MSC Teacher Bulletin

12 Questions to Ask a Potential Co-Teacher

Dr. Steve Hickman
Steve Hickman, Psy.D. CMSC Executive Director

Finding the right co-teacher is probably more of an art than a science, and I have seen co-teachers come together in a variety of ways, some less functional and appropriate than others. From teachers who were assigned to teach together by a supervisor, to those who have decided to teach together based on some emails and some shared geography, to life partners who choose to teach together for the first time, the possibilities are endless. I have even known of MSC teachers who engaged in an elaborate, almost dating-like process, of meeting socially on several locations, having exploratory meetings and ultimately making a mindful and solemn choice to teach together. All can work, but some have a greater likelihood of success.

How does a successful teaching relationship look?

Success is probably worth defining in this context, even if it can be hard to pin down or define clearly. Failure, on the other hand, is relatively easy to spot. Failure is characterized by anger or resentment in one or both parties, over real or perceived slights, in or out of the classroom. There is a kind of friction that can be palpable between the co-teachers and even if the co-teachers themselves think they are hiding it, participants turn out to be quite attuned to disharmony between teachers and can often sense it before the teachers acknowledge it.

In the opposite scenario, by the way, when co-teachers have a great chemistry and harmony to their relationship, participants also pick up on this and find it quite supportive to their practice and educational about how to bring the practice into their interpersonal world. On more occasions that I can count, I have read through course evaluations and been surprised to find participants commenting on how helpful it was for them to see how my co-teacher and I worked collaboratively and cooperatively together, how we consulted with each other before making decisions, and how we seemed to generally enjoy each other’s company. While I was caught up in thinking that the course was about the curriculum, these comments reminded me that it is as much, if not more, about the teachers’ embodiment and enactment of the practice in the presence of participants.

So success in co-teaching is characterized, first and foremost, by a pervasive sense of safety.

Together, you are creating not only a relationship but an environment in which that teaching relationship can survive and thrive. Safety is usually characterized by a sense of ease and harmony, both between the teachers and in the participants (to whatever degree that is possible when participants are often traversing some emotionally rocky terrain in their learning). Kristin Neff once stated that she will only teach alongside some who, when she thinks of teaching with them, it makes her smile. I find that to be an immensely helpful benchmark.

Beyond ease and comfort, there needs to be a sense of strength, conviction, commitment and support as well.

These are also important safety factors that deserve attention. You need to know that your co-teacher “has your back”, will stand up for you and to you when the circumstances arise, and that you will do the same for them. This kind of fierceness can and should be compassionate and wise, but in order for us to feel safe, we need to know that the people we are with will hold that safety paramount and know within ourselves that we are equally committed to that for them.

How do you explore the possibility and ultimately forge a functional, rewarding and satisfying co-teaching relationship?

In my experience, the qualities that one might bring to bear on this process are: openness, curiosity, patience, willingness, equanimity and compassion. A tall order indeed, but perhaps not that unexpected since these are the qualities of what we endeavor to teach, right?

Chemistry is only half the task if you want to assure a solid working relationship. Like any relationship, solid, transparent and honest communication is key, and sets the foundation for everything else. The more honest and forthright one can be in communicating with one’s co-teacher, the greater the likelihood that if and when difficulties or misunderstandings arise, they can be resolved quickly and to the satisfaction of all concerned.

The teachers I knew who essentially “dated” for several weeks developed a wonderfully open and mutually respectful pattern of communication that has served them for quite some time. Much like a romantic couple, they mutually resolved to never let a point of friction or disagreement linger and to make every effort to address difficulty as soon after it arises as is feasible. They spoke of their respective strengths and weaknesses, as well as their “growing edges”.

I asked these two MSC teachers if they had any tips for new teachers and here’s what they offered: “One key thing we did early in our relationship was to share why self-compassion was important to us. It turned out we each had had tragic family problems we could describe and share and grieve with each other. This created a deep sense of knowing and trust between us — we trusted each other’s practice. I think we have understood our relationship as a spiritual relationship, a practice relationship, something bigger than us.”

Here is a helpful list of questions you may want to ask a potential co-teacher as part of a getting-to-know-you discussion:

  1. What most drew you to this program?
  2. Who are some teachers who have impressed or inspired you, and why?
  3. What are you most looking forward to sharing as a co-teacher?
  4. What are you most hesitant about in having a co-teacher?
  5. How do you prefer to receive feedback?
  6. What is one thing that your co-teacher is likely to really appreciate about you?
  7. What is one quirk or “character flaw” that you possess and your co-teacher might just have to learn to live with?
  8. What are some of your “growing edges” in teaching and in co-teaching that you are working on?
  9. What are some non-teaching skills or talents that you bring to the table (e.g. organization, marketing/social media, accounting, etc.)?
  10. What is your view of the use of humor in teaching the program? How would you characterize your sense of humor?
  11. What is your preferred mode of communication (email, telephone) and what is a reasonable response time for a communication from your co-teacher or participants?
  12. What is your deepest intention for doing this work?

With a solid base of communication, then co-teachers can figuratively roll up their sleeves and speak openly and honestly about a variety of practical details, logistics and responsibilities.

Like young lovers, new co-teachers sometimes balk at having these direct, nuts-and-bolts conversations, feeling that they take away from the magic or romance of the budding relationship.

Sometimes such conversations (and the formal agreements that may go with them) seem like extra effort or too time-consuming to pursue. But for all its potential for wonder, discovery and joy, the MSC co-teaching relationship is still a professional one, and the feeling of initial harmony and shared adventure will dissolve quickly when sensitive topics like finances, responsibilities and expectations arise.

Formalizing the agreement

I have witnessed more co-teacher “breakups” due to these seemingly mundane details than to incompatibility or purely personality issues, by far. If you were to ask these co-teachers what they would tell others who are considering entering into a co-teaching arrangement, they typically say “talk about everything and consider putting it in writing.”

I highly recommend that new teachers take the time to sketch out a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between them to address these and any other relevant issues. Using an online forms site, I have created a very official-looking document that covers a lot of legal ground, but I would direct your attention to the section on “Services and Cooperation.” This is the place where each teacher can list specifically, their respective contributions to the partnership.

SAMPLE CO-TEACHER MOU

The MOU includes:

  • Finances: Spelling out what you expect to charge for the course, how you will handle scholarships, how the profits will be split and how other expenses will be handled. It would be wise to not try to sort out which participant came as a result of the efforts of which teacher. This can be a recipe for conflict. It is best to have a set percentage split.
  • Responsibilities: Noting who will do what, from marketing, to administration, to room setup, class emails, etc., should all be addressed here.
  • Teaching Roles: You may not want to spell this out in the MOU, unless there is a significant disparity in the teaching experience of each teacher, in which case you may want to designate which teacher will be the “lead teacher”. Even if you don’t list it in the MOU, you should definitely discuss how you prefer to co-teach and to share the leadership of the group.
  • Term & Future Plans: The term is another item in the template, but you will want to discuss what your longer-range plans are just to assure transparency and open communication.

Finally, just like we tell our MSC participants, consider the forming of a co-teaching relationship as a kind of journey and an adventure. The relationship will unfold, often in delightfully unexpected ways, especially if the practice itself is the foundation. The joy of teaching together and sharing the journey of self-discovery that is MSC can be an enriching and inspiring experience.

Thoughts on Co-Teaching

by Laura Prochnow Phillips
Certified MSC Teacher

I have had the true pleasure of teaching more than 25 mindful self-compassion classes with Dr. Karen Bluth over the last three-and-a-half years. We have learned a tremendous amount about each other, ourselves, our students, our teaching, self-compassion, and compassion while sitting side by side in a variety of settings, day and night, ready or not. While we certainly do not have all the answers about successful co-teaching, the wisdom of hindsight reveals some things that have worked well for us and may be helpful to our fellow MSC teachers.

Our partnership has been successful for a variety of reasons, but first and foremost, we were lucky. When we met in person, we were the only MSC teachers in our college town; Dr. Steve Hickman had introduced us over email. We were inclined to make it work because we had no other options. We did not ask each other many of the very wise questions Steve suggests in his article because we didn’t think of them. Instead, we each got a good gut feeling about the other after chatting for about an hour over coffee and decided to give it a try.

From the start, we treated each other very respectfully, as equals who were learning on the job because this was very early on in the development of the teacher training process. We consulted each other on challenging students and situations, showed kindness in small ways, and expressed gratitude for each other’s expertise and skills. We are fortunate enough to share a similar sense of humor, which has come in very handy over the years. In general, we held each other in loving, connected presence.

Perhaps most importantly, we have always had a shared sense of purpose. Karen and I both believe very strongly in the MSC program and its profound, positive impact. We want to share mindful self-compassion with the world as much as we can, in our own, small way, in part because it has created such powerful changes in our own lives. Because we have the same overarching goal—to help diminish the suffering that is endured by all people—we have no sense of competition with each other. We are a team. Karen’s success is my success, and my success is Karen’s success. Her struggles are mine, and vice versa. Karen might be able to connect with a certain student more easily than I can; I might explain a particular concept more clearly than she. But since we’re walking the same path, along with our students, we are all in it together. For Karen and me, teaching isn’t about the teacher, and it certainly isn’t about our egos. It’s about earnestly trying to help the students better understand and personally relate to the material so they can experience mindful self-compassion in their own minds, bodies, and hearts.

Together and separately, Karen and I have seen remarkable transformations happen for our students as Mindful Self-Compassion grows and blossoms inside. It is humbling—and a deep honor—to bear witness to self-compassion in action. We are also acutely aware that the two of us have very little to do with it because it is much, much bigger than we are. The majority of the time, we just need to get out of the way.

Dr. Steve Hickman

CMSC Executive Director

Steven Hickman, Psy.D., is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and an Associate Clinical Professor in the UC San Diego Department of Family Medicine & Public Health. His role is to provide oversight, vision, direction and focus for the development and expansion of CMSC around the world. He is also the Director of Professional Training, overseeing the training of teachers from “start to finish” and assuring the highest quality standards and the best possible resources for teaching. Steve is the Founding Director of the UC San Diego Center for Mindfulness, a program of community building, clinical care, professional training and research. He ...Read More

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