The Co-Teacher Experience

Posted on October 31, 2012 by

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Stepping into the classroom on my first working day in Georgia was an experience that I had anticipated, but this anticipation did not make the experience any less awkward. There was this classroom full of new students jumping to their feet in order to greet their first foreign English teacher, a classroom full of students that I wanted to get to know, but there was also a co-teacher that I must get to know. The co-teaching experience was completely new to me, and I was timid, because this was their job that they had been doing for however long and suddenly I, some crazy foreigner, just appeared overnight and began sharing their workspace. As the cliché goes, I did not want to step on any toes, make them feel threatened that I was taking their job, or cause them to feel self-conscious having to teach a second language in front of someone who spoke it as their first language.

I have two co-teachers and developing a working relationship with them was a process that took time, our separate roles were never 100% clear, however our relationships slowly developed into one that, at least from my perspective, works better for the students than perhaps either of us could do on our own. That first day was full of answering questions, predominately through the co-teacher’s translation. Then the first week, I did as my co-teachers said and took a seat. I thought it would be best to first simply observe to see how my two co-teachers ran their classrooms, and to see how much English the students knew. Feeling as though I was judging them, and I suppose I was, I took notes on what the students were weak at, but the primary focus of my notes ended up being on my co-teachers’ teaching methods as this was my primary concern: how were we going to work together? This particularly became a concern after the first two days where I saw that the teaching style was, let’s go ahead and say it, as cold as the old concrete, Soviet era buildings around us, relying heavily on “repeat after me,” and reading large blocks of text one student at a time, and checking for spelling by writing on the chalkboard.

So I took my notes and when the teachers and I discussed the next class, with imaginary crossed fingers, I asked what if instead of each student reading a page of text at a time, why don’t we have one student read the boy’s part, one the girl’s part, and others for the other characters’ parts? Another day, I would mention, can we have two students write the vocabulary words on the board? Later, can we do this as a game? Boys versus girls for points?

Slowly the classes became more interactive with activities like this and instead of us, the teachers, asking all of the questions we had the students leading activities and even games, which was entirely new to them. We would throw a paper airplane so the students could say, “It is under the desk,” which freed our noses from always being stuck in our textbooks.

This is a good time to mention the differences between my two co-teachers. One was newer, it was her first time teaching, so she had only taught for about three months. I was surprised to know that, having taught in Korea for a year, I actually was more experienced than one of my co-teachers. Maybe because of this, she was more open to new ideas, and so our classroom together evolved to being much more student interactive quicker than with my other co-teacher. My other co-teacher was still perfectly kind, though just more timid about speaking a second or third language (she was teaching German before the school switched to English), and for this reason or perhaps others, developing a smooth interaction between the two of us in the classroom took much more time.

Of course the personalities and relationships between volunteer teachers and Georgian teachers are always going to be different, but in my case I was able to slowly push my own agenda into the classroom one week at a time. On top of this, I believe one of the bigger changing points was when I started an English conversation club. Our fifth and sixth grade classes were the ones who attended, and because I started this club I felt I could run it however I liked, although both of my co-teachers were present for the club. I shared my ideas with one of the co-teachers to see if she had any of her own ideas or at the very least, to show her what to expect when we did the club for the first time. From there I walked into the classroom and ran the class as I had when I taught my classes solo in my previous teaching job. We immediately started doing activities and games where the students had to interact with one another using English. We got to know one another by playing Two Truths; One Lie (where everyone says two true things about themselves, and one false thing, and everyone else guesses which is false), and when questions were asked I would write them on the board (if necessary), so that after I asked the first time, then the students could ask one another.

What I was trying to create for both the students, and for the teachers to see, is a classroom environment where the teacher and a single student at a time were not monopolizing class time, but rather all of the students were having to react and use the language simultaneously, which was not happening in class. The games were also good for my co-teachers to see, because I think from there they saw how the games were not just for keeping the students busy and babysitting, but rather they were quite practical for using the language. We threw a paper airplane at the black board, which I drew a target on. In order to receive the points they hit, they had to say the number and the combined total amount of points their team had earned. Suddenly, not only were they saying numbers one through twenty, but they were shouting with excitement numbers well beyond what they had previously covered in the textbook. I’m not trying to say I have all the answers here, as I will assure you my culture exchange part of my English Conversation Club epically failed, or at least that’s how I interpreted their silence to any discussion of American holidays, music, and so forth. Also, I was never able to completely have the whole classroom, in a club or classroom, speaking English simultaneously within smaller groups in a classroom. Rather what I am trying to say is that if you were like me and timid about taking too much control of your co-teacher’s classroom then, a club might be a good opportunity for your co-teacher to get to understand what you want to do in the classroom, because as much as you have to learn about your co-teacher hopefully they are doing the same to you. After this club my co-teachers seemed more aware of what I expected of the students when lesson planning or just in the classroom in general.

As a whole my co-teachers and I do work together much better now. There is room for improvement, and in my case much of this improvement comes down to communicating well, which is not always so easy since there is a large language barrier. Also, I know of many people who have co-teachers who are young and ambitious or the opposite where they are older and stuck in their ways, and less than eager to let go of their control of their classroom. These latter problems I am sure are much more difficult to overcome, but I personally was surprised about how willing my co-teachers were willing to try other activities in the classroom once I was the one who spoke up and explained what I would like to do.

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