Updated: Oct 27
"If it takes a village to raise a child, why do we leave ONE teacher alone in a class with 30 kids!?"
Most teachers spend just a few weeks or months of their careers alongside a master teacher during their training. Aside from that, teaching is a largely solitary experience. As a result of this isolation, burnout is common, with around half of teachers leaving the profession within their first 5 years. What if, instead, we supported teachers by giving mentorship and team teaching a more prominent role in education, and how might this affect teacher retention, student support, and overall teaching quality?
The sink or swim mentality
I can quite easily recall my first week of teaching, because it was terrifying. I had landed a job at a well-established international school in India, but due to some issues with my visa, I wasn't able to start in August as planned. When I finally arrived in October, jet-lagged and completely inexperienced, I was given about two days of guidance before being handed the reins to five sections of middle school science. I had a curriculum outline to follow, but no textbook, and zero resources. My department head told me I should prepare kids for the upper-year sciences, but that I should otherwise "do what I want".
While I appreciated the autonomy, I was drowning in work and self-doubt. I spent those first few years frantically trying to control my students while simultaneously learning how to teach. It seemed like an impossible situation, and if I succeeded at all, it was only through immense effort and an unnecessary amount of trial and error. I was lucky enough to have a supportive team, as well as friendly parents and competent administrators. Many teachers are not so lucky. The pressure of having to manage rowdy students, plan engaging lessons, deal with parents, and document everything is simply too much for one person to handle. If it wasn't, teachers would be going home on time and enjoying their jobs instead of grading on the weekends and quitting in droves. If it takes a village to raise a child, why do we leave ONE teacher alone in a class with 30 kids!? Wouldn't it be better if mentorship and team teaching were the norm, rather than the exception?
Feeling the burn(out)
One of the key benefits of a team teaching situation would be its potential to significantly reduce teacher burnout. Ideally, it would make sense to pair up newer teachers with veteran teachers, but even having two newbies work together would have considerable benefits. Just having the ability to step out for a minute to make copies, call a parent, or use the bathroom like a normal human would be a huge relief.
Apparently the main causes of teacher burnout are emotional stress, insufficient planning time, classroom management issues, the pressure of standardized testing, difficult parents, and financial instability. Team teaching would reduce or eliminate many of these problems.
First of all, the emotional toll of teaching is no joke, especially when you are new to the profession, so having another adult in the room to support you and bounce ideas off of could be a lifesaver. Team teaching alleviates the planning time and classroom management issues as well. Standardized testing is a more difficult beast to slay, but at least there would be improved accountability and transparency in a class governed by two teachers rather than one. I also have little doubt that student outcomes would improve as a result of team teaching. As for dealing with difficult parents, I know that, personally, I would feel about 1000% more confident walking into a challenging parent-teacher conference with a colleague rather than having to go it alone. Team teaching runs into a problem where budgets are concerned, however. Potentially doubling the staff roster is going to hurt an education system that is already stretched pretty thin, but at least if our work was less stressful and more inspiring, we would be more likely to stick with it even when the pay sucks. I have high hopes that one day teachers will be fairly compensated for their work, but I won't hold my breath.
Divide and conquer
Collaboration has incredible potential where student support is concerned. When educators work together as a team, they can better support each other in managing diverse student needs and behaviors. Imagine having a literal second set of eyes at the back of the room to stay on top of classroom management issues, being able to split your class in two to conduct truly differentiated lessons, or being able to provide extra support for gifted or struggling students without having to give up hours of your precious time. With a team teaching situation, all this and more is possible. In a mentorship capacity, an experienced teacher could share strategies and best practices while benefiting from the energy and enthusiasm that new teachers bring to the profession. This is already the norm for many early years programs, so why doesn't it exist at the elementary and secondary levels when the demands on teachers are different but no less challenging?
It's hard to see any negatives associated with effectively halving the student-teacher ratio, unless you happen to be paired with another teacher that doesn't match your teaching or working style. Still, I think as professionals this is something most of us could overcome, and I would argue that as learners ourselves, everyone we work with has something to teach us. That brings me to another point about taking advantage of each person's strengths and weaknesses.
Teachers working in isolation are responsible for everything from data management to counselling throughout their days. None of us are experts at everything, but we sort of have to be in order to do our jobs. If we could instead distribute tasks between two people with very different skillsets, it would go a long way toward improving our efficiency and quality of instruction. I've said it before, but classroom management is not my forte. What if my team teacher could help with this while allowing me to work on other areas that I excel at, such as lesson planning and creating resources? Two teachers focusing on what they are good at could truly create a classroom that is more than the sum its parts.
In addition to lightening the teaching load, collaboration and shared responsibilities would foster a sense of teamwork and innovation among educators. When teachers work together, they are able to bounce ideas off one another, challenge each other's thinking, and come up with creative solutions to classroom challenges. This collaborative environment breeds innovation and encourages teachers to constantly improve their instructional practices. For an idea of what this might look like in practice, here are 4 co-teaching or team teaching strategies to consider, and here are 6 more. Of course, this would only work if the teachers in a team are not given additional responsibilities compared to what the average individual teacher has currently. I can definitely see an administrator thinking that they could pile more on someone's plate due to the perception that they have help. The goal of team teaching would not be to give teachers more to do, but to ensure that they have the tools and support to do what they are already doing, only better.
Below is a helpful set of tips to implement team teaching effectively in your classroom.
In conclusion, if schools are serious about supporting teachers, they need to do a lot more than simply tell them how much they appreciate the work they do. Teacher wellness and self-care strategies are band-aid solutions that do not address the root cause of teacher burnout. Instead, putting two teachers in a single classroom would alleviate stress and improve almost every aspect of teaching and learning. The only disadvantage (and it's a big one) is that it would cost a lot more to cover the additional salaries, however I would argue that the money is there if we just make education a priority. Besides, having the consistent support of an experienced mentor teacher would be worth more than all the PD on Earth, and those conferences aren't cheap! So yeah, it might be time to invest a little more in education. No surprise there!
Pin this article to save it for later: