One class, two teachers

Overcrowded classes and inexperienced young teachers. What can be done about it? Tandem teaching could be a solution to both.

There is only one primary school in the Prague quarter of Kunratice. Consequently, the class size, especially at the elementary grade level, has been around 30 children over the last few years. However, the school has been able to find a solution for the teachers to work individually with each student. This is already the second year that one-third of all classes in the first and second grades are taught by two teachers, not just one.

We are equal to each other
It is not much like the traditional classes many of us remember from our own school years. Second-graders in the Kunratice primary school are not sitting at desks arranged in rows and the teacher is not standing at the blackboard, explaining the subject matter. Instead, the children are sitting in a circle in the middle of the classroom with two teachers sitting among them. A Czech language class is just starting. The children are told that half of them will be writing a story and the other half will do reading, trying to understand a text. The class is then split into two groups. One group remains where it is and the other moves to the classroom across the corridor. Each of the two teachers then joins one of the groups.

The children spent almost the whole class period in the separate groups, but in the middle of the period the teachers called them all to one classroom for a while and instructed them to rank themselves according to how good they thought they were at reading or writing today and to allocate themselves on that basis into groups identified by the colors of a traffic light. The greens were satisfied with their performance, for the oranges it was half and half and the reds thought that this was not a good day for them. Each teacher had a talk with the red and orange groups, respectively, and the children then returned to their work. The benefits of the traffic lights are clear: the teachers knew which students they needed to spend more time with in the remaining half of the period.

“This is called tandem teaching,” explained Vít Beran, the principal of the school, when we were seated in his office, and he pointed out that we should not confuse it with the teacher / assistant model where the assistant helps a child with a disability or a learning disorder and does not take part actively in the teaching process itself. The two-teacher model is different: the two teachers are equal to each other and both do the teaching.

Teachers cooperate in various ways during the class period. “Sometimes, like today, we divide the kids into two groups. Another variant is that while one of us is doing the teaching, the other walks up and down the classroom, stopping at a student’s desk if he or she needs help. However, either of us can step in with an idea or suggestion at any time,” explains Gabriela Jedličková, the second-graders’ class teacher, after the Czech language class.  

No money from the government
This is already the fourth year of testing tandem teaching at the Kunratice school. In 2010, the school joined the Helping Schools Succeed project, initiated and financed by The Kellner Family Foundation, a family foundation established by the wealthiest Czech, Mr. Petr Kellner, and his wife, Mrs. Renáta Kellnerová. The purpose of the project is to support teachers to be able to clearly identify each student’s individual needs. “If we relied on the money from the government we could not afford to pay the second teacher’s salary. If you want to have more teachers you have to get the money somewhere else,” says principal Beran, who received the first money for two teachers from the foundation four years ago. The new teachers started moving all over the school to teach together with the core teacher staff. “Each teacher had a colleague present in their class for about two or three periods a week. They all had opportunities to gain experience with this model,” says the principal, describing the implementation of tandem teaching in his school. The first responses to this innovation varied. Some welcomed it – mainly the teachers at the elementary grade level, as the principal notes; teachers at the middle grade level found it less easy to come to terms with the loss of ‘privacy’ in their classes.

Another step in developing the tandem teaching model was made two years ago, when the number of children in the first grade increased disproportionately. “The Education Minister says that there are twenty-one children in the average class, but this is not the case here. Classes in our school have thirty children each and the teachers have no chance to individualize their approach to the students. And why should our teachers and children suffer just because we are on the outskirts of Prague where so many families move to?” asks Mr. Beran.

Reflecting upon how best to address this challenge, the school started to think that it would be a good idea to engage another two teachers, in addition to the first two, for the tandem teaching model. The new teachers would only work with the first-graders. The school began discussing it with the Patron parent association. It took tens of hours to discuss issues such as whether such a model fitted public schools, what its benefits and drawbacks were, and, in particular, whether parents were willing to pay a second teacher’s salary, which was CZK 360,000 annually, including the payroll taxes.

Three classes, each with twenty-nine children, were opened at that time. “In my opinion there should be no average amount prescribed to be paid by each parent. We all know how to divide numbers and we are all able to calculate how much money needs to be raised. And, in addition, nobody should be forced to pay,” believes the principal. Each parent therefore gave a different amount to the Patron association. Some paid nothing because they could not, or did not want to pay. The Patron association then transferred the money to the school.

It was also clear to Mr. Beran that if such a project was to be successful they would have to keep the parents informed at all times. “We meet with them two or three times a year. When we met last we were talking about the positive and negative aspects of tandem teaching. Many of the parents see a danger in that tandem teaching could come to an end. This is positive news,” says principal Beran with satisfaction.  

When I ask if everyone likes tandem teaching, the principal explains that some accepted it immediately while others came to terms with it after some time. And there are also a few opponents. What don’t they like about it? “They think that if public education is free, they should not have to pay the second teacher. They also argue that when they went to school there were thirty-five children or even more in the class,” notes the principal.

Some teachers also criticize the situation on the same grounds: parents pay for something that should be paid for by the government. But the government doesn’t. And, unfortunately, it does not even offer any subsidies or grants that could be used to fund tandem teaching. “The Ministry of Education should appreciate that tandem teaching has far-reaching effects. The teachers are able to take an individual approach to each student in the class and, in addition, they work together to prepare for each unit and lesson, they complement each other, and they provide feedback to each other,” principal Beran enumerates the benefits.  

In addition, tandem teaching provides excellent practical opportunities for students of or fresh graduates from teachers’ colleges to gain experience. Such opportunities are extremely scarce at present. “I was a trainee teacher here and the principal offered me a position as a tandem teacher,” says twenty-four-year-old Tereza Olšinová, a senior-year student of the Faculty of Education of Charles University in Prague. “I feel like a sponge here, absorbing and observing how my more experienced colleagues are doing their job, and learning from them,” she says.

Observational learning
How can you tell that tandem teaching works properly? According to second-graders’ class teacher Gabriela Jedličková, one of the signs is that the children see no difference between her and her colleague Tereza and do not see one as good and the other as strict. Both teachers also claim that they are able to do much more work. “It is a delight to read the stories our second-graders are able to write,” says Mrs. Jedličková.

The benefits of tandem teaching were eventually acknowledged by all the teaching staff at the Kunratice school and the teachers were increasingly interested in serving as tandem teachers from time to time. The management of the school therefore decided to establish two regular tandem workloads on the basis of the ‘extra’ job positions of the two tandem teachers financed from the Helping Schools Succeed project. “Currently each of our teachers can spend several periods a week tandem-teaching with a colleague. I will use the funds allocated to those workloads to pay them for their co-teaching periods,” explains Mr. Beran.

Middle school mathematics teachers who want to teach math according to Professor Hejný, for example, are interested in the tandem teaching program. Professor Hejný’s method is already used by elementary grade teachers and therefore the middle-school teachers observe them to gain experience.

Besides the Kunratice school, the ‘two-teachers-one-class’ model is used in another three schools that are supported by Kellner’s foundation. “Currently this amounts to around twelve full-time workloads at four schools and they are distributed among 28 teachers,” notes Hana Košťálová, head of the project. Recently the Czech School Inspection Authority has audited the situation and found this method of support at schools to be fine.

Two teachers in one classroom can also be seen in other schools now and then – for example, those that have decided to use the CLIL method (content and language integrated learning), where the children learn English words spontaneously when they are learning, for instance, biology or geography. The Bílá Primary School in Prague is among the schools that use this method. However, this school also has to raise money for the second teacher from parents. The teaching is done by a Czech teacher and a native speaker in such classes. “From September, we are going to have another teacher tandem here. A student from Charles University’s Mathematics and Physics Faculty will attend the physics classes to assist our physics teacher,” says principal Martin Molčík, whose school is involved in the Elixir to Schools project. Initiated by the Depositum Bonum Foundation established by Česká spořitelna [Czech Savings Bank], the project supports tandem teaching in science and technology subjects.

It is common in Anglo-Saxon countries
Outside the Czech Republic, especially in the Anglo-Saxon countries, it is more common to have two teachers in one classroom. Olga Šilová, a teacher at the Business College in Zlín, has first-hand experience from a tandem teaching program. She went to England to gain experience at the Lipson Community College where the use of assistant teachers’ services is common. They are recruited from the ranks of experienced teachers who perhaps want to slow down and often also from those of teachers returning as part-timers from maternity leave,” describes Mrs. Šilová.

Marcel Chládek, the Education Minister, confirms that Czech schools could be more proactive in using tandem teaching and that it might not be so difficult to get funds for it. The Minister promises that in the new programming period for which EU funding will be available again, they want to focus on projects aimed at teachers’ learning from each other. The Ministry is currently drawing up career rules for teachers, with the development of teachers’ skills as the basis, which is yet another reason for the Ministry to seek such support.

(Author | Barbora Říhová)

Source | Lidové noviny

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