Back in 2003, I was working in classrooms coaching co-teachers at a high school in a tough part of town. I walked into this one room with nothing more than a list of room numbers and teacher names. I didn’t know which teacher was the special education teacher or which one was the English teacher. I had been warned by the administration that it was a very apathetic group of students in that particular class.

There were two teachers in the front of the room, and I couldn’t tell who was who because they were both up front leading a lively discussion about a piece of literature the class was reading.

All the students were engaged. What really struck me was people were disagreeing with each other; including the two teachers. They were discussing the author’s intent; debating his motivation, characterization, and purpose. The two teachers took opposing views. Students were passionately sharing their perspectives. I was enthralled. This is apathy? No! It’s prodigious.

At the end of the day, in our debriefing session, I asked, “How did you get to the point where you could work seamlessly together to engage students in such an energetic debate? It’s clear that you two click and work well together.”

They replied, “We’ve worked at it.” “But you know what, if you visited our classroom in September you wouldn’t have seen this. We couldn’t even put our students in pairs at the beginning of the school year to do a think-pair-share because we have four gangs represented in this classroom. At the beginning of the semester, we made the mistake of putting two gang members from opposing gangs together and had a fistfight break out in the room! We quickly realized we couldn’t sit certain students together so we just didn’t. When we tried to have a class debate and include the students, if one gang member disagreed with an opposing gang member, they were literally climbing over desks to confront each other nose-to-nose. This was a problem.

The teachers explained that they couldn’t involve students in a discussion that provoked critical thinking skills until students could discuss an issue without feeling that any disagreement was a sign of disrespect for their gang. Their solution: Model respectful debate for the students all semester.

They demonstrated that just because you disagree with someone doesn’t mean that’s a cause to fight. Disagreement doesn’t mean disrespect. People have a right to their own opinion.

So, by the time I was there to observe, which was in early January, they had it down. It was inspiring. The teachers felt that was one of the best things they were able to do for that class because not only could they teach, students had learned valuable life lessons.

Upon reflection of our debriefing session, I realized that it was the first time I had been exposed to the idea that co-teaching is a wonderful model for students to learn respectful collaboration and debate.

Colleagues of mine, Kathy, and Peter, taught social studies together and loved to enliven the classroom with theatrics. They decided to role-play different sides of a political issue to accentuate the different standpoints on two sides of an election debate.

They set the stage: Kathy stood on one side of the door and Peter stood on the other. As students entered through the doorway to class they had to walk between two teachers who were debating a political issue − taking opposite stands. They feigned intensity and passion in their disagreement. The bell rang and the students sat in their seats waiting for class to begin (and for the teachers to calm down.) Instead, Kathy and Peter followed the students into the room and took it up a level.

They got a little bit louder and then they started pulling the students into the debate. “Trish, what do you think? What do you think about this issue? Do you agree with …?”

They made it personal but refrained from becoming disrespectful or antagonistic. They were successful in engaging their class in thoughtful discussion. The brain loves and learns through emotion. They had the emotion and the energy to draw students; and the loud factor. What a wonderful way to convey two stances on an issue! It’s really difficult to do that all by yourself!

Modeling disagreement and debate (Ummm… critical thinking skills)  is a powerful benefit to co-teaching done well and a great way to teach by co-example!

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