Team Teaching: How to make it work

Here is a piece that Manpal Sahota and I wrote for KOTESOL’s “The English Connection” (TEC) magazine for the “Training Notes” section.  This is the version that we submitted and a  slightly edited version appeared in the March 2011 issue of TEC.  This is aimed at co-teachers in Korea but I hope and guess that some of the principles will be applicable to many team teaching situations. 

Dear diary, 

I really don’t understand the point of having a co-teacher. My co-teachers can barely hold a conversation in English, let alone teach the language. They don’t help me with lesson planning, they show up late to class, they sit at the back of the classroom and send text messages with their cell phones, and some actually talk to my students while I’m trying to teach the class. One teacher even fell asleep at the back of the classroom! What kind of example is that setting for the students? The only time they get involved is when we have an “open class” – and even then they are more disruptive than helpful. I wish that they would just stay in the teacher’s office so that I can just teach the class on my own without any distractions.

Dear diary,

Today was another typical day with the native teacher. During class she shows no passion about teaching our students and she just stands at the front while I teach the majority of the lesson. The only time she gets involved in the lesson is when I ask her to model the dialogue with her ‘wonderful’ native accent. Sometimes I feel like she is just a glorified cassette player. In the teacher’s office she just sits at her desk all day surfing the internet while I plan the lessons by myself, not to mention all the other paperwork I have to do. I don’t understand why a certified teacher like myself must teach with an unqualified native teacher. I can’t even say she is a teacher, she is just a native English speaker. How can I endure the whole year with her?

Perhaps some of you can relate to parts of the fictitious journal entries above. Perhaps you know someone like that or have unfortunately been in a similar situation yourself. Through discussions with various players in the South Korean EFL world we have realised that team teaching is a source of frustration for both Korean and foreign English teachers. The idea of team teaching can bring a feeling of dread, sleepless nights and cold sweats to teachers. However, we feel if both parties are willing to try, team teaching can be very fruitful. In this column, we will highlight the benefits of team teaching and share specific methods and techniques that Korean and foreign team teachers use successfully.

Why team teach? Richards and Farrell (2005) offer many positive by-products of team teaching. One of the main benefits is that team teachers are able to complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Each member of the team can focus on parts of the lesson that they are more comfortable with (e.g. the foreign teacher can read out dialogues or passages that contain hard to pronounce words while the Korean teacher can explain difficult to understand grammar points). From our perspective the greatest potential benefit of team teaching comes from the potential of having a reflective partner. We will expand on this point later on in this column.

Richards and Farrell point out the benefits are not just limited to the teachers. Students also benefit from being exposed to different teaching styles, different accents and different personalities. These added benefits create a richer learning environment for students.

It’s important to explain why we use the term ‘team teaching’ as opposed to ‘co-teaching.’ The latter is the more commonly used term to describe two people teaching together. For us, co-teaching is a larger umbrella term that includes situations where two (or more) teachers share a class and teach the same group of students consecutively or deliver the same course material to different classes concurrently. For our purposes, we use the term ‘team teaching’ to specifically describe teaching contexts where two teachers are in the same classroom delivering a lesson together. We have a very clear view of what team teaching is not. Team teaching is not having the Korean teacher translate what the foreign teacher says into Korean, or using the foreign teacher as a human CD player.  We want to emphasize that in order for this teaching dynamic to work both teachers need to work together as a team.

Before we offer our suggestions we want to make it clear if you are in a similar situation and mindset as the teachers in the diary entries above then we honestly have nothing to offer you. Team teaching relationships are exactly like all other human relationships – there are going to be people that you get along with well and those that you don’t. For those of you in those kinds of negative situations we offer you our deepest sympathy. The ideas we share below only work if both members of the team are willing to cooperate and give team teaching an honest chance. If you are working with a teacher who is unwilling to work together we hope that you have at least one other colleague who is willing or that you will have the opportunity to work with one in the near future. For those of you on the fence about the benefits of team teaching we hope our suggestions help push you over to the positive side. We are also writing this column to awaken those of you who may have never previously thought team teaching could be possible for you.

Depending on your school and background you may be in a team teaching relationship where you and your partner have varying degrees of teaching experience, teacher training, and English language proficiency. Nevertheless, regardless of the know-how and skills that each of you bring into the team teaching dynamic we feel the ideas we offer below are applicable to a vast range of team teaching scenarios.  

As with most everything in teaching, effective team teaching starts before you enter your first class. One of the first things you need to do is to clearly define the roles and responsibilities, which can either be shared or divided between the two of you. There are many important questions that you and your partner need to answer. Who is going to be responsible for lesson planning? Who is going to create/make materials? Who is going to start the class? Who is going to teach what part of the textbook? Who is going to be responsible for class management?

These roles and responsibilities can alternate between partners at different times. You may be great at making lesson plans based on your textbook while your partner is great at coming up with creative supplementary activities, but sometimes you might think of a great activity that would fit perfectly with a given topic. It’s important to have set roles and routines but it’s equally important to set up a relationship where flexibility is understood and encouraged, and where opportunities are given for partners to work on the ‘weaker’ aspects of their teaching practices so that they can develop those skills under the watchful eye of their partner-expert.

Another essential question to answer is when and where are you going to discuss lesson plans. It’s important to have a regularly scheduled time where you and your partner will go over who will teach what part of the lesson. We feel an essential point to consider is how/when to reflect on lessons after they have been taught. This is a great opportunity to fully exploit having an extra set of professional eyes in classroom. Many teachers view class observations with great anxiety and nervousness, and with good reason. Having strangers in the classroom watching can throw off even the most experienced teacher. On the other hand, your team teaching partner is someone with whom you are hopefully comfortable with since having them in the classroom with you is a regular occurrence. Over time you should be able to build mutual trust and respect that allows you to openly and constructively give feedback on each other’s teaching practices.

During the lesson there are specific techniques you can employ to take advantage of having another teacher in the room. These techniques include: both leading the class at different times; modeling activities together; distributing materials together; monitoring students during activities together; one teacher walking around the room and helping or keeping students focused on the lesson while the other teacher is leading; setting up the blackboard/whiteboard for the next activity while the other is leading the class; checking-in with each other while students are engaged in activities; and having one partner help manage your class reward system as the other leads the class (please refer to our summer 2010 column for specific ideas about class management and reward systems).

Even with clearly defined roles and responsibilities it’s impossible to anticipate every eventuality that will occur during a lesson. There are going to be times where things don’t go exactly as planned or one of you forgets to do something you had planned. In these instances it’s easy for the lesson to come to a screeching halt as one teacher interrupts/jumps in to try to restore order and revert back to what was originally planned. This makes for awkward classroom moments for both the teachers and the students. We recommend developing hand signals so that you can clandestinely communicate with each other without disrupting the flow of the lesson or interrupting each other.

We hope the ideas we shared provide you with the impetus to approach team teaching with a positive outlook. While team teaching can certainly present challenges, we feel that using the above strategies can really energize your teaching and make a better lesson for everyone involved. For those of you co-teaching this spring we urge you to give team teaching an honest chance.


Richards, J.C. and T.S.C. Farrell. (2005). Professional development for language teachers: Strategies for teacher learning. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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