Collaboration in the classroom

Education, biology professors team up to teach course to SC high school teachers

Students who are taught by more than one teacher in the same classroom benefit from the differing teaching styles, added expertise and lower student-teacher ratios. But the first step is making sure the partners click.

From crafting effective lesson plans to properly managing the classroom, communication is the key ingredient in a successful team-teaching environment. Just ask Kristin Harbour, an assistant professor of mathematics education who has researched the subject.

“The beginning step, what I think is the most critical step, is establishing that relationship between the two educators, going over the strengths and weaknesses and building upon those in the relationship,” says Harbour. “Be sure to set clear expectations for the working relationship from the beginning.”

In the College of Education, Harbour teaches future math teachers and studies inclusive teaching practices in elementary school classes. While her research on co-teaching focuses on grades K-12, the emphasis on structure and relationship-building would be similar for college classrooms.

“You’re still setting a common vision and focusing on students. If we make our decisions based on what’s best for students, we’ll be great. Whether that’s with college students or fourth grade students, it’s still going to be the same goal,” she says.

And while co-teaching doesn’t lessen a teacher’s workload, it does provide teachers with backup and support.

“It provides you someone you can rely on, that you can share ideas with,” she says. “It isn’t just this one person working alone, you’re both working together for common goal. The more ideas the better.”

Bert Ely // Christine Lotter

Biology professor Bert Ely and education professor Christine Lotter have teamed up over the years to teach continuing education courses for biology teachers in South Carolina schools, but it’s really their chemistry that makes them effective. “When we work with teachers, they want something they can take back to their classrooms,” says Lotter. “So, I help translate his knowledge into something they can use with their high school or middle school students and make it engaging.”

How did you get into co-teaching?

Lotter: We have to have both College of Arts & Sciences faculty and College of Education faculty on our grants together. The purpose of those grants is to improve teacher content knowledge as well as their pedagogy. They require us to collaborate. Now, how we choose to do that — we work that out.

Why do you like collaborating in the classroom?

Ely: My colleagues from the College of Education bring something to the table, and I bring something to the table. Together we do more than any of us could do alone.

Lotter: Dr. Ely and the other College of Arts & Sciences faculty that we work with bring the depth of content knowledge. My strengths are more with context with teachers — I used to be a high school teacher, and I am trained in pedagogy and scientific inquiry.

How do you think that affects the students?

Ely: Most of this work involves practicing teachers, anywhere from kindergarten to high school. We want to build their content knowledge so they’re more comfortable teaching whatever subject matter they’re teaching, and we want to show more interactive ways to engage the students and help them really learn the material. We all contribute to modeling that and answering questions.

Tell us about the experience.

Lotter: I like working with Dr. Ely. He often has a different way of looking at the content than I do. He’ll just get up and start talking about things, and it ends up being this question-and-answer between him and the teachers. They’re just asking everything about the topic because they don’t have that chance a lot of times to get all their questions answered.

What are some of the challenges of collaborating in the classroom?

Ely: It has to be a true collaboration. Everybody has to have the same goals and objectives. You have to put your ego aside and just work as a team, focus on delivering the best product you can to the students. It turns out, Dr. Lotter and I have great respect for each other.

Lotter: I think working with teachers, specifically, is challenging because you have to balance making them feel like it’s a worthwhile use of their time, which means that they can have something they can walk out and use in their classroom, versus just improving their content, which may be a goal of ours. I think the most challenging thing is making sure that the way we are delivering the content is engaging them.

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