In the Trenches: Co-teaching as an Administrator

Maximizing the opportunity to reconnect in the classroom

By: Pauline Zdonek


The quality of a school’s instructional leadership can have a significant impact on student achievement. Most administrators enter the position with the goal of delivering quality instructional leadership; they envision themselves being in classrooms, working side by side with teachers and students, and collaborating with team members around instruction, curriculum, and data. However, the obstacles they face once they enter the position often get in the way of fully realizing this goal. There are the practical obstacles, where short school hours are quickly filled with meetings, managerial tasks, and discipline issues. There are often perception obstacles, as many administrators left the classroom years ago and staff may not view them as knowledgeable in new curriculum, technology, strategies, and tools. And there are knowledge obstacles, as middle school administrators cannot possibly have the background and expertise of all content areas in a building. Considering these obstacles, how can administrators maintain credibility and maximize impact as instructional leaders?

The best answer I have found? Teach… well, co-teach really. A few years ago, to improve our own instructional leadership and build credibility, my principal and I decided to start co-teaching each year with a staff member. The goal was multifaceted. First, by actively and regularly teaching we were continuously improving our own instruction, strategies, and skills. We had a classroom to try out the effectiveness of new ideas instead of simply passing them along. Second, by being “in the trenches,” we earned credibility from staff. We dealt with behavior issues, juggled district requirements, and implemented new resources. We also gained knowledge of subject areas that were outside our expertise.

For these reasons and more, I recommend anyone who has moved out of the classroom fulltime (building administration, curriculum specialist, etc.) to reconnect with the classroom. While the challenges to the co-teach strategy are real, if we hold instructional leadership as a core value, then we have to find a way to live it. To make the endeavor successful, here are some ideas on overcoming obstacles and maximizing this opportunity.

In the Trenches 1

Be Transparent

Even in a building with the most positive climate and culture, the idea of having an administrator teach with you can make the most confident teachers a bit nervous. Having built strong relationships over the years with teachers made rolling out this process much easier and more accepted by staff. However, even the teachers that volunteered admitted they were nervous about the idea of the boss being in the room constantly. Being transparent about your goals, explaining what you can offer teachers, and modeling being a learner yourself can help alleviate many of these fears.

And remember, you might have a perfect co-teacher in mind, except that person has no desire to teach with you. Solicit volunteers for the experience and be open to the opportunities that may arise (or not arise). My first teacher volunteered because she wanted fresh ideas and believed my outside perspective could provide a new lens, and I saw an opportunity to deepen my knowledge in a subject I hadn’t taught. When you roll out the idea of co-teaching, be open and explicit in your reasons behind it, and explain what you hope to get out of the experience.

While in the classroom, use this as a time to experiment. Try new things and be okay with failing. Use different co-teaching models so you can talk directly with co-teachers on how to implement them in their classrooms. Talk openly about your failures, and model for other staff the learning opportunities. Push yourself and your co-teacher to try something new. Ask others to come in and give you feedback. Co-teaching is the perfect vehicle to model yourself as the lead learner in the building. As you get ready to roll out the idea to staff, be able to answer these questions:

  • What do I hope to gain/learn from the experience?
  • What can I offer to teachers that will benefit them and their students?
  • How can I use this experience to better the school as a whole?

Be Consistent

One important benefit to co-teaching is the opportunity to build relationships with teachers and students. Yet the quickest way to lose credibility and trust is to say you’re going to be somewhere and then not show up. As you begin the co-teaching journey, know the realities of your schedule and find a consistent time that will realistically work. I recommend once a week, as it keeps you regularly in the classroom without overwhelming your schedule and to-do list. I knew the days that always held meetings (Monday and Friday), and the blocks I was often called to handle discipline issues (3rd and 4th). With those in mind, meet with your co-teacher and find mutually agreeable times to teach together (for me it was Tuesdays 2nd block one year, Thursdays 1st block another).

Once you both decide on a time, get it on your calendar for the entire year so nothing else gets scheduled during that time. However, remind your co-teacher you will need some flexibility, as conflicts will inevitably arise. When they do, reschedule. If you don’t, it sends a message on the importance of your presence in the classroom. To aide in planning, answer these questions:

  • What times of day (periods, blocks, etc.) am I usually the most free?
  • What days of the week should I avoid?
  • How often is realistic?
  • When will we be able to plan?
In the Trenches 2

Be Intentional

The first year I started co-teaching English language arts, my partner and I were teaching whatever plans happened to fall on the day I was in there. This led to disjointed planning, awkward lessons, and not true co-teaching (beyond one-teach, one-assist). At the end of the semester, we revised our plans. We decided to set aside the days I was co-teaching to utilize a specific resource that ELA teachers were expected to use weekly. This had two benefits. It allowed us to be intentional when planning co-taught lessons to maximize having two teachers in the room. It also allowed me to more deeply understand the ELA resource and how to use it effectively in the classroom.

I also was intentional about the teacher I selected to teach with based on what we could learn from each other. One teacher had a great deal of content knowledge that I did not, and I looked forward to learning from her. One of my strengths has been building positive rapport with students, which I modeled throughout our year together. Another teacher brought great energy and creativity to the classroom, and I wanted to learn from his ideas. In return, I helped him use data in a way that improved student outcomes from the year before. As you plan, answer these questions:

  • In what subject/content area do you lack experience/knowledge?
  • Which staff or content resources do you want to learn more about?
  • Which staff member do you think you would complement?
  • Who might be able to learn from your strengths and vice versa?

In This E-Learning World

Recent events have thrown middle level education into uncharted waters. Uncertainty and e-learning should not scare you away from co-teaching. However, it may be helpful to keep a few extra pieces in mind.

  • Be understanding – As this is a stressful time for everyone, understand if teachers are not jumping at the chance to co-teach right away. There are plenty of reasons teachers may be reluctant to sign up right now, and with all the stress people are under, it may be the furthest thing from their mind. Just be patient; people will come forward when they feel more secure.
  • Be helpful – It might not be the co-teaching situation you had in mind, but helping your co-teacher lighten the load (leading online meetings, following up with students, providing feedback) may build the credibility you need as school returns to in-person instruction.
  • Be positive – Co-teaching in an e-learning environment provides a great way for administrators to understand the work teachers are putting into this new venture, so remember the benefits as you engage. Help your co-teacher stay positive and focus on the impact you can have with students, even from a distance.

Conclusion

Becoming an effective instructional leader is a worthwhile goal, but one that requires time and commitment. Through co-teaching, administrators can develop and refine their instructional leadership. No professional development or book I’ve read has taught me as much as being both in the classroom and in the front office.


Pauline Zdonek is a middle school assistant principal at Jane Addams Middle School, Bolingbrook, Illinois. Prior to administration, she was a mathematics instructional coach, middle school math teacher, and special education teacher.
pauline.zdonek@gmail.com


Published in AMLE Magazine, October 2020.

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