Liberal Education

Escaping Burnout through Collaboration: Co-Teaching in a Right-to-Work State

Generally speaking, whenever teachers are mentioned, so too are teachers’ unions. However, that is not the case in “right-to-work” states. Teachers in our state of North Carolina, for example, do not have a collective voice to represent them in local or state political arenas, where politicians are usually not well versed in educational practices. As a result, decisions are made about curricula, pay, student spending, health insurance, and retirement without any input from teachers. Experienced K-12 teachers and instructors working in our state’s public higher education institutions have not received a pay rise in almost a decade, and we tend not to learn about important issues before the General Assembly—such as a reduction of our health insurance coverage—until just before they are voted on.

Teaching in a right-to-work state

As higher education instructors who train preservice teachers in a right-to-work state, we struggle with feeling unsupported. In our field, we show preservice teachers how to teach effectively regardless of the situation, and so we decided to create our own supportive professional environment through the use of co-teaching. Co-teaching allows educators to share the burden of creating and implementing instruction through collaborative efforts with a focus on the best interests of students. Co-teaching is prevalent in K-12 education, but we believe there is a need for co-teaching in higher education as well.

Higher education institutions are known for teaching within academic silos, and faculty often feel isolated from one another when designing new courses or implementing new content. One reason for this feeling of isolation may have to do with higher education’s multiple formats of instruction. Instructors must be well versed in teaching face-to-face courses, fully online courses, and blended courses. In our state, most faculty who teach in online environments have not been properly trained to do so. Co-teaching allows faculty to design courses collaboratively based on best practices.

When we were given a new fully online graduate class, for example, we were pressed for time and needed to design a high-quality course for our students. Our different levels of content expertise lead us to consider working together. We knew that co-teaching part of a course would enable us to support one another during content development and course design. It would also allow us to demonstrate the application of best practices for our students. We decided to co-teach a module within the graduate course even though there was no supplemental pay provided, which may not have been the case in a unionized environment. We took it upon ourselves to create our own framework of teaching through the support of one another without outside guidance because we both had been feeling excluded and run down.

We decided to start small, as we had never co-taught together before and our work responsibilities were overwhelming. We took one module from the fully online course, which lasted for two weeks, and implemented a lead-and-support model of co-teaching. This model allows one instructor to serve as the lead instructor of the course, while the other serves as the support instructor. We began by sitting down one day for about an hour to determine what content to cover and who would find what supplemental materials, and we designed a rubric to be used for the module assessment. We then went our separate ways to gather supplemental materials. All the materials were sent to the lead instructor, who was in charge of uploading the module on our learning management system. Once the course was open to the students, we both introduced ourselves, engaged in discussion posts, and answered content questions. As a result of our combined planning, the module ran smoothly, and the students produced impressive learning outcomes.

What works in co-teaching

The experience of collaborating with one another expanded our content knowledge, created a supportive academic environment, and reminded us that we love teaching. Through the instructional design process, we were able to develop content in a time-efficient manner as we both provided ideas, and each instructor found resources for specific content aligned with her area of expertise. The energy and excitement of designing this module was palpable as we bounced ideas off one another. If something did not make sense to one of us, the other had to rearticulate it. This allowed us to produce instruction that was clear and concise for our students. The interaction was a powerful reminder of the need for clear communication, particularly in online courses.

We thoroughly enjoyed co-teaching together, and we found that our pre-established working relationship developed into a strong and supportive friendship that provided for easy communication throughout the experience. Whether in agreement or disagreement, we had a solid basis for working with one another and talking through our options. We actually enjoyed the process of give and take through which we reached the best possible outcome for our students. The process helped us establish a continuous support system with integrated mentoring and professional, as well as personal, support. The co-teaching framework for course delivery provided content-rich assignments that were feasible for students to creatively demonstrate their understanding of the material. In grading assignments and determining final scores, we were able to diminish instructor bias by averaging our scores for each student. By combining our comments, we were able to provide the students with an abundance of feedback.

Challenges of co-teaching

Although our co-teaching module was successful, it did pose several challenges. We chose to co-teach a course for which neither of us would be financially compensated. Also, this was a new course in a recently designed program. The primary challenges of co-designing concerned the amount of time dedicated to creating the module and content focus. Although we enjoyed working with each other, we had to spend additional time designing the course because we did not always see eye to eye on content. The process for creating our module required a certain amount of give and take; it became apparent that one of us was passionate about adding a particular aspect of content, for example, while the other did not share the same passion and preferred to focus on something different. Such disagreements never escalated because we both respected one other’s opinions, but we both had to be okay with letting go of our need to control the development of the module at certain times.

The student-teacher relationship posed a more significant challenge. The lead instructor was able to develop closer relationships with students as she received questions and inquiries regularly. By contrast, the supporting instructor had limited interaction with the students and felt disconnected from them. The lack of a personal relationship with the supporting instructor was evident in the grading comments, because the lead instructor was able to make more personal connections in her feedback.

While the grading process yielded positive results for the students, it had some drawbacks for us. We each graded all assignments separately, using our grading rubric and providing comments for feedback. After we both had graded the students’ work, we came together to average the numerical scores and combine the feedback. This took extra time, and we encountered several issues, including the different ways each of us provided the scores and comments in the rubric. We realized that we should have communicated more thoroughly about how we planned to combine our feedback and the scores because when it came time for combining, we had to rework our previous feedback. But we learned from our mistakes and would make adjustments in the future.

Surviving in a right-to-work state

Working in a nonunion state has indirectly forced us to create innovative strategies in our daily practices. Without the support of a union serving as our voice, we know that our jobs are not as secure as unionized jobs. We work in an environment that requires us to stay dedicated to our profession and our colleagues in order to survive in an ever-fluctuating politically controlled career.

We can’t help but think that if we were in a union state, we may have had additional support to make the learning experience even more effective for ourselves and our students. Even though we decided to co-teach only one module, we continued to collaborate during the remainder of the course. The lead instructor taught the remainder of the course modules, but she always knew she could call on the supporting instructor to co-design additional modules. We created our own supportive professional working environment during a time when we felt overworked, underappreciated, and exhausted.

Teaching in a right-to-work state has many downsides, but it does force us to decide for ourselves how to support one another. We have the flexibility to attempt innovative strategies without a mediator dictating stipulations. The instructional design of co-teaching offers us backing as we refuse to let one another flounder. We are educators; we help one another—it’s what we do. We survive because we support one another. n

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Salena Rabidoux is technology liaison and lecturer in the Watson College of Education at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, and Amy Rottmann is assistant professor of education at Lenoir-Rhyne University.

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