Strategies for Co-Teaching

By Christina Katopodis, Demetrios Lambropoulos, Xuemeng Li, Beth Sherman, Yanni Tziligakis

On Different Levels of Collaboration

In higher ed, co-teaching structures really depend on the level of collaboration anticipated. Will you teach an equal number of classes? Grade an equal number of papers or exams? Answer an equal number of students’ questions outside of class? Are the instructors’ titles the same or does the department have different expectations of each of you? For example, is one instructor a full professor and another an associate or an adjunct? How will different titles/roles come across to students? (Angela Peery, who has been teaching for over 30 years, offers several different structures for co-teaching.)

Answers to these questions depend on what level of collaboration you want to engage in—and that is something that should be decided up front, before you begin. You might start co-teaching by simply swapping classrooms for a day. In a classroom swap, each teacher has their own independent class. Teacher A visits as a guest lecturer to lead Teacher B’s class, then Teacher B guest lectures in Teacher A’s class. This could be a good way to get a feel for different teaching styles and foci, and assess the strengths of each collaborator. Perhaps Teacher A is really good at leading classroom discussions and small group activities whereas Teacher B excels in lecturing and developing clear slide presentations. 

The following semester, you might continue teaching separate classes but take the next step by linking the classes in some way (e.g., teach the same course content but share resources, teaching materials, and design activities that engage students across classrooms). 

Or if you’re proposing a course together and teaching it collaboratively (and the host department allows co-teaching), perhaps B prepares materials for the first half of each class and A prepares activities and discussions for the second half of the class period. The next class, switch roles. This would require early preparation outside of class to communicate and coordinate lesson plans effectively. A lighter option would be to alternate who leads a single class. The leader of a class period would have full autonomy and the other teacher would observe and offer support in class, then the teachers swap roles the following class period. 


Where to Start

Once you have decided that you will be co-teaching a course together (and definitely notify the department of what you are doing—perhaps in an email with a drafted syllabus outlining your plan), schedule two meetings ahead of the semester. In the first meeting, discuss your visions for the course, your goals and expectations, and draft the skeleton syllabus (what policies, major assignments, and assessment methods you plan to use). Think of the syllabus as your teaching contract and use this as an opportunity to establish an equitable workload. For example, who will post grades and who will grade what? Agree to this in advance. Ideally, grading should be a shared responsibility and criteria for grading should be agreed on before grading starts. 

If one faculty member is more senior than the other, what are fair workload expectations? How do you list yourselves on the syllabus? If you are not being equally compensated, what could be done within the co-teaching period to help the junior faculty member advance in their career? Transparency from the outset is important both to establishing a healthy work environment and to making your roles and responsibilities crystal clear to your students to avoid confusion. (Think of the syllabus as a contract that also involves students.) 

Think through how you will communicate your titles/roles in the class to students. For example, who should they direct questions to? If you want students to Cc both of you on correspondence, say so! A policy of Cc’ing all instructors in emails helps direct students to consider you a unit of leadership rather than pick and choose one instructor over another. Then, agree on how you will maintain these structures throughout the semester. For instance, you might make it a rule to follow up all verbal communication with students via email and always Cc the other instructor.

Finally, what happens if the syllabus contract is broken? What steps will you take to fix the problem? Establish weekly or bi-weekly check-ins to assess how things are going. Hopefully you both feel comfortable speaking up when the workload becomes overwhelming. Talk through what you would do to address that problem if it came up mid-semester.

In your second meeting, add course content to your syllabus. This requires some co-writing time. Perhaps you each paste into the document 5 important topics you would like to cover. You might use different font colors to distinguish between your voices. Then have a conversation about building the narrative of your course. What strengths can each of you bring to the course? Think of this conversation as building on one another’s work as well as building a new narrative together. If you continue typing in different colors as you fill in the class meeting dates with reading assignments, etc., that will make it easier to see who has contributed what. If there’s more red than blue on the page, that means the person using red font should probably relinquish more time to the person writing in blue font—unless that person is teaching longer Victorian novels while the reading list in red includes mostly poems and short stories. This requires negotiation, listening, and compromise. When you have laid out the basic structure, change all fonts to black and keep editing…eventually your voices will merge and it will be hard to distinguish who contributed what because you’re working as a team. This is good to practice before the semester starts.


Co-Teaching During the Semester

Plan to meet before and after each class session, even if it’s just for 15 minutes. Before class talk through a “run-of-show,” make it detailed (you might even set a timer to make sure you both get equal time for talking), and after class debrief on how things went. This not only gives you ample opportunities to raise concerns as they come up and address them right away, but also gives you time to begin planning for the next class session. If you have office hours, consider having them together if possible. 

If your class does not meet in person, who will set up the Skype, Discussion Board, Piazza, Google Hangouts, Blackboard, Canvas, etc.? Perhaps you alternate leading meetings. Then, who will answer student questions on the discussion board following class? 

If your class does meet in person, who will lead the discussion? What collaboration tools do you plan to use? Google Docs? Paper by DropBox? Blackboard? Make sure everyone is invited and that both or all instructors have full administrative access. Also, everyone needs to feel comfortable using these tools.