[Reflections on Practice]

Merging Voices and Finding Harmony in Co-teaching: A Doctoral Student’s Experience of Co-teaching a Music Therapy Course with her Doctoral Advisor

By Krystal Demaine


This article discusses the author’s experience as a doctoral student who co-taught a graduate level music therapy course with her doctoral advisor. During the course of the teaching semester the doctoral student kept record of her feelings, thoughts, and challenges in a written journal. She explored dynamics such as dual relationships, leadership, and identity as a teacher. Touched with successes and limitations, she learned heartily from her experiences and explored personal insights of collaborative teaching. Literature related to models of collaborative teaching, leadership, and mentorship highlighted the journey in this article. Collaborative teaching models may be considered in the field of music therapy to aid in the establishment of integrative and cross-disciplinary learning.

Keywords: Music therapy, co-teaching, graduate students, dual relationships, journaling



After my first year as a doctoral student, my advisor asked me to co-teach a graduate music therapy course with her. The invitation was a great honor to me. However, I felt nervous because this would be the first time I would teach a graduate level course and it would be with my advisor, someone whom I have looked up to since I became a music therapist ten years prior. This article will share my perspective on the collaborative-teaching experience in a music therapy graduate course. Throughout the fifteen-week teaching semester I kept a written journal in order to reflect on my personal process. Many feelings emerged which challenged my awareness of teaching style, knowledge of graduate students, and leadership. The collaboration shared between my advisor and I provided a unique professional development experience.

Hahna (2011) wrote “music therapy pedagogy should be studied in a way that allows for multiple truths and meanings” (p. 19-20). In other words, it is important to allow students to learn from various perspectives and instructors to teach from different philosophies and lenses. Teachers have an opportunity to present their students with a variety of different ideas rather than one narrow view. When more than one instructor is invited into a single classroom opportunities for a broader spectrum of ideas can be cultivated. Letterman and Duggen (2004) pointed out that by drawing upon the shared skills of others through collaborative teaching there is greater prospect for students to foster independent thinking and engage in expansive discussion in and outside of the classroom.

Collaboration is integral to human societies. From driving in rush hour traffic to a business meeting to buying food at the market for a family dinner; there is a general reliance on the shared effort of others in order to complete various tasks. In her book It Takes a Village, Hilary Clinton (2006) outlined how collaborative education within communities helps reduce crime and establish stronger societies. In America, families in need trust the collaborative efforts of government agencies to provide education, shelters, and employment assistance. In Kenya, Africa, researchers who studied both rural and urban villages found that each area, regardless of socioeconomic status, relied on collaborative community support when it came to child rearing and education (Swadener, Kabiru, & Njenga, 1997).

Collaboration is essential in music making. A rock band or orchestra for example, asks that each group member tune into the collaborative effort of others for a successful performance. Listening, non-verbal communication, flexibility, and acceptance are key. The solo instrumentalist listens to their own intonation and minds their own playing, while a whole music group must listen to themselves and the others playing around them. Jones (2006) wrote, “like a jazz ensemble, each part is free to express a point of view while also listening together for the patterns that integrate them with the whole” (p. 36-37). While music may lend itself to collaboration there is often a facilitator who may lead or conduct the composition. Similarly, in a classroom a teacher facilitates the direction of the group. When two facilitators are utilized it is important for those leaders to have carefully organized communication. Imagine if two conductors were leading an orchestra. The two conductors would need to cooperate and divide their roles evenly in order to allow for clear direction of their performers. While collaboration may offer its challenges, the insights, perspectives, and experiences can be valuable.

A Brief History of Collaborative Teaching

Also known as “team teaching,” “co-teaching,” or “team based learning” Cook and Friend (1995) defined the term “collaborative-teaching” as “two or more professionals delivering substantive instruction to a diverse or blended group of students in a single physical space” (p. 2). According to Bacharach, Heck and Dalhberg (2008) two teaching models are often utilized in a collaborative teaching environment. One model allows the instructor to alternate their attendance by splitting teaching load; each only teaching on their own designated meeting time without any overlap. Another model allows a teacher and her colleagues to have their own small core classroom that occasionally merges with other groups of student classrooms, thus allowing one larger class to be taught by a collection of instructors.

In the 1970s American school systems began using collaborative teaching models as a way to integrate typical learners and learners with special needs (Spencer, 2005). The first collaborative classrooms were officially established in 1975 with the inception of the United States Department of Education Public Law 94-142. This law mandated that all children have a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE), and allowed for students with special learning needs to receive an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). The IEP is designed and implemented by a collaboration of people including parents, teachers, therapists and classroom assistants, known as the IEP team (US Department of Education, 2007). Spencer (2005) noted that while the IEP team facilitated a learning approach for students with special needs, it set the precedent for a model of co-teaching to span venues other than primary school settings.

Collaborative forms of teaching have been utilized in higher education at both graduate and undergraduate levels and have bridged a variety of different topics of study. Conderman & McCarthy (2003) found that when co-teaching undergraduates, many of the students experienced positive outcomes with enriched learning potential. The instructors reported that co-teaching allowed them to gain greater knowledge of their own pedagogy and style. Letterman and Duggan (2004) developed a collaborative teaching model for an undergraduate cross-cultural course. The course became collaboratively instructed in response to excitement that students generated by first working with both teachers individually. In their model both instructors maintained simultaneous physical presence in the room during each class and reported that the students enjoyed the interplay of discussion from each professor’s expertise in the field. Similarly, Auman and Lillie (2008) co-taught an undergraduate media course, with the purpose of bringing different perspectives and areas of expertise to add to the students learning experience. Auman and Lillie pointed out that not all university instructors are versed in all concepts of teaching and that a co-teaching model can offer an opportunity for the students to learn from each instructor’s varied specialty areas. Ware, Gardner and Murphy (1978) co-taught an undergraduate introductory psychology course and asked students to complete a survey after the course was completed. The authors found that team teaching an introductory course yielded an overall positive experience from the students and possibly greater advantages for the faculty. The authors found that co-teaching allowed the faculty members an opportunity to “generate more enthusiasm toward teaching; learn more effective teaching techniques; and increase opportunities for scholarly activities” (p. 130)

Hatcher and Hinton (1996) pointed out that there is little research on the use of collaborative teaching in graduate education. The authors conducted a study to assess graduate students’ perceptions of a team taught course on the topic of human resources and development. Analysis of an interview and survey indicated that students reported more disadvantages than advantages to having two course instructors. The students found advantages in gaining knowledge from diverse instructors and for seeing how co-teaching could be modeled. Disadvantages included lack of clarity of instruction, concern for how to please the instructor, and disruption in the flow of the course. The instructors of the course recorded debriefing sessions that occurred after each class, and reported feeling anxious, and concern about balancing the course leadership. In a survey of a team taught graduate business program, the researchers suggested that collaborative teaching is better utilized with multidisciplinary courses rather than narrow topics and cited that such exclusive topics can create a sense of competition among instructors who may have similar expertise in one specific area.

In regard to music therapy teaching pedagogy, music therapy professional practice competencies recommend collaborative learning as a method of teaching alongside role-play, discussion, lecture, and demonstration (American Music Therapy Association, 2014; Goodman, 2011). Reports on the use of collaborative learning in graduate music therapy education are scarce. Luce (2001) however, reported on the collaborative learning experience in an undergraduate introductory music therapy course. The interdisciplinary nature of the introductory course yielded positive results for the undergraduate course. Luce (2008) found that it was important to understand the developmental needs of undergraduate music therapy students in order to best prepare students for clinical practice. Luce pointed out the need for more research on the topic of music therapy teaching pedagogy and supervision. On a related note, Hoskyns (2005) described a process for co-mentoring in music therapy supervision in New Zealand, and found positive results from providing dual supervision to one mentee. While there are limited reports on collaborative teaching in undergraduate music therapy programs, no research has been produced on such models in graduate programs.

Exploring a Collaborative-Teaching Model for a Music Therapy Graduate Course

In the summer prior to the start of the teaching semester, my advisor and I met and decided to co-teach in a model that allowed us to alternate our own teaching days for the semester. We also decided that we would both attend the last class. In our first meeting we reviewed the syllabus, divided the workload, and scheduled our individual teaching dates. The course was Music Therapy Theories and was a requirement for all first year music therapy graduate students. This was my advisor’s 17th time teaching this course and her first time co-teaching it. I had previously taught undergraduate creative arts therapy students for seven years and had co-taught one course during that time. As co-teachers, my advisor and I specifically designed our schedule so that we would teach the theories where we had specialized training and clinical experience or the most in depth knowledge. I taught developmental, neurologic, and wellness approaches of music therapy, and my advisor taught analytic, creative, and psychoanalytic approaches. Upon the invitation to co-teach this course I noted in my journal that I felt “excited, uncertain, nervous, and some fear”. I wrote, “I can’t deny that I feel a little anxious teaching alongside someone that I have admired and read about since I was an undergraduate student.” Ultimately, I decided to accept the offer to co-teach this class because it felt like a great honor and a healthy challenge to teach alongside my mentor.

I taught the first class meeting. When I arrived at the class, I introduced myself and informed the students that two instructors would teach the course. I shared my brief biography and informed the students of the additional relationship that my co-teacher and I shared. Prior to their enrollment in the course the students were aware that the course would be co-taught and they seemed excited to learn the course topics from both instructors and also interested in my work as a doctoral student. The class attendance was very large for a typical graduate course of its nature and included 25 students. The physical classroom housed ten electronic pianos with accompanying benches, which made for a crowded space. We requested a room change, but were told that other options were not available. Consecutive class meetings involved the alternating teaching schedule as planned. My advisor and I scheduled an in-person meeting once or twice a month. Our discussions intended to focus on the Theories course, but often led to my own doctoral studies, which left little time to discuss the course and the qualities of the co-teaching experience. Thankfully, in addition to our in person meetings we communicated once or twice a week through email and telephone calls. Given my advisors rich experience with the Music Therapy Theories course, and with graduate students, I was inclined to lean on her for the answers and in a way for approval of the work I was doing. While I was also a course leader, I still looked up to her as the frontrunner of the course. At times the lines seemed to blur between me reaching up to her as a mentor or laterally as a co-equal.

Reflections on Co-Teaching in a Dual Relationship

Goetz (2000) wrote that the benefits of collaborative teaching include shared responsibilities, shared creative control, and seeing teachers as co-equals. The challenges can occur with communication, implementation, and trust or commitment. As a current student of my co-teacher, I had difficulty viewing myself as a co-equal. At the beginning of the semester in my journal, I wrote, “I am used to being alone in the classroom designing my own syllabus and creating my own assignments. I am struggling to find equal footing in this course. I would like to make some changes in the course syllabus. I wonder if I am limiting myself by not adding new ideas?” I also wrote that my self-esteem and self-trust in teaching felt different. When I taught undergraduate students I felt that I could naturally teach from an authentic place. With undergraduates the subject was new to the students and there seemed to be fewer presumptions. In the first two classes with the graduate students, I felt intimidated by my knowing that these students had good life experience and expertise in various areas of learning. In my journal I wrote, “I am teaching students with a variety of degrees of training. Some are stronger musicians than me, some better writers, some better artists, some more steeped in special education.” I wondered, “I hope that I will be able to teach these students anything new.”

When I was preparing for the teaching semester I had an initial assumption of the baseline knowledge of the graduate students. I knew that they were pre-required to have taken a number of courses in psychology and in music and have some experience working with human populations, however I was not sure how much of that information was used or retained since the bachelor’s degree was completed. Ultimately I found that the students had varying degrees of knowledge of systems of psychotherapy, music theory, musicianship, and the helping professions. The students primarily held undergraduate degrees in music performance or music education and for some, the use of improvised music was little explored. In my journal, I reflected on my desire to find a strong way to integrate the students’ previous knowledge of music and psychology within the graduate curriculum. At the beginning of the semester I wrote, “If I were to revise the syllabus for this course I would review all of the theories of counseling and relate those theories to music therapy. I would do this by revisiting the material that was familiar to the students and teach the topics through the new lens of music and music making. This would allow for the students to reframe the material that may have already been learned from a pure psychology and counseling stand point.” The topic of prerequisite training in psychology became a desired point of discussion in my meetings with my co-teacher. Ultimately I decided to revise some of the material I was teaching to include additional hand outs related to systems of psychotherapy and counseling. I did not alter the syllabus or make any extreme changes related to this topic. I felt confident in my ability to recognize the needs of the students, but may have limited myself to making any extreme additional changes to the course materials. It would have been very important to communicate any larger changes to my co-teacher.

Each class meeting, regardless of the instructor, began with a musical improvisation using voice and instruments. This task had been outlined on the course syllabus since its inception. The music improvisation allowed the students to come together in collaboration, warm up for the meeting, and explore non-directed music making. Early in the semester, I wrote in my journal about one of the music improvisations that took place, “We started class as usual with an improvisation, but today, this one carried on for nearly an hour - the longest music improvisation the class has engaged in. I noticed that a few of the students seemed less enthusiastic, barely striking the drums that they held – they seemed to be exhausted with the music improvisation portion of the class.” In my reflection I wondered if it was appropriate to continue the improvised music or to facilitate closing. Ultimately, I decided keep the music playing until there was a gradual and natural ending. In the following class, as “I was preparing the classroom, one of the students approached me with some concerns about the meaning of the musical improvisations in the class. We decided to discuss this topic with the entire class in which the group agreed that we would have a goal or some implication for the improvisations.” Ultimately, the class thought that it was important to design musical improvisation, or musical examples that have a functional relationship to the course content, rather than simply making music together. We also decided that we could have shorter musical improvisations. I discussed this experience with my co-teacher on the phone and we agreed that we would continue with the musical improvisations as desired by the class and modify the music to meet the needs of the group. That week in my journal I wrote “the class feels different since we discussed the boundaries surrounding the musical improvisations. I am concerned that limitations of the musical improvisation will diminish the integrity of what musical improvisation is about. Yet, I also think that the discussion was essential and allowed the class to take a closer look at group dynamics and the role of music groups in clinical situations.” While I wished that my co-teacher and I could have discussed the role of musical improvisation in our class further, the topic did not arise in our future dialogues. Given our busy schedules and the need to move along with course content the role of group music improvisation did not take precedence.

The dual relationship between my advisor and I added an important dynamic to the course both in and outside of the classroom. In my journal, I wrote, “I want to share the most honest feedback with my advisor/co-teacher. I look up to my advisor and don’t want to disrupt the integrity of the course that she has instructed for so many years. Also, I am familiar with being the only instructor in the classroom, co-teaching is challenging to me. I wonder how things would be different if we were both in the classroom at the same time? I view my advisor as a true leader in music therapy and want to learn and grow from her work.” I valued that my co-teacher and I were each teaching different course topics, but felt that I needed approval to teach the topics I was teaching. I did not want to step on any toes. I wondered if I was muddling my sense of student vs. co-teacher? Perhaps with more time for communication or personal reflection, my understanding, independence, and self esteem as co-teacher could have been strengthened.

In a blog entitled Co-teaching is More Work Not Less Jackson (2010) wrote that co-teaching rather than teaching independently required a higher level of involvement due to needed depth of communication between instructors. Jackson identified that communication is an essential and primary ingredient to the success of a co-taught course. Letterman and Duggan (2004) noted that when co-teaching, an emphasis should be placed on meeting regularly and speaking honestly about the process.

Jackson (2010) described co-teaching as, “two distinct pedagogical ships passing one another in the dark curricular night.” Jackson’s statement highlights the importance of communication between co-teachers, to allow for clarity and awareness of how each are navigating the course. Murawski (2008) suggested that the strategies to successful co-teaching may rely on five key areas that include having an understanding of the value of co-teaching; valuing the relationship with the other teacher like a “professional marriage”; scheduling time for organization; allowing preparation and planning time for each class; and monitoring student success and giving feedback. Goetz (2000) assumed that there was inherent value offered to students to see how teachers model a shared experience. While my advisor and I did not discuss benefits of co-teaching with our class, my hope is that students found value in having two teachers for this particular course. While I agree with both Murawski and Goetz’ comments, in my journal I wrote, “I feel challenged to find an even balance as a co-teacher and student. I am glad though that I can recognize what is difficult and what I want to improve upon.”

Co-teaching can create opportunities for positive personal growth and professional development. The challenges that I experienced from teaching in a shared classroom encouraged me to look at my self-awareness and in turn become a stronger teacher. It allowed me to reflect upon my own teaching style and consider the role of collaboration in my work. One of the most valuable lessons that I learned was that pedagogical diversity lends to unique learning experiences for students. When it came to the Music Therapy Theories course, diverse teaching styles and specific knowledge of theories added value to each of the topics presented. I initially felt concerned about the advanced skills that the graduate students arrived with, but I quickly learned that transparency and authenticity allowed for deeper relationships with the students and more engaged learning. Without time to reflect with my co-teacher I would not likely have had the opportunity to process challenges that I experienced. This unique opportunity for reflection of a shared experience is not found in teaching in ones own classroom. Furthermore, the process of co-teaching allowed for new ideas to emerge that I could use for future teaching.


At the end of the semester, all of the students completed a final course evaluation. The main areas of the evaluation included multiple choice and open-ended questions related to course strengths, weaknesses, workload, and suggestions for improvement. Regarding the course strengths, all of the students noted that the instructors had a strong teaching style and were knowledgeable in their topics. The students seemed to appreciate the divergent teaching styles and specialty areas of knowledge. Many of the students wrote that having two course instructors inhibited the flow of the overall course, however others appreciated the diversity of two instructors. In regard to workload students commented that the course was generally light until the end when many key assignments were due and felt that the timeline seemed disorganized. For future improvement, the students suggested there be better organization of assignments and tasks. Students also suggested fewer students in the class or a more spacious classroom. Since the evaluation was filled out for both instructors, it is unknown to whom specific comments were directed. In a final meeting with my advisor we discussed the evaluations and both agreed that of all our years teaching college students the evaluations from our co-taught course had the strongest critical feedback.

After I read the course evaluations I struggled with trying to feel uplifted about the course. In my journal I wrote, “I fully agree with the students’ comments. The course syllabus could have benefitted from more organization and detailed descriptions of the course tasks and assignments. For example, the use of musical improvisation at the beginning of each class meeting could have been initially defined and presented in a way that was clear to both the students and co-teachers. If I were invited to teach this class again, organization and clarity of assignments would be my first priority. I would also recommend that the class be split into two sections. Twenty-five students in this type of a class was overwhelming for me just as it was for the students.” I would have liked for the students to participate in more small group work, and dyads were physically challenging to do given the classroom space. While there were many positive comments on the evaluations, for me, the positive comments seemed diminished by the negative issues.

Palmer (2007) said that teachers as well as their students experience a myriad of emotions, and “we cannot see the fear in students until we see the fear in ourselves” (p. 48). Writing in my journal allowed me to reflect upon my own emotions and thoughts surrounding the course content. I was better able recognize the basis of the fears and challenges that I was facing after I wrote. Much of that fear subsided over the semester although it returned at the end when it was time to see the course evaluations. I was able to use the evaluation as an opportunity to improve and to validate my work. Although it was hard to not take some of the comments personally, I have learned to transform those comments into suggestions as tools for improved teaching pedagogy. Palmer (2007) wrote, “I need not teach from a fearful place: I can teach from curiosity or hope or empathy or honesty, places that are as real within me as are my fears. I can have fear, but I need not be fear – if I am willing to stand someplace in my own inner landscape” (p. 58). I think that finding a way to teach authentically and understanding my role as a co-teacher allowed me to be with the fear that I was feeling and allowed me to transform the fear into an opportunity for positive growth and learning.

Conclusion: What I Learned

Teaching collaboratively with my doctoral advisor forced me to look at my own teaching pedagogy. It encouraged me to explore a dual relationship and navigate shared professional responsibilities. The reason why I teach is because I am passionate about the field of music therapy and feel true joy knowing that I can help nurture future professionals. Teachers are leaders who have the inimitable responsibility of leading new professionals in the work force. Jones (2006) wrote that, “leaders need to access their uniquely human gift for finding meaning in experiences that appear at the threshold of thought” (p. 37). Ben-Shahar (2007), commented that “we often fail to recognize the rich source of pleasure and meaning that are right in front of us in our work” (p. 107); and that it is important to do work that we are skilled in and also find meaningful and pleasurable. While co-teaching challenged me it really allowed me to develop my authenticity in pedagogical and collaborative skills. It reminded me how meaningful and enjoyable music therapy teaching is to me. Goetz (2000) pointed out that while teachers in expert areas of inquiry can provide aide to the classroom, divergent pedagogies might offer both benefits and challenges. Original and creative thinking is important to the classroom and the more voices that can be presented may stimulate new opinions, divergent ways of thinking, and possibly a richer discussion between co-teachers and students.

While the course evaluations revealed divergence among the students’ liking of the co-teaching model, a greater percentage of students seemed to enjoy the collaborative learning experience. I believe that collaborative teaching can offer a richer experience than simply relying on the knowledge of one person. A professor can call upon guest presenters, workshops, and conference attendance of their students; but it can be extremely beneficial for students to learn from multiple instructors’ perspectives in a single classroom. When I co-taught the Music Therapy Theories course, each class meeting seemed like a master class on a single theoretical approach to music therapy. It would have been interesting if my advisor and I were able to invite experts to lecture on each theory, but it would have also been challenging and costly to obtain. I appreciated that the students were able to experience lectures from faculty with specific field trainings on each topic. I learned that it is most important for co-teachers to assure sufficient communication in order to offer a flow in learning. Having regular time to communicate and debrief is key to a successful collaborative relationship.

As I write this article almost five years after the class has ended, I have completed my doctoral degree, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to work with my advisor in such a special capacity. As a co-teacher, I was reminded that I have much that should be shared with students eager to listen and learn, regardless of their prior education. I found that every experience is a time to learn and that it is important to be open to new knowledge. I learned that co-teachers, students, and mentees have so much to discover from one another. Most importantly I was reminded of the benefit of slowing down and making time to share thoughts, reflections, and to listen deeply and authentically to the words and actions of others. It was a true gift to have shared the experience of co-teaching with my mentor and now colleague. The gift to be able to truly process my experience and share it with others has informed my teaching pedagogy and built a stronger personal sense of my ability to contribute as a leader in the field of music therapy.

After the course ended, I was asked to teach the Music Therapy Theories for the following year on my own, without a co-teacher. At first I agreed to teach and then a few weeks later I declined the opportunity in order to focus on my dissertation research. I have not had the opportunity to teach the course again, but have lectured in the course as a guest presenter on specific topics. It would be great to see more co-teaching within this course again. I trust that multiple teaching perspectives can truly enrich the music therapy classroom experience. I believe I learned a great deal about graduate students and my own teaching pedagogy from this experience. I am not sure if the Music Therapy Theories class will ever again be offered in the co-teaching model, but if it were, I think that it would be a successful constant model for the course and I would jump at the opportunity to co-teach it again.


The author would like to thank Dr. Michele Forinash for her support, encouragement, and kind mentorship and Dr. Michaela Kirby for her course on Supervision and Leadership.


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