaching relationship is a model for them in their own interactions with each other. Our students don’t see us simply yield to each other. Instead, they witness us discussing, problem-solving, engaging in playful banter, getting excited by each other’s interests and sometimes disagreeing. When we plan our lessons together we incorporate a range of strategies, from role playing to writing to games and movement.
Our students see us working together to create an enjoyable learning environment while they engage in new material. This translates to those times when they are asked to work with a partner. As witnesses of our positive working relationship and our daily collaborations, they have a model for working together well.
Throughout the years we’ve established some practices that allow our co-teaching to thrive.
We nurture our relationship and prioritize clear, friendly and respectful communication. We prioritize our scheduled meeting times for discussing students and lessons, and plan together for the future. In these moments, we work to be honest and not too agreeable. We try not to be vague in our thinking, and we are pointed in our questions so that we can be clear with each other and create consistency in the classroom.
Mostly, we compromise. Whenever two people come together to work or pursue a common goal — and believe us, co-teaching is not so different from a marriage — compromise is inevitable. Webster’s dictionary tells us that “compromise” means that both parties make concessions, or settle for something less than desirable. But we would argue that’s not the case with our collaboration. When we compromise, we become stronger and less isolated. Our two visions become one, and that special blend of our separate selves brings a robustness and beauty to our classroom that is irreplaceable.
Johanna Greenough and Marian Parker co-teach grades four to six at the Montessori School of Northampton. They are Teaching Consultants with the Western Massachusetts Writing Project.