Partnership Teaching: a powerful tool!

In the most recent issue of TES, William Stewart and Stephen Exley, in There’s no ‘isolation’ in ‘team’, survey says, report on the findings of a Teaching and Learning International Survey (Talis) conducted in 34 different countries, which found that half the teachers rarely or never ‘team-teach’. In England, it’s actually less than half: according to the article, 41% of teachers say they never teach in a team with colleagues and just 12% use the practice once a week or more.

This puts me in those 12%! In a way, it is rather shocking that, with the job being as demanding, taxing and stressful as it is, more teachers wouldn’t help each other out, using their different strengths to their advantage.

In the world of English as an Additional Language teaching, this might be even more of a rarity. I mean, how many EAL teachers do you know that would actually collaborate, plan and co-deliver lessons together with their mainstream colleagues?

I find the collaboration that I have recently begun with two of my colleagues – friends, really – to be extremely empowering and a very enriching, professionally and emotionally. So why is this that EAL teachers do not engage in such collaboration? It’s not as if the idea is a novelty – Jill Bourne and Joanna McPake’s Partnership Teaching: Cooperative teaching strategies for English language support in multilingual classrooms pack for schools (link here) has been available since the 90s! In its essence, it advocates cooperation / collaboration between two teachers: EAL and mainstream and suggests following a Set Goals – Experiment – Evaluate – Disseminate – Review cycle routine.

Provided by members of NALDIC’s online mailing list with a lot of resources, templates, grids and other materials to get me thinking in the first place, I have offered this approach to two different English teachers at my school and since then, in the last half term, we’ve been planning a weekly lesson, utilizing our strengths, from English Language (myself) and mainstream English (mainstream teachers) perspective. It has been an exhilarating experience. The teachers in question were and remain to be super-happy to have been offered this collaboration. We ensure that not only the individual EAL learners benefit from this approach: we have decided that my expertise as a linguist is going to benefit the entire multilingual class. Both of my co-teachers recognize that skills such as awareness of articles (a/an/the), word building and specific elements of grammar are not really taught within the secondary curriculum and recognize their importance. On the other hand, I benefit hugely from being able to participate, observe and learn from the process of planning an English lesson – this gives me a better understanding of the priorities that English teachers perceive to be theirs and how this influences the tasks ahead of my students.

I do not sense any type of power-struggle between ourselves in the planning of the lesson; that is, I come in to the planning of the lesson as much of an expert from my linguistic background as the English teachers come in with their literature expertise. I see myself as equal and more so: I do not feel the need to establish myself or defend myself as such. Indeed, why should I? I’ve suggested the Partnership Teaching to my colleagues in the first place!

Several things also have happened thanks to our team-teaching. First of all, the students that we teach together in the two different classes (a year 7 and a year 9 group) do not perceive me as a TA anymore at all – the kind of teacher who would only help one or two students at a time. We take the common responsibility for teaching and for ensuring discipline in our classes. The result: students see EAL as part of their English lessons. In the time we’ve been teaching together, none of us have heard in the classrooms a question of the Why do we have to do this? sort from the students. The teaching of PEE for writing about Dickens’ choice of language was neatly complemented by my input, pointing students to specific language required for this purpose. Another lesson in the series of the Dickens’ scheme of work, preceding the writing assignment, was complemented by a 15-minute section, delivered by myself, about being able to recognize adjectives and adverbs in a text and being able to point to the words they describe in sentences. And, perhaps the most fun one of them all so far, a fun description of another teacher (who’s consented to this!), involving a massive amount of adjectives, adverbs, metaphors and similes, which we wrote together, was read out to students slowly by the mainstream English teacher, with a PowerPoint presentation indicating to students which parts of speech were being used at the same time (created by myself) – the students had to guess the name of the teacher. Following this, they needed to write a similarly description-packed piece about one of the characters from Lord of the Flies. Because of these English Language – Literature links, our students never saw these activities as removed from their actual mainstream learning – because the activities were not removed, but were an integral part of the package.

Next week, we’re evaluating the collaboration so far, but it is rather clear to me that it is beneficial to the students and to us as teachers. It elevates the status of EAL and English language to higher levels – in the eyes of other teachers, the English department and, probably most importantly, in the eyes of the children. Obviously, our planning to disseminate our evaluation findings would then contribute to more teachers taking it on. As teachers, we’re learning a lot about our practice. No longer are we separate teachers working in two different corners of the classrooms. We support each other, understand each other better, take on the styles of teaching from each other and, in our case, show to our students that English language (too often taking a 2nd place to the mainstream content) and English literature can and should actually go together. We believe that the students appreciate this. I will shortly be marking certain linguistic aspects of the students’ work alongside the mainstream English teachers, of which the students have been informed.

I think it’s brilliant. It gives me more confidence as a teacher, finally not hidden away from the mainstream but out there, in the open, presenting to all – learners and teachers – why the language is important. It’s already improved my practice – in spite of it having been only a few weeks.

Why is it, then, that this is not being taken up more by the EAL teachers? The status of EAL is possibly the answer in a lot of cases – that is, one must first work on establishing oneself as a strong professional, equal to others, before attempting this. In my case, I was quite lucky in my school as I am responsible for two school-wide literacy programmes, and organize school-wide events such as Refugee Week and have delivered a number of in-school training sessions to other teachers. As such, I am more visible. That visibility has allowed me to be able to convince others to accept the idea of Partnership Teaching – but I wouldn’t do that before then. The status of EAL is too often seen as “second fiddle” to the content, a notion I’ve written about in my other blog posts before. Many times before, I’ve referred to brilliant research by Angela Creese, with the best article likely being Is this content-based language teaching?: she notes how, in her 1-year study in London secondary schools “There are few instances of a focus on form; the majority of these instances come from an EAL teacher and are often rejected because of the status of language work in the mainstream classroom.” (p.194, 2005) On the same page, she also notes that “teachers lacked an understanding of how language functions to convey meaning” and “there was little understanding of the relationship between structure and meaning in creating text and discourse and the implications this has for learning and teaching.”. In a year-long etnography, she has come across one time only when a subject teacher focused on grammar!

The other reason why the lack of full EAL-mainstream partnership persists is the problem of teacher isolation in general. Stewart and Exley’s article in TES begins by stating that most teachers work largely in isolation without any collaborative engagement with colleagues (referring to the findings of the Talis survey). In secondary schools, which are already compartmentalized and specialized – I would imagine to a far greater extent than primary schools are – this is likely to be another reason for the lack of such collaborative interdisciplinary practices. In addition, many EAL teachers I know might feel undervalued – as highlighted by Creese quoted above. The belief that language is more important, particularly for EAL learners at lower language stages, might push them into isolating themselves into EAL bases away from the rest of the schools. Not long ago, I have visited a school where EAL was taught only in a separate provision – whilst still on school grounds, away from the mainstream classrooms nonetheless. No wonder many will be “switched off” the collaboration with the mainstream. This is actually in opposition to Ofsted’s recommendations in their EAL Briefing for Section 5 inspection: point 9 clearly states that: “Class/subject teachers should plan collaboratively with EAL support teachers or teaching assistants. There should be a focus on both language and subject content in lesson planning.”

It might take a lot of personal resilience to withstand such “get-them-out-of-the-mainstream” / “language is less important” attitudes – resilience perhaps some might not have. With over 1 million children in the UK learning EAL (http://www.naldic.org.uk/), it does occur to me that perhaps we should finally consider EAL to be a subject in its own right and have its own curriculum. It has been said before that the policy of EAL existing within the mainstream only raises issues of language, pedagogy, rights and entitlements and equality of access to education (NALDIC, http://www.naldic.org.uk/eal-teaching-and-learning/faqs/ealcurriculum). Having a curriculum for EAL would not necessarily mean that EAL students are taught EAL only: they would still participate in the mainstream. Does it have to be inclusion in the mainstream or separate curriculum? Why not have both? Would that solidify the chances of EAL learners for greater all-round inclusion in schools and the chances of language being seen as equal to content in our schools?

In the meantime, I call for all schools to strongly recommend the idea of EAL/mainstream partnership teaching. It is a powerful tool for learning from each other, for improving teachers’ practice and for improving the attainment of all students, using the mainstream subject matter and linguistic expertise of teachers. And – it’s been recommended as good practice for years.

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