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The Tao of Team Teaching: Developing Integrative Relationships with Co-Teachers

The Tao originated in China in the 6th century BCE and has since become familiar to both eastern and western audiences. According to Tao philosophy, Yin and Yang are the two governing forces that are opposite yet interdependent, in constant flux but ultimately give balance to the universe. If we view team teaching through the lens of Tao, we can see a similar dynamic at play between native-speaking teachers (NSTs) and non-native speaking teachers (NNSTs). This is because many of the strengths and weaknesses of NSTs and NNSTs are actually complementary. A merit of one group offsets a perceived deficit in the other and, in theory, they combine to achieve a good “balance” for students’ learning.

In reality, one of the founding fathers of the JET Program, Minoru Wada, stated that “team teaching [in Japan] began without any form of pedagogic research to validate it as an effective educational innovation.” In other words, if it happened to work at all, it was a fluke.

The perceived successes of JET have nonetheless led to the spread of the NST–NNST team-teaching scheme not only in Japan but in many other countries. Team teaching between NSTs and NNSTs is now relatively common in English language classrooms throughout Asia including Taiwan, Korea, and Hong Kong.

We should pause here to acknowledge that “native” and “non-native” are generalizations that paint with a broad brush. These terms are not ideal and have been extensively critiqued in the literature (e.g., Cook, 1999). For the purposes of this article, however, the terms will be used descriptively so we can explore the metaphorical Ying and Yang behind NST–NNST partnerships and aim for more integration and balance in developing team-teaching relationships.

First, let’s consider the positive side of NNSTs.

The local NNSTs have a first-hand account of learning English as a second or foreign language, know about the local educational policies and curriculum, and can handle classroom management as they are trained, licensed teachers. NNSTs are also better able to anticipate and prevent difficulties, read the minds of their students, and predict their challenges with the English language. NNSTs can provide students with a more attainable goal of pronunciation, as well as generally be models of successful English learning for students as they are living proof that it can be done.

Strengths of NNSTs

  • Shared linguistic, cultural, and educational background with students
    • Use of students’ mother tongue
      • Rich resources for explaining grammar and providing learning strategies
    • Aware of students’ negative transfer from their first language
    • Attainable model of pronunciation
    • Know local learners, syllabi, and exam systems well

What are some potentially negative aspects of NNSTs?

NNSTs may prefer a more conservative teaching style that is grammar-based and exam-oriented which may suggest a lack of innovation and creativity in the classroom. A lack of self-confidence in English may also affect their teaching style and attitudes towards teaching the language. If they do not feel confident, they tend to avoid the risk of making their own materials and opt to follow controlled activities in the textbook. NNSTs may be more preoccupied with accuracy and formal features of English at the expense of communicative language teaching, and students may feel less motivated to communicate with them in English.

Weaknesses of NNSTs

  • Traditional and inflexible teaching methods
  • Lack of confidence in using English
  • Use of students’ mother tongue
    • Less motivation for students to communicate in English

Now let’s consider their native-speaking counterparts. What are some positive aspects of NSTs?

NSTs typically have a more active vocabulary, know contextual expressions, have intuitions about language use, and are cultural ambassadors of the target language.

NSTs create opportunities for “forced output” from students by requiring them to convey messages in the foreign language.

NSTs also come from academic systems with Western pedagogical styles and goals that encourage group work, project-based learning, public speaking, and critical thinking. Finally, NSTs are not typically trained teachers with backgrounds in education but may hold degrees in diverse fields such as science, literature, or history.

Strengths of NSTs

  • “Native” English proficiency
    • Being a linguistic resource
      • Language “arbitrator” when uncertainties arise
      • Exposing students to different “native” accents
    • Provision of English speaking environment
      • Need for students to engage in authentic English use
  • Knowledge and wider exposure of cultures
  • Creative or innovative teaching ideas

On the other side of the coin, what are some potential pitfalls?

NSTs tend to have inadequate knowledge of the local education system and students’ conceptual and linguistic limitations. If they do not have a background in education, they may lack the necessary knowledge and training for effective lesson preparation and delivery. NSTs may also know what is accurate in grammar but may not be able to explain grammatical rules. They may fail to take the initiative to learn the local language since “everybody speaks English” and, due to their lack of proficiency in the students’ first language, they may be unable or reluctant to manage classroom discipline. Finally, NSTs can be too lenient in marking and not exam-oriented in their teaching goals.

Weaknesses of NSTs

  • Insufficient proficiency in the local language
  • Cultural barriers with students
    • Inability to relate to students’ likes and dislikes
  • Inexperienced in teaching
    • Unable to gauge difficulty level
  • Fun games > Serious study

In his seminal article “Native or non-native: Who’s worth more?”, Peter Medgyes argued that of course neither the native nor non-native is inherently superior to the other, but their differences serve useful purposes and should not be blurred or ignored. Instead, we should sensitize teachers to their limitations and potentials and consider the ways in which they can balance each other out.

So, to return to the Tao metaphor, how can team teachers complement each other as a dynamic system and interact to create a balanced whole?

For students, NSTs and NNSTs together provide more varied input: two voices, two accents, and two speeds of delivery. “Native English,” on one hand, may be representative of some of the varieties of English they encounter in the world. However, it is arguably just as important that they have exposure to “non-native English” and recognize it as another authentic model of English speech. Having both kinds of input available at the same time and in the same classroom will help students notice the gap while also realizing that the local variant of English can equally be used for communication.

In other words, NNSTs should not see their lack of native-level English proficiency as a weakness, but as a strength—a potential for students to see a more immediately attainable variety of English that is both comprehensible and nothing to be embarrassed about.

The NNST should exhibit a genuine confidence in speaking English, however imperfectly, and make a point of speaking with the NST in front of the students.

By regularly engaging in small talk, NSTs can, in turn, further enhance NNSTs proficiency and confidence in English speaking, especially in conversational competencies such as quick repartee and the use of slang and wider vocabulary.

Although the specter of “English-only” policies still haunts the minds of many teachers (NNSTs and NSTs alike), there are many situations where using the students’ first language can help keep the class on track. In low-proficiency classes, for example, it may be difficult for NSTs alone to maintain a motivating level of cognitive activity in English. NNSTs can use translanguaging strategies to help maximize students’ learning. Conversely, in high-proficiency classes, it may be difficult for NNSTs alone to facilitate open-ended, cognitively challenging activities.

NSTs can prop up NNSTs’ linguistic resources so together they can push students to engage in deeper and more critical thinking in English.

Finally, NSTs usually have a strong desire to introduce ideas from their background in communicative classrooms. In her 2002 study, Greta Gorsuch observed professional and personal growth among NNSTs involved in team teaching with NSTs. This growth was attributed to the new teaching methods and approaches the NNSTs were exposed to by the NSTs. However, NNSTs must counterbalance these innovative ideas against the realities of grammar-heavy entrance examinations.

If NSTs cannot incorporate their ideas within the local education system, they risk leaving many students high and dry come test time.

Ultimately, the Tao of team teaching is not a tug-of-war, but a dance. In their 2006 article on effective team teaching, David Carless and Elizabeth Walker identify the following three essential characteristics of good partnerships:

  • the mutual satisfaction of self-interest or getting something from the partnership
  • a measure of selflessness on the part of each partner, a willingness to compromise or make some sacrifices for the benefit of team harmony
  • and dissimilarity between the partners so that they can complement each other

Carless and Walker are quick to add that, while complementary talents are desirable, there should also be a shared philosophy or underlying approach for teachers to work towards.

Recently, CLIL has been gaining popularity in Japan.

Content and language integrated learning (CLIL) is a dual-focused educational approach where students learn content through language and language through content. To find out more about CLIL, see the ALTTO Course Module or the Team-Taught CLIL Project video series.

For those interested, I am currently conducting a pilot study where I can help you and your teaching partner implement CLIL into your team-taught lessons. Check out the TTCLIL website for more information.

Nate Olson

Nate Olson, a former ALT and current researcher at Sophia University, is promoting team-taught CLIL (content and language integrated learning) for his Ph.D. project. He has created a team-taught CLIL training course video series which will be featured on ALTTO Courses. He invites you to participate in a pilot study where he will be a consultant on your team-taught CLIL projects, helping you and your co-teacher to implement CLIL into your team-taught lessons. Please see his TTCLIL project video series for more information about CLIL and examples of team-taught CLIL in action.