Two is better than one

idiom-two-heads-are-better-than-one-two-people-who-work-together

Inclusion, team-teaching, planning & EAL

Aren’t two teachers better than one? As an EAL specialist in secondary education where we are striving to achieve good team-teaching, I often find myself wondering why co-teaching in elementary is far more normal than in secondary. Some reasons are obvious like the students age or the curriculum, but others require further research. I believe all classes could use a support teacher or specialist, be it for language support, learning support or general. In international education and keeping in mind  twenty first century educational philosophies, inquiry based approaches to teaching and learning, and a focus on skills more than content, there should be more co-teaching and planning time in a teachers schedule. At my current teaching position as an EAL support teacher in secondary my job goes well beyond supporting EAL students, I help all the students and the team-teaching is developing nicely, even with limited planning.

Two interesting articles (EAL specialist teachers and support staff; Together we are better) I recently read about secondary inclusion and co-teaching clearly argued some factors that I had already discovered but needed to have confirmed. They can be summed up as: “bonding” or building a positive and open relationship with subject teacher, planning efficiently and teamwork. Most importantly team-teaching can only succeed if both teachers consider themselves as equals and understand their professional role, i.e. one is subject-based while the other is a specialist in EAL, Learning Support or other. In such a way both run and observe the class from a different perspective and so supporting students with their learning collectively as well as individually.

When I first started at RAS the EAL teachers were mostly new to the school and an EAL inclusion model. At first my colleagues mentioned feeling more like assistants than teachers and it was probably true. I explained they needed to find ways to become part of the class and build a relationship with the teacher as this is key to any team building. All this takes time, can be frustrating but also depends on the personality and character of the people involved. Ideally a school can set time aside at the start of the year for teachers to prepare and establish a good teaching relationship by planning, discussing and setting their individual roles. I was not given that privilege and even though the EAL department made some common agreements to our work method, subject teachers were not really involved. We had one short meeting with all the teachers to explain the basic ideas of EAL inclusion.

Another point that struck me while reading the articles was the fact that they took into consideration that many teachers team-teaching did not have sufficient planning time. Nearly everyone who works at a school is in someway dependent on planning as there are always so many things to plan during a school year. For teachers, no matter how they plan, they all need to plan for there to be continuous meaningful learning taking place in the classroom. In teachhub.com I came across an article that describes a range of co-teaching approaches based on the amount of planning time available. It also takes into consideration factors to be aware of if either or both teachers are not well-prepared for their role in the classroom. Quite useful stuff to know for a team-teacher!

In Marcela Houterman’s video about the EAL model at ISPP, the importance of planning is shown in the first scenes where two teachers are collaboratively preparing classes. In almost all of the video we can see that the learning outcomes are a result of teachers knowing their roles and having thought things through well. Planning can be done just about anywhere, it doesn’t need to be time consuming and technology is a tremendous asset. In most places I have worked planning time was insufficient and rushed and usually not teachers managing their time badly. As a consequence teachers were not getting any quality long term planning in and even though learning was going on in the classroom, the outcomes were not as successful as they could have been with more efficient planning. Students also sense the difference in a classroom where teachers, structures and routines are set in stone. It provides stability, stimulates the learning, and should make the learning meaningful. Short briefings before and after classes or at other times can help a lot, and regular communication by any means will increase the learning in any co-teaching environment.

All the articles referred to in this blog mention the importance of subject teachers and specialist teachers building an open professional relationship, they should be equals. Easier said than done in some cases as humans are complex, being professional is the key alongside clear communication and honesty. Teachers should not allow areas of frustration to build up and cause unpleasant situations to arise in the long run.

Lastly, I came across a brilliant document called “Go-to-strategies: Scaffolding Options for teachers of English Language Learners, K-12” which suggests 78 teaching strategies. Many of them I have already used and some are well known like “Think, pair, share” or a classic “dictation”. What I liked about the document is the way the strategies are clearly listed and explained and thus easy to refer to with co-teachers in planning time. Moreover, they provided me as a specialist teacher with a bridge to teaching in the classes. All the teachers I work with are busy, some started this year so the curriculum is new, and I found my suggestions to activities and strategies were welcomed with open arms. It has even allowed me to run activities and classes, reversing roles therefore creating an environment where both teachers are really team-teaching from all perspectives.

Finally I do believe that the specialist teacher is in a unique position where they must take the initiative to develop a team-teaching environment by any means possible. After all, we are the ones walking into someone else’s classroom and want to be treated as equals. It would also take time to walk into someone’s house and demand to be part of the family, right?

Author: Niels Zwart

Living in Rabat, Morocco. Also lived in The Netherlands, UK, Spain and China. EAL in Secondary, English Literature, Social Studies, IBDP Spanish ab initio. Family man, music, reading, cooking and eating, tennis and table tennis, and traveling.

2 thoughts on “Two is better than one”

  1. I completely agree with your comment and approach, and also believe that team- teaching in secondary is only at its early stages of development. This is strange as most international schools demographics show most of our learners are indeed learning in a foreign language and therefor need the support. The issue of EAL teachers feeling like classroom assistants might be what is making ‘team-teaching’ so difficult. I have been an EAL teacher at several international schools but have never really seen it work at secondary level…

    1. It is curious why secondary generally applies less team-teaching. Most articles either refer to elementary or mainly in the UK and US some (state) schools do it. RAS started a full inclusion program for EAL students when I began and it was a challenge at first. Once you know your co-teachers and the students understand your presents it can work well. Peer support is also a powerful tool and the ELLs really do learn English quicker and better in this environment. I actually tend to spend as much or more time helping students develop skills rather than language!

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