I’ve been teaching usability training workshops for a number of years now, and I invariably prefer a team-teaching approach. However, I was challenged on that principle lately. A client asked why I would suggest two trainers, when I, as a single trainer, should be capable of teaching the entire course myself. Yes, I’m absolutely capable of doing this and yes, I certainly have done it when either the client is firm on a single trainer or when I simply don’t have a second trainer available on a particular day that the client needs training. This is definitively not my preference. Why?

It’s hard to be “on” for an entire day.

While a full-day class may be a long time for an attendee, for reasons of practicality, it is sometimes the best way to block out the time needed for the training. Attendees can tune out for short periods of time, and it’s not a big deal. Yes, there is an occasional attendee who actually falls asleep (and whenever possible, I do try to supply a Starbucks Traveler’s box to the class for that reason!) Napping is a bit much, but attendees tuning out for short periods by checking their mobile phone, looking up something on the web or simply gazing off for a minute is expected in the long day of training.

A single instructor, on the other hand, can’t tune out! While teaching, an instructor needs to be “on” for the entire day. Anyone who has done a full day of instruction (even with breaks built in for the class) and tried to do it with energy and enthusiasm knows that it’s really hard, if not impossible, to maintain that enthusiasm over the course of the day. So the quality of the course instruction is at risk with a single instructor.

Just give them a group exercise?

I’ve heard the argument also that one should just give the class exercises to do, and that will give the instructor a break. But giving the class exercises doesn’t necessarily mean the instructor is off-duty. A good instructor should listen to the conversations that occur in group exercises, walk around the room, see how things are progressing, and intervene when necessary.

How does a second instructor enhance the course?

Does adding a second instructor mean that while one instructor is teaching the other instructor can snooze? No, that’s not what happens. The instructor not actively teaching should be able to tune out every now and then in order to regroup, but that’s not the entirety of what the second instructor should be doing when not actively teaching. Rather, the second instructor should also be listening to the class conversation.

A usability workshop, at least the way that I like to teach it, involves a lot of dialog and discussion. Whichever instructor is “on” for that portion should lead the discussion; however, the second instructor should try to stay tuned in enough that this instructor can still add to and enhance the discussion whenever possible. Further, if the first instructor should falter with an on-the-fly response to a question, the second instructor is available to jump in. With group exercises, having multiple instructors floating around the room can be a big benefit too. And when there are latecomers to class (always the case!) or technical troubles, it helps to have a second instructor to float around the room, supply materials, solve problems, and get people oriented discretely while the class continues uninterrupted.

Ideally, both instructors can also learn from each other, not just in the way that they teach, but in the way that they may respond to questions or issues.

Differences are good.

To whatever extent possible, it’s a good idea for the second instructor to be different than the first instructor: to have a new lens, a different area of expertise, and a different personal and/or professional background. The team can then relay the same topic with unique approaches to the subject matter and can have different stories to help illustrate the topics. The teachers’ strengths are combined, leading to a more enjoyable and informative class.

How should the instructors alternate?

Ideally, I’ll suggest that for full-day trainings, no instructor should be the lead for more than 90 minutes at a time, and leading for even shorter chunks of time can sometimes be better. On the flip side, there is a ramp up period to engagement with the class, and shorter than 30 minutes does not provide enough time to ramp up. Even 60 minutes might be the ideal minimum.

Addendum: Is there any research to support team teaching?

My frequent co-teacher, Aviva Lebson (who also happens to have a graduate degree in education), identified this newsletter from Stanford as an interesting article on team teaching (PDF). It’s an interesting read for those who wish to teach as a team, and identifies several other publications for reference. While focused understandably on the academic classroom, there are a number of things that trainers can learn from this, including:

  • the importance of planning together
  • making sure to be present for the other instructors’ segment
  • referencing things that the other instructors have taught while doing your own segments
  • incorporating high-level intellectual debate and discussion between instructors
  • making sure that the other instructors talk even when it’s not their portion

This article also identifies these team-teaching approaches as providing more validation to students that they should add to the conversation as well and ultimately works to create a more interactive classroom.