There is no one single formula. Team-teaching at the Michaeli School Cologne

June 2021

The educational concept of the Michaeli School in Cologne was still something unique in the year 2000. At that time, only very few Waldorf schools shared the goal of being a diverse school open to all children – both with and without disabilities. “Each class typically has 25 children, including four to six children with special needs, taught by two class teachers,” the concept states.

Eva Sehl and Silvia Loskamp

Applicants for vacant positions are fascinated by exactly this: the prospect of working in a team. We asked two members of staff just what this means in practice.

Erziehungskunst | As a rule, a class teacher is the primary key carer for the children for eight years. What is this relationship like when two teachers together are jointly responsible for a single class?

Eva Sehl | In my first cycle, there was a change of team partner in class 3. It took a lot of time for the new team partner to get to know the children and build a trusting relationship; on an adult level we were able to work very well together from the beginning. When we looked back on it in class 8, we realised that the first two years were so formative that the colleague who joined later could not possibly know or be able to catch up on some of the things that shaped the group.

In the current cycle, even though we are only in the second year, it is becoming increasingly clear that we can act as a cohesive unit. This is also aided by practical arrangements, such as a class email address. We have communicated to the parents that we should not be approached individually, but rather jointly, so that no separate arrangements are made. We simply would both like to know about everything so that we don’t lose our connection to any of the children.

I don’t think it’s a problem if the children sometimes approach one class teacher or sometimes the other. The important thing is that we work closely together as a team. I think that this provides a good opportunity to work on oneself: if I see that children or parents prefer my colleague, what does that mean for me? For me, it means trying then to work on myself with a level of professionalism.

EK | Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you would rather teach alone – not always having to be part of a team?

ES | I only had feelings like this in the first two years of my first cycle, when my former colleague and I were not entirely on the same wavelength. I was happy whenever I could be alone and do my own thing. When we were together, I was always tempted to intervene and correct what my colleague was doing.

EK | What happens when there is disagreement on key issues, stances or positions? Yes, the school does offer team supervision. Is this enough support to enable engagement in dialogue?

ES | I am of the opinion that working as a team is similar to a personal relationship. If you have to go to a couple therapist with your problems, it may already be too late. Supervision at our school has mainly helped us to deal with team difficulties in a proactive way.  If the partners in the team have different understandings of the situation, work with the children can no longer be successful. There has to be a basic level of shared understanding. If there is a lack of common ground, too little harmony in the team, this lack cannot be remedied through dialogue. For example, there were school years in which teams had to be rearranged – whereby we experienced that the change in the class teaching team was less problematic for the pupils than expected and the whole class situation profits when the newly formed team works in harmony.

EK | Does this also apply for upper school? Or is it less crucial for successful cooperative work due to the fact that teams change from subject to subject?

Silvia Loskamp | You notice it immediately if there is a basic level of understanding. I often work with special needs teachers, and if they strive to achieve as much collaborative instruction in the class as possible, i.e. if they stay in the room after the rhythmical section and actually conduct the lessons together with me, I usually find these lessons very successful. However, there are also groups where early physical differentiation makes a lot of sense and which the pupils also demand because they need more quiet and can therefore ask questions more easily.

ES | For someone who is used to teaching alone, team teaching can seem a little strange. You can’t play your cards close to your chest. It has to be something that you want. You are continually confronted with yourself. I find this “mirroring” experience something positive. I don’t feel that I already know how to do everything just because I’ve been doing it for eight years. I started all over again with my new colleague. The team has to develop its own sense of cooperation, I can’t just say we’re going to do it this way or that way. If something works well for us that doesn’t mean that it will automatically work for another team. There’s no formula for teaching in a team.

EK | How do you organise the individual main lessons in the class teacher period? How can lesson preparation be organised efficiently?

ES | My experience is that each team establishes its own way of working together. What makes us different from many other class teams is that we actually always prepare and conduct the main lessons together. Whereas other teams often divide the main lessons into a “mine” and “yours”, we only have an “ours”. The children can perceive that we are both fully committed to everything.

We are currently teaching arithmetic to class 2 via remote learning – which is quite a challenge!

Today we sat together the whole day and thought about each child’s situation, where they are at, what they need, and how we can approach this methodically. We didn’t focus on the performance groups, but on the learning types.

EK | I understood team-teaching to mean that the person who gives a main lesson designs it and leaves it to the colleague to articulate the material in such a way that all children can participate and learn. In the next main lesson, it may then be the other way round.

ES | With my previous colleague, I actually handled it that way. This could develop again now, if the learning group becomes more and more heterogeneous, depending on the subject. Of course, you don’t have to design every assignment together, but keeping each child in mind collectively is very valuable. I would also like to know what is happening across the class in each subject. Starting together really helps us get into the swing of things. Each teacher takes on what they are more comfortable with in the rhythmic part. In the work part, we always work together, pass things back and forth to each other. This is another reason why the children shouldn’t become too attached to one of us – we are both always available for every topic and every child. Even when we divide the groups up, we alternate the responsibilities.

EK | In upper school the division is clearer, one colleague guides the pupils through the subject as a subject teacher, the second breaks down the course content. How can we envisage the preparation for each of these cases?

SL | It can actually be very different. When I hear how my junior school colleague does it with her partner, I get a little envious, because this kind of planning and collaboration is not possible in the upper school. We don’t have just one class, but many.

We usually sit down together two weeks before the start of a main lesson to see what our goals are. It is important to keep an eye on the entire class and thereby on all the pupils: the subject teachers depend on the advice and perspectives of the special needs teachers and they in turn depend on us and our expertise – but we also need to consider the standard pupils, because this is the only way for joint learning to work. Together we try to incorporate the perspectives of our understanding of the human being into the preparation.

EK | That actually sounds more like being a lone wolf in upper school after all, doesn’t it?

SL | There really is no other way, because the in-depth expertise is a necessity.

EK | Can you describe your experience when you are not responsible for a lesson as a class or subject teacher, but rather when you are involved in accompanying or developing the lesson?

ES | When I am there as a class teacher, I provide more of an emotional support. The bulk of the work is done by the subject teacher, who holds the reins, while I am more like a stirrup holder. In middle school, it is more likely that I am active as a supporting teacher with a smaller group of pupils in the next room, if the subject teacher has prepared the material accordingly. 

SL | Personally, it is sometimes difficult for me to be the accompanying teacher when I think that I would do something completely different from the subject teacher, even if this is sometimes from a non-specialist perspective. Everyone has their own unique personality. But then I also realise that the colleague who supports my class can feel the same way about me. I’m always happy when people report back to me how things went after the lesson. If I’m giving the main lesson on humour, for example, for the fifth time, it is very refreshing to get tips! It’s almost like a small competition and this provides an incentive to keep developing. The fact that you’re not always standing at the front is something I enjoy very much. You inevitably end up constantly reflecting, because what I notice that the other person is doing, I might be doing in the same way – and it could be done better.  In this way, team teaching is definitely an asset in terms of self-improvement!

EK | The Michaeli School accepts children and young people with a wide range of disabilities as well as those without. At the same time, it offers the pupils preparatory courses for all state qualifications. The joint schooling lasts for twelve years, the pupils for the university entrance exams then transfer to the Erftstadt Waldorf School for the final exams in class 13. Can you imagine teaching in this setting in the absence of team teaching?

SL | For me, it depends on the subjects and the pupils. Under certain circumstances, teaching alone can also work in upper school. But then I ask myself whether I am still fulfilling the needs of all the pupils. If the learning group is too heterogeneous, if there are young people with special needs and some of the pupils are being prepared for the university entrance exams, it isn’t be possible alone.

ES | I find that, especially in the lower classes, it is simply not possible to teach alone. I see that the children in general are changing. We often need a lot of strength even for pupils without special needs. Two heads can observe and think more than one, and four hands can do more than two.

www.michaeli-schule-koeln.de

The questions were asked by Nele Auschra.

Eva Sehl is a class teacher for 2 class in her second cycle. She also teaches music and non-denominational religious education. Silvia Loskamp is a subject teacher for German and History and was involved in setting up the school’s upper school.

Note: The interviewees make a point of informing readers that the interview was conducted and transcribed in gender-aware language.

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