Collaboration in the classroom

Public health professors team up to teach Health Program Planning course

Students who are taught by more than one teacher in the same classroom benefit from their exposure to different teaching styles, additional 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.

“The beginning step, what I think is the most critical step, is establishing that relationship between the two educators,” says Kristin Harbour, an assistant professor of mathematics education who has researched the subject. “Be sure to set clear expectations for the working relationship from the beginning.”

While Harbour’s research on co-teaching focuses on grades K-12, the basics are similar for college classrooms.

“You’re still setting a common vision and focusing on students,” she says. “If we make our decisions based on what’s best for students, we’ll be great.”

Lee Pearson // Megan Weis

Lee Pearson, a clinical associate professor in the department of health promotion, education and behavior at the Arnold School of Public Health, and Megan Weis, senior director for strategic engagement at the South Carolina Institute of Medicine and Public Health, have worked together in some capacity since 2007, the year Weis began the school’s doctoral program.

Each spring they co-teach Health Program Planning, which recently became a core course in the master’s of public health program. “We both bring different experiences and different approaches to problem solving,” says Pearson. “And we have, I hope, set a good model for what we’re doing in our MPH program, because all of our core courses are now team taught.”

How long has each of you been teaching this particular course? Or maybe we should start by asking how long you’ve been at the Arnold School.

Pearson: I’ve been here 23 years — as a student, then staff, faculty and administrator. I think this spring will be my 10th time teaching the course.

Weis: This will be my fifth year teaching the course. Lee and I both took it as students, and then Lee was teaching it and I was his TA. I graduated with a master’s in 2002, worked at DHEC, then came back for my doctorate.

Pearson: But we were really co-instructors at the time. She had such great experience working for DHEC. That really planted the seed for us to co-teach. This spring will be our third time as official co-instructors of that course.

In broad strokes, describe the syllabus.

Pearson: Students are taught to plan a comprehensive community-based public health program. They’re also guided in how to write a grant for funding.

Weis: It’s everything from, “What are the needs of the community?” to “What do the data say, and how you would use the funds to address that?” And it’s interesting that your publication’s theme is collaboration because that’s also very much the theme of our class. One, it would be an immense assignment for one person to write one of these grants, and two, that’s not how it works in the real world. So, our students work in small groups and they have to use the best of everyone’s skills to put together the final product.

How do you break down the duties?

Pearson: It’s much more than simply sharing a syllabus or alternating lectures. It’s really working hand-in-glove to ensure that you have a seamless story for the students, that the curriculum comes to life in a way that is meaningful and that you draw on each other’s talents. There’s a reason that we’re both there.

Weis: We take turns being on point. We barely even talk about it anymore. But we’re always both in the room. We interject and add to each other’s lecture. And then, in terms of grading, we each adopt a group of students, and we stay with that group the entire semester. But what they quickly realize is that Lee and I are in constant communication. We compare notes, and we adjust accordingly to make sure we’re on the same page.

How much time do you spend outside of class taking about the class — pregame or postgame?

Pearson: A lot. Team-teaching is not dividing the work. It actually multiplies because there is an expectation of constant dialogue. Even when Megan is lecturing, I’m watching the class — Are they absorbing this? Or are there some stumbling blocks? If there are, I can say, “Megan, can you clarify that part?” I call attention to it. And she does the same with me. It’s important to know what you don’t know.

Weis: You can do that sort of temperature taking part of teaching in a more nuanced way.

Pearson: I’ve always felt blessed to co-instruct with Megan. We have worked together so much that it’s easy to fall into that groove. We always meet before class, but we also always get back together after class to debrief. Maybe it’s right after class, maybe it’s as we’re walking to our cars, maybe it’s texts when we get home, maybe it’s the next morning. But we are good at reflecting, and we don’t let our egos get in the way. I might say, “You know, that class could have gone better.”

Weis: Or I’ll say, “I think we need to revisit this one concept. It didn’t go quite the way I thought it would.”

Pearson: But we also celebrate our successes — “I wasn’t sure how this would go, but it actually worked really well.”

Is it also more satisfying professionally?

Weis: Absolutely. I don’t think I would want to teach it on my own. Not this course. Other courses, sure, but not this course.

Pearson: For this particular class it’s vital. But there’s an added benefit to having co-instructors. I see it in the students. They benefit from the synergy that we bring. It’s also just more enjoyable to not navigate the journey on your own. There’s a certain efficiency to teaching a course on your own — teach the class, grade the papers and move on — but when you are trying to foster professional development in future practitioners you want to apply the very best judgment and bring in more than one perspective.

Weis: We’re also modeling what we want them to do as professionals. As Lee was saying, we have a great amount of trust. The students see that. They see us working together and respecting each other. Hopefully, they’re internalizing that.

Pearson: And collaboration is a fundamental tenant of public health. Being able to show that collaborative model at the front of the classroom, and fostering collaboration as a part of the course, is extremely important.

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