Team teaching; surplus and more work..

Friday morning 10.30: time for theory input about Systemic Work. One of the two colleagues sits on the last chair of the half circle in which all the group members are sitting—that is thé spot when the other colleague teaches. The teaching one just asked who in the group might be familiar with Systemic Work. Some fingers rise. She starts her input, supported by sheets of information. The colleague seated in the half circle looks at the faces around her and sees that the theory doesn’t ‘land’. Because the students in this room don’t speak Dutch she hisses the codeword: fisheyes! It is a codeword.

Teaching colleague understands the hint and starts posing questions to the group. There is some reaction, examples are given, the theory comes alive in these examples that group members give. There is a vivid exchange between the group, the teachers and the group members themselves. Then the teacher finally can continue with the theory.

Teaching together—co-teaching. How do you do that? In 2003 we were thrown into the deep by coincidental circumstances. .

Teaching together. In a different language. In German. That was our task in Basel. At an educational program for supervisors.

What an experience!

Over the course of many years each of us has developed her own ‘specialities’.

We divided the themes and topics about supervision: knowledge, skills, style of teaching and experience. By doing so we had nice balance in who would stand in front of the students to take a teaching turn.

The exercises and role-plays we did altogether. For some exercises we joined or demonstrated together in front of the group. Role-plays were performed in front of the whole group assisted by one of us as director/moderator. We sometimes divided the group into two groups—each group supported by their own teacher.

A realization not foreseen, over the years, was our own way of learning (we taught twelve years abroad in both Switzerland and Germany). Mostly, we learned through contact with our students. We did learn a lot about the importance of language and asked feedback frequently because learning was mostly not in the mother tongue of the students. They spoke Swiss-German (at least in Basel) and we had an agreement to teach in ‘high German’. But, as said, especially via the interaction with the group we learned a lot.

Learning by developing social learning skills always happens in combination with social interaction. In the course of our first group (18 adults) several questions were raised:

- How do we work together as teachers?

- How to get in contact with the experiences of our students?

- How to acknowledge the students?

- Where are the differences in culture between us and the students? How to handle these differences so that it is enriching for everyone

- Where in the program can we use the diversity that the students, and we as

teachers, represent?

Often, the experiences came first. Afterward, we’d read the literature and discuss the concepts of our teaching program. Finally, we experimented with other content, exercises, etc., based on what we learned in progressing this work of teaching.

Working this way, we discovered that we connected our way of teaching with ‘observational learning’ as Bolhuis (2009) writes in her book (unfortunately, not translated) Leren en Veranderen (Learning and Change).

Observational learning, according to Sanneke Bolhuis: imitate actions that are shown by another person and by that you learn how things work.

In our situation this was the case on many levels:

- We saw each other teaching

- We read each others lesson preparations

- We heard the German language the other teacher used for the specific parts of her


- We introduced exercises and role-play in turn

- We guided reflection moments and after-talks, in-turn

- We observed the ‘habits’ of our students and joined them

- We observed the way students were dealing with role-play and exercises

Bolhuis says that observational learning is a social learning competence which stands for: daring, wanting, and being able to undertake activities.

Other social learning competences important to us, were:

- Providing feedback to the teaching colleague in a way she can learn from it

- Interpreting students’ questions and answering them so that space is left for

further questions

- Empathizing with students, estimating from which considerations or interests

they act in certain situations

- Listening to students, posing open questions—trying to understand opinions even

when not in agreement

- Working together, doing things together, looking for and guarding common goals,

valuing the opinion of others, dividing the work, trusting one another, keeping

appointments, sharing responsibility

Working together

Saturday afternoon: 14.30 hr.The program has two more topics to go before the day is over. There is still one theory input and one role-play to be made. The group members look sleepy….right after lunch. Tired of one and a half day of intense work and the theme we are about to discuss is ‘heavy’. The energy is gone….

A question is raised to the ‘observing’ teacher: is role-play a good idea now and if not, should we be looking for an alternative action? Both teachers hope to close these seminar days positively and with energy. What to do?

Just before our tea break (15.00 hr) the ‘not teaching’ teacher says to the group: I get the impression you are tired. Am I right? Is there still energy left for this last part?’

There is some unclear murmur. The other teacher says: ‘the two of us will just take a moment to discuss what to do next’. And that’s what we do. We estimate the situation, move around in the group, look at the total program and choose an individual and group exercise with materials that are already available (so they don’t have to be made up: a case). We skip the role-play. After the tea break we announce this to the group and connect our decision with the way you can change a program in times of fatigue. The dynamic is changing right away and the afternoon ends light.

The value of teaching together shows in having several, and similar, frames of reference. In our case, one of our studies was group psychotherapy—we lead a group therapy for years together (personality disorders, late adolescents in youth psychiatry) and have many years of experience in joining multidisciplinary teams. But that doesn’t make us the same teachers.

We both teach in the Netherlands (adult education) at very different institutes, teaching in our own way, with our own skills. These different ways of teaching came together and enhanced our program in Basel, Switzerland.

We both have a flexible attitude, a non-offensive way of giving feedback, using humour and relativity skills.

We could accept each other's corrections and feedback because of long years of working together in a trustful collegial partnership.

Does it go wrong sometimes?

Yes, there are moments that ‘fisheyes’ doesn’t work—that it is not heard by the teaching one or that she doesn’t agree to the signals picked up by her colleague at that moment.

The commitment is that the one teaching is ‘in charge’ and makes decisions.

As well as the lessons being taught, the group also learns that teachers have different opinions, don’t know all the answers and that discussion is possible if they don’t agree. It’s also a question of good modelling.

Conclusion: Team teaching is a luxury. In what other circumstance:

—can a teacher get direct feedback about her teaching from a colleague?

—could team-teaching be implemented?

—can a teacher focus on the topics within her knowledge and experience and leave

   other less known topics for another teacher?

—can teachers discuss the group afterwards and make conclusions about the group


—can teachers have ‘fun’ about failures of themselves or each other?

Do we recommend team teaching? Yes, we do. As I described in this article, it definitely added a benefit to our session. One thing to be aware of: choices must be made in advance regarding which learning materials will be provided; it appears, in our session, that this was our greatest pitfall. Our group was often overwhelmed thus choices must be made in advance to not overload the group with knowledge.

After all, the whole is more than the sum of its parts.

Gerda Blom, systemic therapist GGZ Centraal Amersfoort the Netherlands (

Gerian Dijkhuizen, senior-supervisor/teacher of supervisors LVSC the Netherlands (

Literature: S.Bolhuis, Leren en veranderen, Coutinho 2009