In an Arizona classroom, four teachers manage 135 children – and love it
MESA, Ariz. — A teacher-in-training rushed through the students, tallying up how many needed his help with an Islamic history unit. A seasoned math teacher hovered near a cluster of desks, leading fifty freshmen on a geometry assignment. A science teacher checked students’ homework, while an English teacher spoke into a microphone at the front of the class, giving instructions, to keep students on track.
One hundred and thirty-five students, four teachers, one giant classroom: this is what ninth grade looks like at Westwood High School, part of the larger school system in Mesa, Arizona. There, an innovative teaching model took hold and is spreading to other schools in the district and beyond.
Five years ago, faced with high teacher turnover and declining student enrollment, Westwood executives decided to try something different. Together with professors from the Arizona State University Teachers’ College, they piloted a classroom model known as team teaching. It allows teachers to dissolve the walls that separate their classrooms across physical or grade divisions.
Teachers share large groups of students – sometimes 100 or more – and alternate between group teaching, individual interventions, small study groups, or whatever the team teachers agree is a priority that day . What sometimes looks like chaos is actually a carefully orchestrated plan: Each morning, Westwood teams meet for two hours of the school day to develop a personalized curriculum for each student, dictating lessons, skills and assignments on which the team will focus on. That day.
By giving teachers more opportunities to collaborate and greater control over how they teach and what they teach, Mesa administrators hoped to close staffing gaps and boost teacher morale and retention. . Early research suggests the gamble could pay off. This year, the district expanded the concept to a third of its 82 schools. The team-teaching strategy is also attracting interest from school leaders across the United States, who are eager for new approaches at a time when the effects of the pandemic have undermined teacher morale and worsened teacher shortages. personal.
“The pandemic has taught us two things: one is that people want flexibility, and the other is that people don’t want to be isolated,” said Carole Basile, dean of the university’s teachers’ college. Arizona State, which helped design the teaching model.
Arizona State and surrounding school districts began investigating team teaching about six years ago. Enrollments in teacher training programs across the country were plummeting as more young people sought careers with better pay, more flexibility and less stress.
Team teaching, a concept first introduced to schools in the 1960s, appealed to Arizona State researchers because they believed it could help revitalize teachers. And it resonated with school district leaders, who had come to believe that the model of one teacher lecturing in front of a class to many children was not working.
“Teachers are doing fantastic things, but it’s very rare for a teacher to walk into another room to see what’s going on,” said Andi Fourlis, superintendent of public schools in Mesa, one of 10 districts in the Arizona who have adopted the model. “Our profession is so slow to move forward because we work in silos.”
Of course, overhauling teaching approaches cannot solve some of the biggest frustrations many teachers have about their profession, such as low salaries. But early results from Mesa show that team teaching can help reverse low morale. In a survey of hundreds of teachers in the district last year, researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that those who worked in teams reported greater job satisfaction, more frequent collaborations with colleagues and more positive interactions with students.
Early data from Westwood also shows that on-time course completion — a strong predictor of freshman graduation — improved after the high school began using the team approach. for all ninth graders. Arizona State has found that students in team classes have better attendance, earn more credits toward graduation, and have higher GPAs.
The model is not for everyone. Some teachers approached to volunteer for a team said they preferred to work alone. Team teaching can also be a scheduling nightmare, especially at schools like Westwood where only certain staff members work in teams.
On a recent morning at Westwood High, the four teachers and 135 freshmen on the team settled into a noisy routine.
They ignored the Halloween music blaring from the school loudspeakers, signaling a new period for older students. As their upperclass peers moved on to another 50-minute class, freshmen continued into a second hour of work. Most students took care of the day’s homework alone or in pairs, while others waited for help from a specific teacher.
The team regularly welcomes other educators into the classroom, for bilingual or special education services and other individual supports. But substitute teachers are rare, because teachers can arrange their schedules according to the absences of their teammates.
According to the teachers, another advantage of the teams is that they can help each other to improve their teaching. During the planning session earlier in the morning, English teacher Jeff Hall shared a critique with a science teacher: his recent lecture, on something she called “the central dogma of biology”, had confused him and their other teammates.
“If science is too confusing for me, can you imagine the frustration you feel as a child?” said Hall. But the science teacher, he said, would not have known about the confusion on his own.
Hall, who moonlights as an improv comic, had stopped teaching just before covid. He did odd jobs and realized what they offered that teaching didn’t: a chance to work alongside other adults and collaborate. The need for a more stable salary convinced Hall to return to the classroom last year, but he only applied for team teaching positions.
“Why don’t we do this for every teacher?” said Hall. “Why was I – a student teacher with no experience in teaching English – handing over the keys to a whole class of kids on the first day? All by myself? It doesn’t work for anyone.”
Proponents of the Arizona state model acknowledge that it does not work perfectly. It presents tricky questions, for example, how to rate four teachers on the performance of 135 students. And teachers on the Westwood team argue they receive too little training on the model.
The students, however, noticed a difference.
Quinton Rawls attended a college with no teams and not enough teachers. Two weeks into eighth grade, her science teacher quit — and was replaced by a series of subs. “I ran away with everything,” the 14-year-old recalled.
That’s not the case in ninth grade, Rawls said. He said he appreciates the extra attention that comes with being in a class with so many teachers.
“There are four who look at me all the time,” he said. “I think it’s a good thing. I’m not really wasting time.”
Neal Morton is an editor for The Hechinger Report. This story is part of Tackling Teacher Shortages, a collaboration between AL.com, The Associated Press, The Christian Science Monitor, The Dallas Morning News, The Fresno Bee in California, The Hechinger Report, The Seattle Times and The Post and Courier in Charleston , SC, with support from the Solutions Journalism Network.