Learning Environments

Designing Your Classroom for Collaborative Teaching

These design strategies can help support relationship-building and active learning in a team-teaching environment.

February 16, 2024
Harry Campbell / The iSpot

Team teaching can give teachers the opportunity to build collegial relationships and to create a more differentiated environment that provides greater choice to both teachers and students. Collaborative teaching models have remarkably consistent positive effects across a wide variety of approaches to implementation. Team teaching also helps teachers feel more connected and supported, which in turn may help us address the teacher retention problem facing US education. 

However, most schools trying team teaching models need to rethink how their school environment can support a fundamentally different approach to the one-teacher-one-class model that was the norm when most schools and classrooms were designed. “Design”—whether it is architecture, interiors, or instruction—is really about creating something with an intent. I’m guessing that most readers don’t have the opportunity to design an entire new school (but some do!). Still, most teachers can make important choices about how we set up our classrooms.

In this context, designing a supportive environment for team teaching can make it more effective and magnify the benefits. Preparing an environment for team teaching serves as a daily reminder of the value of collaborative teaching to students and teachers alike.

Design for Collegial Relationships

Trust between the educators who are working together is an essential element of team teaching. Every teacher must establish their classroom culture. In team teaching models, this picture becomes more complex. The way that the adults interact with each other provides an important model that the students will immediately observe and learn from as well.

For example, how does one educator speak to the other if they have a question or don’t understand? How do they react to each other when they make a mistake? How do they share the labor in the classroom: Does only one teacher do the “tedious” tasks like cleaning or organizing? Each of these social dynamics provides a model for students to see how peers can and should collaborate with one another. 

Designing for trusting teaching dynamics means preparing your space for each teacher to assume different roles throughout each day. How can you prepare the environment to support this breadth of roles in a day?

Rethink “teacher space” as more communal, rather than private. Reduce the amount of exclusively “owned” space in the room. Make the teaching desk available to multiple users, or eliminate the teacher space in the classroom entirely.

Include areas in the room that emphasize each teacher’s strengths. Decorate the room with each teacher’s identity. For example, the room might display one teacher’s artwork and the other’s movie posters. You can also organize your space for each teacher’s favorite teaching methods. If one teacher loves reading circles and the other loves STEM projects, show that both are important with their own spaces in the classroom.

Protect teacher peace and identity within a more collaborative framework. Team teaching emphasizes human connection but does not eliminate the need for rest, planning, or personal moments. Make a plan for where and how you can make a confidential phone call, get highly focused work time, or simply eat your lunch alone when you need 20 minutes of quiet. Your plan could include reorganizing a faculty office/lounge for more personal space or having access to another area for some privacy and ownership.

Design for Fluid, Active Teaching

Team teaching is most effective when your model helps teachers integrate other effective practices into their teaching. Those practices can include project-based instruction and supporting student autonomy. Team teaching makes it easier to design interdisciplinary projects because each teacher can become an expert on different elements. For example, one teacher may be the class technology expert, and another may be the mathematics expert. As different teachers offer different resources to students, it elevates their autonomy by giving even more choices for how to engage the adults throughout the project.

Designing your environment to emphasize active, autonomous learning means preparing for more student movement and the structured unpredictability of creative student projects. How can you help students find what they need when you don’t always know what it will be in advance?

Hack your space for flexibility and agility. Flexible furniture is great for helping teachers and students move and reconfigure the environment throughout the day. Add tennis balls to the bottom of chairs and tables to make them easier to slide (or simply add casters).

Think creatively about other environmental elements: Remove doors from cabinets to let different groups see and use more materials, place markers by windows so students can use them as a writing surface, and orient some student seating near a teacher space to facilitate team members’ ability to do small group support within larger activities. Whether those resources are digital (like tablets) or analog (like mobile marker boards), the goal should be that students or teachers can quickly get them and respond to spontaneous needs that arise in the learning process.

Organize your space with “movement” as the default. Move your desks and chairs into clusters, with varied spaces for circulation. The groups can be different sizes and shapes, because different teachers can and will be managing different activities in them. The differences between group compositions can extend to how you engage new work surfaces, like windows for a new writing surface, walls for pin-up space or a mounted screen, or counters for an additional work surface.

Smaller reconfigurations happen more often than you may realize, and even more often with multiple teachers working together. You never know when people will need to scoot a table to alternate between periods of high circulation and periods of more spread-out tabletop work.

Team teaching offers the potential to make teaching more collaborative and satisfying by connecting multiple adults in a shared classroom practice. These are some early design approaches to supporting team teaching, but it is still an area of active research! 

Note: A thank-you to Stacy Roth for her ideas and expertise in developing this article.

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