Embedding Team-Teaching in Support of Inclusive and Equitable Quality Education in Ireland: From Notional Policy to Actual Practice and back again
How does a policy emerge, be adopted and become the norm? We are not too sure, but for teachers to change their practice, there needs to be a good reason. Without teachers’ support, little changes. A good reason usually rests on it being clearly of benefit, or potentially of benefit, to their students. It also usually aligns with teachers’ learning, professional identity and with the very reasons they teach. Our team-teaching case study shows teachers making their own policy and then seeing that policy informed and expanded by teachers’ practices.
The policy vision, aims and objectives frame quality education in the context of inclusive education. Both quality and inclusion work together to create learning environments that enhance the learning and life opportunities for each student.
A key objective is to enhance the quality of the learning experience for each student in each class, but also to address the contextualised learning opportunities that can result in two teachers working in the same classroom at the same time.
School improvement is a key vision, aim and objective of the case study. This is achieved indirectly by allowing teachers to position themselves as co-learners with one another and with their students, thus opening up conversations in relation to self-evaluation as teachers and as a school.
The rationale rested with a growing awareness of the potential benefits to learners and their teachers if teachers were to collaborate more closely with one another in classrooms. This does not carry a guarantee of effective teaching, as team-teaching is not a methodology, rather a mode of delivery that conceptually supports teaching, learning and assessment. For our case study, team-teaching is where two teachers teach in the same classroom at the same time, for multiple but identified purposes. The ultimate measure of the success of team-teaching is the impact upon learners and their learning experience.
The evidence on team-teaching is inconclusive, mainly because some researchers take it to be a teaching methodology rather than a mode of delivery. While not a new concept, it was being addressed anew in Ireland as a result of a greater focus on teacher collaboration and in part because students and teachers were not always comfortable with a model of support that relied entirely on withdrawal of students from class.
The case study showed that students benefited emotionally, socially and academically when team-teaching made use of evidence-based effective pedagogical practices. Our case study reminds us to focus on the teaching as well as the team.
When engaged with in such a manner, there is clear evidence that teachers working collaboratively can yield significant gains for students, themselves, their teaching colleagues and overall school improvement (OECD, 2009/2013). Some of the benefits are outlined below.
For students, some of the outcomes associated with the work include:
- students attaining higher results at state examinations than previously predicted;
- improvements in literacy and numeracy scores from pre- and post-testing; - students identifying the team-taught subjects as their favourite subjects;
- improvements in students’ attendance, engagement, participation, confidence and pride in their work, as well as improvements in their attitude to learning and in their attitude towards themselves and others;
- having full access to the curriculum and witnessing a range of skills being modelled by two adults (including how best to behave with one another, especially in male-female team-taught lessons)
- students speaking of being more confident, experiencing no stigma of withdrawal from class or school, being able to ask questions more easily, having fun and using all the instructional time available for learning.
- Teachers continue to implement team-teaching and track student progress.
For teachers involved, some of the outcomes associated with effective team-teaching include:
- learning in real time, in real classrooms, in real contexts;
- developing an enhanced sense of professional belonging and well-being;
- forming new professional relationships;
- learning new methodologies and also returning to forgotten practice;
- having greater insight into how students learn or are prevented from learning;
- becoming empowered to have more choices in responding to students;
- developing an improved sense of confidence and competence;
- having time to think in class and reflect during lessons.
Two recent reports on initial teacher education show team-teaching as possessing significant benefits in the career of emerging teachers and those who support them in school placement (Hicks et al., 2018; Hall et al., 2018).
However, our study also shows that we need to remain alert to certain factors:
- Team-teaching has the potential to be a key driver in promoting inclusive learning among students and workplace learning among teachers.
- It is NOT a methodology, but offers opportunities to use proven pedagogical practices to support learning (co-operative learning, framing questions, offering multiple forms of assignments, practice and feedback, etc.).
- Teachers sharing the same values is more important than sharing the same teaching methods.
- Time for planning, etc., is an issue, but imaginative use of time, including in-class time, allows for planning and review, as does use of IT for communicating with one another.
- Collaborative practice, even where deemed successful by teachers, is not enough. The focus must remain on learning and on learning as experienced by the student.
- Team teaching is about ‘team’, i.e. the whole class, not just about the two teachers.
- At all times, teachers need to be aware of why they are team-teaching and this will assist in determining if they are successful in achieving their goals.
The first policy challenge was to provide quality inclusive learning environments for students. It aimed to reduce the dependency on a model of student withdrawal from class, which potentially ran counter to accessing a quality and equitable educational experience.
The second policy challenge was to adopt a Response to Intervention (RTI) approach, which saw classes being supported by additional teachers to enhance learning for all students by all teachers. In this case, the focus was on a dividend/preventative approach rather than on a deficit/reactive approach.
The overall financial benefits of such provisions were also seen to be advantageous as fewer students would require intensive support, while all students were challenged and supported within the class. The third challenge was in supporting teachers to make collective decisions on what was best for their students and to provide teachers with a skill-set and a support mechanism that allowed accurate and correct interventions for all students at all times.
Finally, the stubborn and often legitimate objection by some teachers to remain isolated in their classrooms was addressed by focusing on the benefits that can accrue for students in team-taught lessons. This, in turn, shifted isolationist mind-sets towards more collaborative professional interaction with colleagues. The power of student pressure on such teachers cannot be underestimated in this regard.
The policy development in relation to team-teaching has been evolving in Ireland since the concept was first introduced in 1993. The background to the team-teaching project is the engagement by Cork Education and Training Board in Ireland with a then Ministry Inspector to advance team-teaching. It has progressed from being merely encouraged (by policy), to actually being enacted (by teachers) and subsequently revisited by both policy-makers and teachers in an iterative developmental trajectory.
The initial target group of the case study was students aged 12–16 who were at risk of not learning and of not attending school. Subsequent phases of the evolution of team-teaching see new targets and target groups at local and at national levels that include teachers across their continuum of learning and also aspiring and newly-appointed school leaders.
Team-teaching is being addressed anew and is, as this case study shows, becoming embedded in a number of ways across the continuum of provision for students with identified needs and across the continuum of teacher education and school improvement.
A multiple, not always an aligned, approach has been adopted. The engagement with team-teaching continues to move outwards, from a singularly special education/inclusion agenda to one of teacher and senior management professional development, and indeed, whole-school self-evaluation.
2007–2011: A significant breakthrough in the shift from policy to practice emerged with the Cork Education and Training Board research project on team-teaching.
2012: Ministry School Inspection reports affirm good practice by way of published school inspection reports.
2013: Teaching Council of Ireland adopts team-teaching as a key dimension to its School Placement Guidelines for all course providers.
2014: Ministry-led teacher support organisations begin to advance team-teaching as part of their programme of support for both newly-qualified teachers (National Induction Programme for Teachers), for established teachers (Professional Development Support Team) and teachers working with students at risk of not learning (National Council for Special Education – NCSE). On-going engagement with aspiring leaders undertaking postgraduate work involves elements of supporting and reviewing team-teaching and similar practices in schools.
2016: MIC Thurles School Placement practices adopt team-teaching with student pairs from the cohort of Year Two concurrent programmes placed together. This practice already supplements the team-teaching arrangements between student teachers and co-operating (receiving) teachers, which is increasingly the norm in Ireland. Such pairs are upskilled in team teaching/pedagogical practices in advance of undertaking their placement.
2016–2018: MIC Thurles hosts a series of seminars for teachers interested in team-teaching and online summer courses are also offered for primary teachers. 2016: School self-evaluation guidelines (Looking at Our Schools, 2016) are issued by the Ministry and draw on team-teaching as an example of collaborative practice and review.
2017: The Teaching Council of Ireland issues a draft national framework for teachers’ professional learning, citing team-teaching as an example of legitimate in-school learning for teachers.
2017: The national Instructional Leadership Programme – which is a two-year programme of workshops, led by Education and Training Boards Ireland, where principal and teachers travel in teams of three to four – adopts team-teaching as a means for school personnel to enhance skill acquisition and transfer learning in their own setting.
2017: The Ministry instructs schools to explore how team-teaching can be used as the first response to supporting learning. Circular 0013/2017
2018: Ministry guidelines on Immersion Education reference team-teaching in the context of good practice.
2018: Two research studies identify team-teaching as an integral and welcome aspect of learning to teach.
- Hick, P., Solomon, Y., Mintz, J., Matziari, A., Ó Murchú, F., Hall, K., Cahill, K., Curtin, C. and Margariti, D., 2018. Initial Teacher Education for Inclusion. Trim, Ireland: NCSE.
- Hall, K., Murphy, R., Rutherford, V. & Ní Áingleis, B., 2018. School Placement in Initial Teacher Education. Maynooth, Ireland: Teaching Council
As can be witnessed above, the case study started small with one Education and Training Board and has influenced the development of team-teaching at classroom, school and national levels. Workshops continue to be run at the local school level and through the above-mentioned activities, such as seminars and summer schools. It is forming an integral part of the initial teacher education programme in MIC Thurles.
Key partnerships now exist and of note, the Ministry of Education in Ireland states in its circular on the use of additional resources:
Additional Teaching support can be provided in a variety of ways. The special education teacher might work in the classroom with the class teacher or withdraw pupils in small groups and/or individually for a period of time (depending upon the nature of pupils needs) for intensive teaching of key skills.
The range of teaching supports should include team-teaching, small group teaching and, where necessary, individualised teaching to address specific learning needs.
Individualised learning needs can be addressed in a variety of ways and should not be solely equated with withdrawal from class for one-to-one or group tuition. Configurations of team-teaching have been shown to provide an appropriate model for engaging with individual needs in the collective setting of the classroom. As necessary, this can be combined with withdrawal for intensive teaching of specific skills, based on level of need. (2017, p. 18)
The key outcome of this case study is that it has supported, in its own small way, the concept of quality and equity within Ireland’s educational system.
The added value is that it opens up an understanding of the concept and potential of team-teaching while also being alert to the challenges and pitfalls. It allowed national organisations to see its potential and they, in turn, have advanced their respective agendas by availing of team-teaching as a means of keeping pedagogy and classroom experiences alive in conversations.
The biggest challenge at a classroom level is ensuring a clear understanding of team-teaching. It is about teaching and it is about engagement rather than containment. It is not a methodology and may take time to implement properly.
A broader challenge is that while advantageous to others, the purpose(s) and intention(s) around team-teaching need to be clear to all, at all times. Team-teaching with an established colleague for the benefit of students is not the same as team-teaching to support teachers in their pre- or early career phase.
Team-teaching is evaluated repeatedly by teachers and students every day. At a policy level, the inspectorate evaluates and advises schools on their engagement with team-teaching.
The range of agencies adopting team-teaching is the support that sustains the work and inspires on-going research and actions. Schools cluster together informally or through formal support routes and this maintains the quality of the engagement.
At this point, the case study has shifted from ‘how do we team-teach?’ to ‘how do we team-teach better?’ The shift is towards inquiry in relation to maximising the presence of another teacher and exploring the full potential of team-teaching.
Dr Finn Ó Murchú
Head of School
Post-Primary Teacher Education