Education Letter to the Editor

Team Teaching

October 19, 2004 6 min read

To the Editor:

In “Teaching Teams” (Commentary, Sept. 29, 2004), Arthur E. Wise suggests that team teaching is necessary for 21st-century schools. Agreed! But team teaching has been advocated since the early 1960s as the solution to effective teaching and learning in schools.

Forty years ago, Justin T. Shaplin and Henry F. Olds Jr. edited a book titled Team Teaching that detailed teaming, both as a practice and a rationale. This volume could have been referenced for Mr. Wise’s proposal. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching also endorsed team teaching in its reportA Nation Prepared: Teachers for the 21st Century,” written 20 years ago. And Vivian Troen and Katherine C. Boles described teaming in an organizational structure they call the “Millennium School” in an Education Week Commentary published late last year. (“The ‘Trilemma’ Dysfunction,” May 14, 2003).

The Franklin School in Lexington, Mass., began teaming with nongraded units in 1957, which remained intact until the school closed due to declining enrollment in the 1980s. As the second principal of that school, I’d like to share some of the lessons learned during that experience that might help modify Mr. Wise’s structural example. I had a close relationship with the professor who supervised the student-teachers in the school, and their placement was a collaborative decision by the two of us.

We found, for instance, that teams with two age levels and 125 students made a workable unit. Much larger, and it became difficult to schedule planning meetings. Much smaller, and it reduced the opportunity for varied groupings and activities. Each unit had a team leader with expertise in a curriculum area and leadership/organizational skills. One or two senior teachers with curriculum knowledge in different areas, plus two novice teachers, were the other paid professional team members. Teams could properly supervise no more than five student- or intern-teachers. In addition, each team had two part-time paid teacher aides to assist in the classrooms, provide clerical assistance, and cover bus, lunch, and playground duty.

At that time, Franklin School team leaders and senior teachers received small stipends. Mr. Wise’s proposal to pay the team leader $90,000 and the senior teachers at least $60,000 each should provide an incentive to get teachers into low-performing schools. Not to be discounted is the freedom that must be granted to each team to plan instruction that its members feel will best benefit their students.

At Franklin, the school schedule set the time for lunch and recess periods and the daily one-hour “specials block.” The “specials” team of art, music, physical education, library, and foreign-language or crafts teachers then scheduled the students of each team following district guidelines.

This daily, one-hour specials block provided the team planning time during the school day. During this time, the team would review student achievement to develop new groupings for instructional activities and work on new team curriculum units; senior teachers would provide staff development in their areas of expertise and review the weekly instructional program. More details about multiage teams are available in Nongradedness: Helping It to Happen (ScarecrowEducation).

There have been and are teaming schools other than the Franklin School. Why isn’t the practice more common? As Mr. Wise says, there is an “egg carton” mentality that one teacher and 25 students is the only acceptable unit—an assumption that each unit is identical. Moreover, with the federal No Child Left Behind Act built on the premise that each spring, every child in a given grade is expected to meet state standards, having learned a prescribed curriculum from teachers using research-based instructional programs, it seems that teaming has been ruled invalid.

What should continue to haunt educators is the knowledge that each child is different and will not respond in the same way to the same instruction. Only by teachers’ working together in teams, so they are able to analyze student work and provide a variety of means to achievement, will our children attain academic success. A single teacher with 25 students has neither the time, the expertise, nor the stamina to provide what each student needs. But by regrouping students, a team of teachers is able to provide individualized instructional plans.

Teaming requires commitment by the principal to providing planning time and assisting with group-interaction skills. Teachers’ roles must be differentiated and reimbursed in line with their responsibilities. Districts, teacher unions, states, and the federal government must revise regulations to foster teacher teaming. It helps if the school building is not of egg-crate design, but, as we at the Franklin School demonstrated, this is not essential.

Last, but not least, each school needs to be allowed control of both hiring and the budget. It should not be too much to ask that a district-run, team-teaching school be given the same freedom and responsibility as a charter school.

Barbara Nelson Pavan

Emerita Professor of Education Leadership

Temple University

Philadelphia, Pa.

To the Editor:

I am surprised that you accepted Arthur E. Wise’s Commentary on team teaching as if it advanced a new or unfamiliar proposition. While I found no important substantive flaws in the essay, the author seemed to be totally unaware of the half-century of history that team teaching has already accumulated.

Team teaching, a concept and practice that was very substantially nonsupportive of the then-universal practice of self-contained classrooms, was first discussed in the literature (by Francis Chase, the founding dean of the University of Chicago graduate school of education, and by myself) in the late 1950s. Within a few years, the topic was extensively discussed, not only in publications, but also in state and national meetings. Shortly, there occurred a national revolution in school architecture, and the literature of teaming also expanded enormously. In those exciting days (except for the die-hard defenders of the self-contained classroom), the Ford Foundation provided many millions of dollars to various universities, including Harvard, where I was headquartered, to examine and develop the many dimensions of the changes that took place in teachers’ lives and the spaces in which they worked.

The practice of teaming, being as it were a radical change from the entrenched system of self-contained classrooms, is still alive and (in some cases, at least) well, although teacher education never really changed, and most beginners continued to be indoctrinated in the long-familiar system of working mostly alone. My personal hope is that in the next decades there will emerge many more examples of teachers’ working together (in a very literal sense) and far greater attention in universities as well as in school systems to the advantages of totally abandoning the familiar go-it-alone system in favor of a partnership model that more nearly resembles what almost all other professions embrace.

Note the Commentary’s illustration, which pictures a group of teachers sitting in an egg crate. Only one of these teachers is shown exiting the egg crate. The only figure drawn “in action,” he is shown climbing out. Next time, please publish a totally empty egg crate, to symbolize what we should be valuing. And gently advise Mr. Wise that the paradigm has a longer history than he seems to have realized.

Robert H. Anderson

Tampa, Fla.

The writer was a professor of education at Harvard University for 19 years, and is a professor emeritus and former dean of education at Texas Tech University, in Lubbock. He taught in Wisconsin and was a superintendent of schools in Illinois.