In teaching high school history and graduate university courses for many years, I have team taught with other history and English teachers and university colleagues many times. For example, Roberta Rabinoff Kaplan and I taught English and social studies at Cardozo High School in the mid-1960s. And in Stanford University’s teacher education program, I team taught a social studies curriculum and instruction course for a decade with Lee Swenson, then an Aragon High School history teacher. Historian David Tyack and I teamed up to teach “History of School Reform” between 1987 and 1998. Tinkering toward Utopia came out of our collaboration.
I enjoyed very much the planning together and actual teaching that I and my team-mates did. Sure there were conflicts over choice of content, which materials to use, who would do what and when during the lesson, and similar decisions. More often than not, we negotiated in order to collaborate and conflicts eased. In every instance of team teaching at Cardozo High School in Washington, D.C. and at Stanford University, arrangements were made informally rather than part of an organizational initiative to spread the collaboration.
Yet at one time team teaching was a “best practice” promoted by national associations, districts, and individual schools. It is hard to recapture just with words the national excitement over the innovation of team teaching introduced in the late-1950s after the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite. Team teaching then was seen as the solution to the organizational problem of stodgy, individualistic teaching in the age-graded school’s self-contained classrooms when collaboration was rare and isolation was the rule. It was considered a “best practice” of the day. Yet as a buzzword, team teaching in K-12 classrooms flew like a shooting star across the educational sky in the 1960s and disappeared by the mid-1970s leaving little cosmic dust in its wake. Of course, team teaching exists in U.S. classrooms now but what it was and its history is a tale in of itself.
What is team teaching? In brief, team teaching is collaborative planning and enactment of lessons among two or more teachers in a building; sometimes called co-teaching it can happen in elementary schools at grade level while in secondary schools team teaching occurs within and across academic subject departments (e.g., history and English, science and math, art and English). In some instances, teachers are responsible for large groups of students as in open space elementary schools once popular in the 1970s. These teachers decide when to have all students together for lectures, small discussion groups, and independent work. So there are many variations in the form and content of teach teaching (see here, and here).
What problems did team teaching aim to solve? Promoters of the innovation in the 1960s and since saw team teaching as a way of breaking down the organizational barriers embedded in the age-graded school organization such as each teacher with her own classrooms isolated from peers in the same grade or department. Isolation of teachers from one another in comparing and contrasting approaches to lessons prevented collaboration that, in turn, limited students’ exposure to different ideas and ways of teaching and, at the same time limited teacher growth in subject matter, pedagogy, and managing students. Both critics of and advocates for public schools noted how little collaboration occurred between professionals in schools.
Did team teaching work? Anecdotal evidence from teachers more often than not underscored increases in job satisfaction that team teaching brought to participants. As to whether team teaching produced gains or losses in student academic performance, well, research findings are mixed (see here, here, and here). The literature, as scarce as it is, comprises dissertations, studies of particular teams in a school, and similar case studies (see here, here, here, and here)
As to solving the problems of teacher isolation and insulation within the age-graded school, I have not yet found any such evidence. To look for evidence, researchers have had to document the situation in schools prior to introduction of team teaching then whether schools modified their schedules sufficiently to give teams of teachers adequate time to plan and coordinate teacher schedules, especially in secondary schools, as well as insert into weekly schedules back-to-back classes so the team teaching could be enacted. Again, such studies I have yet to find.
What has happened to team teaching?
Both formal and informal team teaching continues in U.S.schools. No longer an attractive slogan , elementary and secondary school teachers of like mind and with a cooperative principal work out arrangements to team teach for a few years and then return to their usual routines. With the ubiquity of classroom technologies and the buzz around “personalized learning,” team teaching has become a way of teachers( special education and regular classroom teachers working together as coaches of teachers, teams working at grade level responsible for large groups of students, and the like (see here). And there are schools that rediscover team teaching and crow about it (see here).
Finally, other variations of teaming have emerged over time such as teacher residencies where a beginning teacher (akin to medical residencies in hospitals) is paired with an experienced teacher and both work to teach students cooperatively and the neophyte over a two-year period gains important content and skill knowledge as well as techniques to manage classrooms when they become full fledged teachers (see here, here, and here).