Team Teaching: Two Biases for the Price of One

by Greg Vandal

As a chaperone of countless school dances in the 1970s, I recall one particularly memorable song known as the “Dueling Banjos,” which came from the soundtrack to the film “Deliverance.” Two accomplished musicians—one on a guitar, the other on a banjo—begin a contest of sorts, each trying to outplay the other. The guitarist grabs the melody until the banjoist breaks in to steal it back. In the midst of musical mayhem, both players realize that, while individually accomplished, it is together wherein lies the beauty of the song.

I’m not certain I can claim to be making beautiful music in the classroom, but I know a recent team-teaching venture at a local university is akin to that artistic duel. While my job is superintendent for a school system of some 3,500 students in central Minnesota, my avocation for nearly two decades is serving as an adjunct faculty member in the educational administration program at St. Cloud State University.

Over that time I often was called on to be a guest speaker for Charlie Moore, a full-time professor in the department. He, in turn, would occasionally speak to graduate students in my classes and he also served as a consultant for my school district. Charlie and I collaborated on a course in education policy during a recent summer session, and the chords we struck seemed to be good ones.

Constant Interaction

The teaching assignment was to have been a solo performance, but when preregistration numbers signaled the need for the university to add an extra section, Charlie and I agreed to combine our mid-sized groups into one larger cohort. We concurred that ours would not be, as Charlie describes it, a process of “tag teaching” or “turn teaching.”

In the former instance, one partner covers a particular unit while the other waits patiently on the sidelines for the tag signaling a change in instructorship. The latter experience often involves an exchange of days, essentially halving the amount of time and preparation required.

While either approach might have some appeal by providing economies of time and effort for the instructors, our desire was to interact on a continuous basis, to offer our students our own unique perspectives in the form of shared discourse. What emerged might have been a kind of dueling biases. Instead, as measured in student feedback and in educator satisfaction, a pleasing harmony was the result.

Charlie played the researcher in our approach to leading the two-week seminar and I was the practitioner. Naturally we are more than these rather narrow roles. Charlie Moore had been a high school principal before moving into higher education; I earned my Ph.D. on the traditional research path. Yet in our many exchanges in a class focused on policy development and implementation, Charlie could readily cite the literature while I would articulate the realities of school governance.

Much to the delight of our students, the two of us would often, rather spontaneously, break into a debate over something as innocuous as an attendance stipulation or a disciplinary matter. As Charlie was wont to say, “It wasn’t so much that we disagreed as I was able to correct Greg’s misstatements!” On that point alone, we could reach no consensus …


Personal Enrichment
Of course, all of this was vested in good spirit and great fun. For our three dozen graduate students, this sometimes divergent approach gave them a better sense of how different theory and reality can be. As importantly, we showed how the two must inevitably be reconciled. Alternatively, Charlie’s experience as a principal provided a marvelous counterpoint to my own current service as a superintendent. When our voices spoke from these perspectives alone, we lived out what our aspiring administrators will soon discover for themselves—the score for successful leadership is a blended melody.

The university suffered no additional expense as we would otherwise have been compensated, accompanied or not. The educational administration department saw the merits and created a practitioner/professor team for a second course. On the end-of-semester evaluation forms, students commented on the “great mix of theory and practice” and “more than twice the usual substance!” As instructors, we put in at least the average effort; in fact, both the playful and the serious banter in preparation for and in front of our students proved to be some of the best professional development in which either of us has ever engaged.

It may not have been “dueling biases,” but team teaching in educational leadership was a harmonious experience for all involved. Perhaps this instructional approach should itself become a classic in administrative preparation.

Greg Vandal is superintendent in Sauk Rapids-Rice School District, 901 First St. South, Sauk Rapids, MN 56379. E-mail: greg.vandal@isd47.org. The author acknowledges the help of Charles Moore in preparing this article.