5 Tips for Being a Better Team-Teacher

By James Hollingsworth

After spending almost 20 years teaching band in a team setting, I am not sure I would know how to do it any other way.  I have always felt fortunate that I have had someone by my side when compared to the folks who were “lone wolves” at their schools.  This job can be lonely, so having a teammate to work side by side with everyday has been a something I have never taken for granted.

Whether you are teaching the same subject with another teacher, or you are part of music faculty, the relationship that you have with your teaching partners can have a tremendous effect on the success of your students and your entire music program.  I have been blessed to be a part of some outstanding music programs.  However, I may not have always been the best teammate.  I have found many things that work well, and even more things that do not work at all.  As someone who team-teaches band, I have compiled a list of five tips that I have found to be incredibly important to building the best team possible.

Why Team Teach

Before we dive into the tips, I want to take a moment to explain my situation and why I feel team-teaching is the best way to teach music.  I teach in a high school with a total enrollment of 650 students.  My co-teacher and I teach high school band and jazz band, then serve four elementary schools teaching 5th grade band.  As much as possible, my partner and I are in the same room at the same time.  We do split the 5th grade bands, especially at the beginning of the year.  However, we find that we teach better together.

Why do we teach better together?

  • Efficiency: Team teaching significantly enhances instructional efficiency by utilizing our collective expertise. It allows us to troubleshoot more quickly in rehearsals and solve musical problems in the ensemble.
  • Better Differentiated Instruction: Smaller student-teacher ratios inherent in team-teaching directly corelate to better differentiated instruction. With our younger students, we find that we move quickly, but are able to catch and fix problems that would typically cause students to fall behind.  With our older students, one teacher is typically on the podium with the other floating around.  This allows us to find and students who are struggling and provide differentiated instruction while the whole group instruction is happening.
  • Learning from Each Other: I have learned more from my teaching partners than I can quantify.  I continuously learn and grow from working side by side with outstanding teachers. 
  • Cooperation: More is caught than is taught.  When the students in our programs see us working well together, communicating well, and having healthy cooperation, the musical ensemble grows.  Not to mention that we are showing them a positive work environment that will hopefully help them for years to come.

Five Tips for Effective Team Teaching

1. Have No Ego

Embracing a collective mindset of “our band”, rather than “my band”, lays the foundation for effective team teaching. This mindset promotes shared responsibility and ownership of the students’ musical journey.  This really comes from promoting mutual trust and understanding between the teachers.  This trust is not built quickly, but it is worth it.  Knowing that the successes and failures are not “yours”, but “ours”, it quite reassuring and help promote grow between you and your teammates.

It is also important to know what your strengths and weaknesses are and how they fit with your teammates.  Obviously, if you are a low brass player and your partner is a woodwind player, some strengths and weaknesses are easy to quantify.  However, what if your teammate is a master of written communication, and you are not?  Perhaps you are more meticulous with money and your partner is not?  Be honest with your own weaknesses and trust that your teammate will be as well.  Then you can start to find how your own traits mesh with theirs. 

Having no ego also extends to the podium.  If you have tried to teach a concept, or solve a musical issue, and it just has not worked, let the other person try.  Sometimes, they will stand up and say the exact same thing you just said and, magically, it will work for them.  Is that frustrating?  Not when you consider what is really important.  Did the students achieve what you wanted them to achieve? Then your team won.  When you have no ego, it does not matter who scored the final point, as long as the result is a win for your students.

2. Proactive Communication

This may seem self-explanatory, but the proactive part of this tip is most important.  Remember, the opposite of proactive is reactive.  When you are being reactive with your teammate, misunderstandings happen, cooperation goes by the wayside, and egos start to creep back into the relationship.   Communicate about things well in advance to avoid these pitfalls.

Of course, planning is a tremendously important part of teaching.  Proactive communication can be on a macro and micro level.  When planning a concert season, a marching season, or a festival performance, communication usually starts well before the event.  Communicating about day-to-day activities, lesson ideas, and logistical details sometimes get put off until we are reacting.  To combat these issues, set up time in your day to openly communicate about what is happening, what you are working on, and what is coming up in the future.  In my own program, we find ourselves saying, “What do we need to do before tomorrow?”  Talking through these details will also prevent you and your teammate from having mixed messages to the students.  There is nothing worse than talking through things in front of the students.

3. Take What Works/Leave What Doesn’t (Then give credit when it is due!)

I think this tip can be best explained with an example.  In my current district, we teach multiple elementary bands each day and take turns leading the groups.  In one group, my co-teacher used a strategy to teach students 1st Ending/2nd Ending in one of our tunes.  It was a better strategy to teach this concept than any I had ever conceived.  At the next building, it came time for me to teach the same concept.  So, I said, “Mr. Hollis taught this at another school this way.  Let’s do it here.”  I copied, word for word, what my colleague had said.  It worked beautifully once again.  I knew that the end goal is that the students learned the concept.  Who cares how we got there? 

Dr. Tim Lautzenheiser famously says that teachers steal everything.  This is totally true.  He also says that you have to give the person you stole it from credit for one year and then it is yours.  I would disagree with that when it comes to your teammates.  I learned that 1st Ending/2nd Ending trick four years ago, and I still give Mr. Hollis the credit to this day.  With many of the fine teachers I have worked with over the years, we have always given the other person credit for things we steal.  It is a powerful trust building tool to give your colleague credit in front of students.  As the person giving credit, you are showing that you notice the other’s contributions and care about their feelings.  As the person getting credit, you feel appreciated for your work.  As an added bonus, the students see that you care about one another and the ensemble grows in their trust of one another.

4. Assign Roles, But Be Flexible

What roles do you have in your ensemble rehearsal?  Here are a few you may have considered, and maybe a few more: Conductor, Roamer/Listener, Police Person, Repair Person, Money Collector, Role Taker, Posture Checker, Player/Role Model (We could go on and on).  What role you take changes daily and sometimes every minute.   Too often, team teachers slide into one role and struggle to get out of it.  This is one of the reasons that I do not refer to team teachers as directors and assistant directors.  To call your co-worker an “assistant” can force them into a role that may not utilize their skills to benefit the ensemble.  Many times, I am assisting my teaching partner.  Just as often, he is assisting me.  There is no need for labels that might hinder our ability to effectively help our students succeed. 

Sometimes, there is an experience gap between members of the team.  I have been the young guy on some teams; I have been the old guy on some teams.  However, I can say that the teachers that were older than I was never forced me into a role.  We always traded responsibilities regularly.  This was great for our students to see that we valued each other’s experiences, regardless of age.  I would like to think that I did a good job of returning that favor as an older teacher.  Do not hesitate to jump in to fill the role that is needed at the time.

5. Be Consistent

Most parents know what it is like to have your kids play mom against dad.  Our music students will try to do this as well.  Are there things that the students can get away with while “mom” is on the podium that they cannot when “dad” is up there?  You had better believe they will push those boundaries and find out.  You and your team need to have a consistent plan in terms of rehearsal behavior and stick with it.  If one teacher is super strict and one teacher allows total chaos, problems will not be far behind.  Resentment and anger will result between the two teachers.  No doubt, there will be some give and take in the process, but you must establish consistency early and stick with it.

Consistency is not just for behavior, but for pedagogy, terminology, and overall lesson alignment.  How do you teach staccato and legato?  If members of the team are not consistent with teaching these concepts, the ensemble will get mixed messages and performance will suffer.  Do you use a different counting system than your partner?  One of you had better change quickly, or your students will never figure out how to count rhythms.  These types of pedagogical alignments take more time than being consistent with discipline.  However, the efficiency that comes from aligning these concepts will help your ensemble learn more quickly and achieve greater success.

I have never been a perfect teacher, nor will I ever be.  The amount that I have learned, and continue to learn, from being in a team-teaching setting is staggering.  If you have the fortunate situation of having a co-teacher, I hope these tips help your relationships grow.  Never lose sight of the fact that a strong teaching team leads to a strong musical program.  The relationship you have with your teammates will form the foundation for the relationships your students have with one another.  Lean on each other when times get hard.  Laugh together when times are good (and when times are hard).  I hope that you can have the same type of fulfilling and long-lasting relationships that I have enjoyed in this wonderful professional we call music teaching.

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