Teaching Today

4 Questions to Ask Before You Co-Teach

Co-teaching isn’t exactly a marriage, but doing it effectively does require addressing some key issues up front, write Claudia Holguín Mendoza and Julie M. Weise.

September 5, 2017

If this new academic year brings you a new opportunity to co-teach with a colleague, we have some advice to share.

When we were both assistant professors, Julie the historian and Claudia the sociolinguist joined forces to teach a bilingual course in history, Latinos in the Americas. The idea was to admit students who had at least a basic Spanish background and teach them Latinx history in English, but work with them on Spanish-language primary sources. We didn't know each other well before the course began. Many people had told us, "Co-teaching is hard," or "Co-teaching is more work than solo teaching," but what exactly did that mean? We were passionate about the material and really liked each other. What could go wrong?

We struggled with our collaboration for the first half of the quarter. It took several difficult conversations to realize that we had each begun with substantially different assumptions about how the course would run. In challenging each other’s assumptions, we also came to realize just how much each of us had to learn from the other.

In the spirit of "100 questions to ask before you get married," "96 questions to ask before you hire" and even "101 questions to ask before you invest in a franchise," we now offer "Four questions to ask before you co-teach." We hope they will help you move through the hard part and more quickly get to the fun part of co-teaching.

Can you tell me about your research? Can I read something you wrote?

The way we teach is informed by the way we conduct research. Whether your co-teacher is in a different discipline or just a different subfield of the same discipline, getting a crash course on their research agenda is a shortcut to understanding how they will approach the materials in your course.

In our case, Julie knew that she needed a collaborator from the Spanish department to help teach students to read primary sources in Spanish. The fact that the collaborator, Claudia, turned out to be a sociolinguist rather than any other kind of Spanish professor seemed incidental. Julie had not read a word of sociolinguistics since college and did not know anything about the field’s methods.

Once Julie came to understand the ways that sociolinguists view a text, she immediate saw how a sociolinguistic analysis could add new tools to the historian's practice of analyzing primary sources. As we integrated those tools into the class, students' intellectual engagement soared.

The lesson: exchange an article or chapter of research with your co-teacher, then get together to talk about it. That way each of you understands the distinct contribution the other can make to the class.

Who will create class materials and how much control will each of you want over their content?

As obvious as it may seem to either of you, it is important to have an explicit conversation about how you will balance your two fields of expertise in defining the course content and developing its materials (readings, assessments, in-class or homework activities, and so on). Having clear goals and boundaries regarding each person's set of responsibilities will save you unintended misunderstandings and prevent sources of possible conflict.

In our own case, most of the material was developed to fulfill the course objectives in the area of history. Thus, Julie the historian chose the primary sources in Spanish. Nevertheless, we learned that it was important for Claudia to also have control over some of her own material and teach some of her own lessons with texts that she chose -- at least initially, until we understood each other's fields and teaching methods well enough to truly develop material together.

The lesson: make an explicit plan for who will develop which parts of the course content. Consider planning for each of you to have one or two class sessions all to herself early in the term. While alternating solo teaching is not the goal of a co-taught course, teaching in front of each other at the beginning of your relationship can help each of you see what the other usually does, providing a basis from which to develop a joint pedagogy. The second time you co-teach, you should be able to replace those solo lesson plans with joint ones.

What types of assessments are each of us used to using? If we use those here, will they still work?

Each of you probably has a usual set of exams and assignments that successfully measure students’ abilities in the skills and content you are used to teaching. While some are likely to work in the co-taught class, others will divert students’ attention away from the specific goals and content of your collaborative course, or will inadvertently leave some of those goals unassessed.

In our case, we realized by the middle of the term that Julie's usual assessments for history courses (paper and exam assignments) were not measuring students' engagement with the Spanish-language materials in the ways Claudia was teaching them to do in our class. We decided then that it was important to include in our exams more questions regarding the form of the Spanish. Students were required in exams and quizzes to discuss particular vocabulary as well as metalinguistic analysis (analysis of different language forms) about the primary sources, such as the sociohistoric and political contexts of the use of that vocabulary. By analyzing particular language social contexts, students were able not only to better understand those authentic materials, but they also learned real language use that is not generally included in formal Spanish language instruction.

The lesson: assessments send a message to students about what is important to learn. Think carefully about what message you want to send.

Which of us has more power in the institution and in society? How will students perceive that, and do we want a deliberate strategy to shape that perception?

The dynamics between co-teachers and the ways each perceives those dynamics will undoubtedly be influenced by larger societal and institutional power dynamics. While it may be difficult, it is important to discuss those dynamics up front.

In our case, we began with Claudia having a more limited role in designing course materials. After all, Julie figured, this was a history class with a history number taken for history credit. In early class meetings, Julie the historian assumed the role of the main instructor in the class.

Fortunately, Claudia had the courage to voice her feelings about this arrangement. While we were both female assistant professors, as a white woman Julie had a more powerful role than Claudia, a Latina, in the institution and society. Thus, Julie's authoritative stance in the classroom reinforced Claudia's general sense of marginalization and set a poor example for the students of color in class, whom we both wanted to empower.

For the rest of the quarter, we tried various tactics to reset this dynamic. For example, we had Claudia begin and end the class, and answer students' questions about assignments when they came up. But it was difficult to undo the initial tone that we had set once the quarter was underway.

The lesson: talk with each other in advance about the power dynamics that exist between you in the institution and society, how they might impact students' perception of you in the classroom, and what (if anything) you want to do to deliberately influence that perception.

Co-teaching is not exactly a marriage (or a franchise), but it does require building trust over time. Addressing these issues up front can help build that trust and mutual understanding sooner rather than later.


Julie M. Weise is associate professor of history at the University of Oregon and the author of Corazón de Dixie: Mexicanos in the U.S. South Since 1910 (UNC Press, 2015). Claudia Holguín Mendoza is an assistant professor of Spanish at the University of Oregon and the author of several articles in sociolinguistics and Spanish as a Heritage Language Pedagogy.

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