Sunday, September 25, 2011

Collaborative teaching: How long should a team work together?

One of the questions to emerge in the recent PLG was the question of how long teachers working collaboratively in a shared space should stay together? Is a year long enough or is there potential for greater student outcomes if they remain together longer?

It was suggested that the initial part of the first year in a shared learning space was all about developing the trust and relationship amongst the teachers in order to get the learning space really humming and that a new team each year could well necessitate a new stage of relationship building and potentially a shift back in what was being accomplished.

In setting up learning hubs where children stay with the teachers for certainly two years, there was a feeling that learners wouldn’t experience that ‘dip’ of lost learning that is always evidence post summer holidays, as teachers and children get to know one another. If we were to swap teachers around learning spaces each year though, would a similar dip be caused by the fact that the teachers were in that relationship building phase?

How much time needs to be invested in learning to work alongside each other? One team leader at the PLG considered that by the second year of working together there was a common understanding of how the team worked, how the space operated and that there was not a need to come back to the basics of beginning from scratch (This in turn raised the question as whether or not collaborative teaching spaces needed a team leader at all, but that’s a question for another time!). On the flip side is the concern that teams become too insular and ‘comfortable’ in a particular learning space and that there is a tendency for people to get locked into a particular team for the duration.

Villa, Thousand and Nevin (2008), who liken co-teaching to a marriage, refer to the level of trust, communication, conflict resolution that is required for a team to operate successfully. They explore a number of different interpretations of collaborative teaching and intertwine theoretical perspectives with examples from co-teachers.

In one example they refer to two teachers given the opportunity to co-teach for a second year. Reflecting on their decision to continue working alongside each other the teachers said that “We were deliberate about attending to the same collaborative ingredients (ie face-to-face planning time, positive interdependence, individual accountability, monitoring and processing of accomplishments)” (p 163), that had allowed us to succeed in our first year. The teachers sensed that there was a potential for some complacency occur in a second year and that the emphasis needed to be on moving beyond the established routine and towards refinement and improvement.

York-Barr, Ghere and Sommerness (2007), in a case study looking at teachers collaborating over a two year period, recognized that there are important considerations in building teams of teachers in order to support what they termed ‘instructional collaboration’. It took time to develop the level of collaboration that will optimize student learning. “As the Washington teachers worked more closely together, trust increased, which in turn fostered greater collaboration and more in-depth reflective practice” (p. 329).

The authors reflect on the demanding nature of establishing new collaborative working relationships and advise caution when making changes:
“Making frequent team member shifts is ill-advised. Sometimes, however, changes are warranted and even appreciated when creating more effective and energized working relationships. There are trade-offs in making instructional assignments: Decision-making principles and cognizance of the trade-offs are important” (p. 328).

Decisions about how long teachers work together in collaborative instruction comes back to raising student outcomes. York-Barr et al. (2007) note at the start of their paper that little research has been conducted that provides evidence of collaborative instructional models on student outcomes. However their own subsequent case study illustrated one example of how collaboration between teachers did result in real shifts in student achievement.

This is certainly an area that is in need of further research. I’d be interested to hear from any teachers who are working in a collaboratively instructional model and how they view the question in relation to their own experience.


Villa, R. A., Thousand, J. S., & Nevin, A. I. (2008). A guide to co-teaching: Practical tips for facilitating student learning (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

York-Barr, J., Ghere, G., & Sommerness, J. (2007). Collaborative teaching to increase ELL student learning: A three-Year urban elementary case study. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, 12(3), 301-335.


  1. Hi Chris you might want to get in touch with @kathleen_morris as I know she has been co-teaching for another of years with @KellyJordan82. They are both active bloggers. Kathleen's blog is here.

  2. Hi Chris,

    As Stef, said I work with Kelly Jordan in a large open classroom in Victoria, Australia. We have two actual classes (2KM and 2KJ) however we always work together except for two hours of the week when one class is at a specialist subject (art, music, P.E. etc).

    This is the second year we have been team teaching. We plan everything together and do all our whole class teaching together. Obviously we teach separately when it comes to small group or individual instruction.

    My opinion is that our team teaching is hugely successful. Anecdotally, Kelly and I feel like our students' learning outcomes are greater overall when compared to when we used to teach separately.

    One point that is sometimes overlooked is that two teachers cannot be just put together and told to collaborate/team teach. Kelly and I chose to embark on our collaborative teaching. We have almost identical views on discipline, organisation, student expectations, teaching philosophies and even smaller things like noise tolerance and how we like our classroom to look.

    Obviously our personal strengths in different areas also compliment each other and help provide a rounded education for our students.

    You asked how long collaborative teaching should last for? Well, I think the simple answer is if it works well and the students are experiencing success, then it should continue as long as possible.

    As for working with the same students for more than one year, this is not possible at our school however Kelly and I would love to have the opportunity to teach a cohort of kids for more than one year.

    I hope that helps. You can check out our class blog and I also write a blog for teachers


  3. Hi Chris,

    I agree with everything Kathleen wrote in
    her comment above. There are so many positive elements to team teaching, both
    for the students and for us. The continual and ongoing reflection on our own
    teaching, and also the learning of our students is a definite

    As we plan all of our lessons together, we have rich conversations about student learning and how we can get the most out of our

    Kathleen and I were just discussing recently that our classroom feels like a real "community". Our students feel valued and Kathleen and I put a lot of energy into ensuring our students develop a passion for learning.

    Good luck with your research,


  4. It's interesting to reflect on how teachers are put together in team teaching situations. I know from reading around the whole open plan situation in the 1970s that it was very common for teachers to be put together and then expected to teach in the new environments. Another reason it didn't really work.
    Thanks for the comments. Lots more for me to think about!