Collaboration in the classroom

Education professors team up to prepare early childhood education teachers

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.”

Bridget Miller // Cathy Brant

Associate professor of science education Bridget Miller and assistant professor of early childhood education Cathy Brant were teaching separate sections of EDEC 591, the College of Education’s senior seminar on teaching in early childhood, when they remembered that two heads are better than one. “We were doing a lot of unofficial collaboration teaching two sections of the same course at the same time,” says Brant. “Last year we said, ‘Hey, why don’t we put our two sections together as one mega-section and co-teach?’ There’s a lot of benefits to that.”

First, tell us a little about Senior Seminar.

Brant: Our students are in their last semester. They’re student teaching all day, every day. And they’re tired — and I don’t blame them. They’re in the schools with kids from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., then they come back to the university and sit with me for a few hours. I thought, “How can we spice it up a little bit?” One way was to bring in an instructor who they know and who they like. Bridget had taught the same students for science methods; I had taught them for social studies methods. So, both of us knew all 50 students.

Did you take turns leading the class?

Miller: It was kind of a tag team. It’s not like one of us is more dominant than the other. Cathy might start off with one thing because she has more background in that subject, but then I chime in. We both have our own experiences and perspectives, and we bounce off each other.

Brant: Some of those things we plan—

Miller: And some of those things just happen.

Brant: Organically.

Miller: It’s not like, “You go,” “No, you go.” We both just sort of go.

Do you also think in terms of modeling classroom strategies? Your students will one day have their own classrooms.

Miller: We do. More so in one of our other courses — EDEC 347, which is classroom management. Kate Ascetta (assistant professor of early childhood special education) and I have co-taught that. Kate is special education. My background is special ed., but I’m really more general ed. So we’ve tried to model that co-teaching approach there and then carry it on to senior seminar.

Brant: That’s important because in many districts special ed. teachers do co-teach. My second year of teaching, in New Jersey, I had a special ed. teacher with me all day. We were expected to have that seamless relationship, but no one ever modeled that for me. It’s nice to see that here.

What has the response been from your students since you began co-teaching Senior Seminar?

Miller: I think they love it. Even if they are assigned to me as their instructor, I have students reaching out to Dr. Brant. And Dr. Brant’s students reach out to me. It’s OK for them to go to either one of us.

Brant: We’re not crying in the corner, “Oh, my student went to Bridgett instead of me!” It’s important for students to have options because they respond to different faculty members differently. If they don’t connect with me, I’m glad that they have someone else that they can go to for answers, and that it’s sanctioned.

Miller: It’s also about modeling a good environment. Since we know each other really well, and we bounce off of each other really well, we can throw in little jokes and stories about our own experiences. That makes them feel more comfortable — “Oh, she just shared this awful experience that she had in the classroom. I feel OK sharing mine.” It’s about creating more of a community instead of an instructor-student dynamic.

There’s what happens in the classroom, but there’s also prep and grading, the other stuff that comes with the job. How do you manage that part?

Miller: We often have coffee and decide who will take the lead that next week. With grading, it’s easy because she has her 25 students in her Blackboard and I have my 25. She grades hers, I grade mine.

Brant: The most important thing is the level of trust and the appreciation for each other’s differences. If you don’t have that, this model doesn’t work. We like each other, we’re friends; we also respect each other’s differences and areas of expertise. If I had to sit in an office and plan a course with someone I don’t trust and respect, that would be much harder than having coffee with your friend and colleague and figuring out the best approach.

Miller: Also, sometimes I get so into my own zone teaching the same class every year — my assignments, my readings — that I get tunnel vision. And then someone else comes along with new ideas and a different approach — “Hey, have you seen this?” It’s like, “Oh my gosh, no I haven’t! I thought I’d seen everything!” It keeps it fresh.

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