The Coteacher Relationship

Posted on October 17, 2012 by

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The coteacher relationship is tough. It’s two completely different people trying to do one difficult job together with very little preparation in often very challenging circumstances.

As TLG volunteers, the onus is upon us to overcome the difficulties in this relationship – partly because it is our job, but mostly because we cannot really function in the classroom or in school without relying on our coteachers. We are guests in the country and in the classroom. We can barely communicate with the students we are teaching, let alone their parents, the other teachers at the school, or our school director. We have to rely on our coteachers to express ourselves and communicate to the rest of our school. Almost anything that we can accomplish as TLGVs has to be accomplished through working with (rather than against, or around,) our coteachers.

Our coteachers have a difficult job with little support and low pay. Parental involvement is often less than ideal, the skill levels of the students are often highly varied, discipline is a problem in and out of the classroom, and teachers are handicapped in a number of ways when it comes to enforcing rules or compelling students to do their work both at home and in the classroom. Teachers have generally not been adequately trained to deal with these issues, although reforms of the last two years have encouraged many teachers to pursue certification in pedagogical skills.

As a result of these challenges, our coteachers are naturally skeptical of anything that might further complicate their lives and make their jobs harder. They are risk-averse, and trying radical new foreign techniques is a risk – especially in a society that encourages conformity and often rewards those who keep their heads down and stay out of trouble rather than those who stand out and try new things. Our coteachers are often tired from their daily lives and their motivation to excel has gone unrewarded so often that it has often dwindled or disappeared.

Our job, then, is to convince our coteachers to go out on a limb to try the ideas that we bring to the table. We must demonstrate where and how their jobs can be made easier by trying our techniques, and we must prove that when our ideas take more effort, the rewards are worth that extra effort. We need them to help us, and we need to convince them that helping us will also help them.

When I began coteaching – fresh out of TLG orientation – I believed that my role in the classroom would be to read selections of text, to talk to the students, and to correct pronunciation, while letting my coteacher handle grammar explanations, homework, testing, classroom management, and every other aspect of the lesson. That’s not how it worked out, though. It’s hard to restrict yourself to such a role when you see the kids who are getting left behind, who clearly need extra help, being ignored by their teachers time and time again. It’s hard not to step in when incorrect grammar is being taught. It’s hard to sit in on a test when one student writes the answers and all the other students copy from her paper.

That’s why TLG makes it explicit: we are not just here to speak our native language, but to exchange cultural perspectives about education. So without further ado, here are some suggestions on how to assert your own ideas about education while maintaining a healthy and productive working relationship with your coteacher.

1. Be assertive but not demanding. This is a tough balance to strike, especially for someone (like me) who is very confrontation-averse. It can help to learn some techniques for making polite requests – and note that these may be different for communicating with Georgians than with native speakers.

I have found great success with “I would prefer” (like, “I would prefer if you don’t translate everything I say”) or “can we try” (“can we try splitting the class into two groups next time”). The great thing about these is that they defer argument over what the “best” techniques are – where you and your coteacher are almost guaranteed to have differing opinions – and place emphasis on the specific working relationship and the specific classroom situation.

2. Communicate about your culture. Culturally, Georgians are particularly sensitive about other people trying to teach them things, so it’s best to try to frame the situation as two people trying different techniques, rather than as you teaching your coteacher how to teach. That said, Georgian coteachers often do want to hear about how things are done in other countries, and many have great respect for education in the US, UK, and Europe. Take advantage of that curiosity by talking about your educational experiences in your home countries or other places you’ve lived or taught. And believe it or not, your suggestions will carry more weight if they’re supported by anecdotal evidence. Communicating about your own culture is also an effective way of critiquing Georgian culture without criticizing Georgian culture.

Communication is a two-way street. When you talk about your culture, encourage your co-teachers to talk about theirs. They may never have thought explicitly about the reasons for certain cultural attitudes, and going through that thought process will help you and them all come to a better understanding of Georgian cultural approaches to education, which will in turn make you all better educators. Also, if they feel that you are listening to them and taking their opinions into account, that will strengthen the partnership and make them more willing to listen to you.

3. Talk clearly and often. State your ideas clearly, let your coteachers know what you’re thinking, and make sure they understand exactly what you’re trying to communicate. Your coteachers may need time to get used to your accent or your dialect. The more you speak with your coteachers, the faster that process will go, and that has the dual benefit of improving your ability to communicate with your coteachers and improving their ability to communicate with native speakers. Conversations – whether they are about work or not – will also build friendship, trust, and respect, and will give your coteachers the feeling that their English is improving which will make them value you all the more.

4. Settle everything before or after class. A small correction or two in class is okay, but in general it’s best if the teachers demonstrate agreement in front of the class and work together. Conflicts in class waste class time. They also make one or both teachers lose face before the students, which can lead to students lacking respect for one or both teachers, which makes teaching them much, much harder. Remember that your coteachers will still have to teach in that school for years after you are gone, so if you undermine them, they have to suffer the consequences forever. They are keenly aware of this, so if you respect them in front of the class, they’ll be much more likely to respect you when you are making suggestions about teaching methodology or corrections about points of English spelling and/or grammar.

5. Be prepared to lose some arguments. Sometimes you’ll suggest a technique or activity or lesson plan, and your coteachers will veto it. Sometimes you’ll try something that you thought worked but your coteacher thought didn’t. Try to accept these situations gracefully, and remember to choose your battles wisely.

Also, A stunning number of TLGVs try to “correct” usages of British English in the class only to find out that “have got” and “at the weekend” and “in hospital” are actually perfectly grammatical in the rainy island version of the language. It’s probably less common for British English speakers to run into Americanisms in Georgian classrooms, but it’s not unheard of, and any native speaker of any English dialect can come across expressions that have gone out of favor in the 50-70 years since the Soviet English textbooks our coteachers learned from were printed. Get used to asking around on the internet, doing research, and having a reasonable amount of humility about your knowledge of English.

If you are realistic about your own strengths and weaknesses in the classroom – both with teaching and with knowledge of English – you can approach your coteacher with a collaborative, we’re-in-this-together outlook, which will foster mutual respect. If you are arrogant and insist your way is the only way – even when you’re sure you’re right – you will sabotage the relationship.

The coteacher relationship is tough, but it can also be rewarding for everyone involved. What techniques and strategies do you use for building a good relationship with your coteachers? Comments are open!

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