Grad Students Should Co-Teach

To do well on today's job market, students need the kind of teaching ability that such an experience can provide, writes Anna Castillo.

April 5, 2016

Quality teaching experience is a must-have for today’s academic job market. One way to gain experience beyond the discussion section or lab frequently assigned to graduate student instructors is to co-teach with a faculty member.

Most graduate students serve as teaching assistants to make ends meet and gain valuable teaching experience during graduate school. While some may have a chance to teach their own courses, the majority tend to teach within the parameters that a professor has outlined and, therefore, experience only a fraction of the responsibility and creativity involved in the process of teaching a course of one’s own. I make the case for co-teaching with faculty as a great way for grad students to access mentoring in teaching and to work on teaching methods in courses in which they might otherwise serve only as a teaching assistant or not have the opportunity to teach alone.

Co-teaching, or team teaching, as it is sometimes called, involves two instructors who design, deliver and assess a course together. These instructors may or may not have the same area or level of expertise, but they both contribute jointly to the creation of the course. Unlike the typical hierarchy between experienced professor and less-experienced TA, members of a teaching team share all responsibilities -- even administrative tasks like printing and scanning. Together, they also select material and create activities to target learning objectives. So the relationship between co-instructors is highly collaborative.

I first got involved with team teaching at Stanford University three years ago through the Collaborative Teaching Project, an initiative started with a grant from the Teagle Foundation, which was interested in experimenting with new ways to foster mentorship in higher ed teaching. Today, the program has become institutionalized at Stanford, and it represents one of the best ways for students to gain access to teaching more specialized or upper-level courses.

The Way It Works

First, a faculty member and graduate student pair up to form a teaching team. Then the period of course prep begins, and professor and graduate student walk through the stages of course design, a valuable and sometimes rare experience for grad students. The process of intellectual exchange with a professor -- about possible approaches to teaching the course and about which materials should be used -- is a learning experience for both parties. By the end of the process, both instructors are much better at articulating to each other and to their students why they are teaching the class the way they are. Such shared teaching experiences naturally encourage dialogue around teaching. And what’s wonderful is that this conversation can lead to totally new possibilities for a course, even if the professor has taught it before.

The Benefits

There are many benefits of team teaching for the faculty member, including a division of labor, a new perspective on an already much thought about course and the creation of new assignments and activities that he or she can use again in the future. I should hope the benefits to the students are clear as well: greater variety of expertise in the room, different teaching styles and increased access to teaching staff, just to name a few. For graduate student instructors, the advantages are many:

  • This is your in to being an instructor of record in seminars or more advanced classes. Administratively, that can mean slightly higher remuneration and access to a more comprehensive set of teaching support services, including an end-of-course teaching evaluation that reports student feedback on all of the aspects of the course, rather than just those related to a discussion section or lab.
  • When you look for your next teaching job, you will have the insight and perspective to be able to describe a course just like a primary instructor would, proving to hiring institutions that you are a candidate with demonstrated course design experience.
  • In front of students, being on equal footing with a professor sometimes means sharing a debate stage. One effective teaching behavior is modeling how to think critically and carry out elevated discussions. With a co-instructor, you can practice this skill by presenting alternative approaches to an issue and learn how to frame a debate in a way that undergraduates can follow and then participate in.
  • Having equal authority with the faculty member means you will be responsible for making on-the-spot judgments about how to enforce or adapt the expectations laid out by the teaching team. For instance, if students lodge a complaint about a due date following a three-day weekend, do you give an extension? Or, how would you respond to a student who is conducting a related research project in another class and asks to combine your term paper with the one from the other course? This kind of extracurricular decision making is usually exercised only by a primary instructor, but now you can have the chance to influence these important decisions, which can make or break a student’s learning experience in your subject area.
  • You might find ways to incorporate your own research into the syllabus and, in so doing, let your teaching nourish your work outside of the classroom. When you get in on the ground floor of course design, you have influence over the big questions the course will seek to examine. Why not pose a question related to one you yourself are working on? On a more granular level, you might assign an article key to your own research and then work with your students to develop the literacy needed to respond to the article’s findings. Subsequent discussions can turn out to be a consistent source of inspiration for your research. Logistically, it’s also a lot easier to travel to an important conference during the term when you have a co-instructor who can step in for the day.
  • Finally, as you work alongside your co-instructor, that professor will gain intimate knowledge of your teaching credentials. Think about how rare it is to have a relationship with a faculty member that revolves around teaching. Co-teaching presents a distinct opportunity for a professor to write an authentic recommendation letter on your behalf.

The Challenges

I would be remiss not to mention that team teaching presents its own set of challenges, namely, “Who makes what kind of decisions?” Let’s say a student misses a bunch of classes and emails you both with a request for accommodation. Who responds and how leniently? Other challenges include:

  • How does a lesson plan get divided up, and what gets taught in the first place?
  • Airtime during class must also be worked out -- who talks, and who talks first?
  • Teaching is often an act of improvisation -- somehow, you and your co-instructor must navigate each class to maintain the same nimbleness teaching together that you would have teaching the class independently. That requires flexibility and trust.
  • And finally, there’s the issue of presenting yourself to students as an equal to the professor. The problem is, you might physically look like a graduate student compared to Professor So-and-so, and students often consciously or unconsciously look to your co-instructor when asking questions or participating in class.

In a follow-up piece, I will be providing tips on how to make a teaching team work for you.


Anna Castillo is a Ph.D. candidate in Iberian and Latin American Cultures at Stanford University.


Back to Top