Co-teaching can be compared to preparing a savory meal for others. Every meal has some basic components: a chef who prepares it, ingredients, preparation time, and delivery. What makes the meal delicious, and not a pile of mush, is the time spent in preparation. Co-teaching is like that delicious meal being prepared. What happens behind the scenes is what makes or breaks true co-teaching.
All educators would recognize the two main cooks of the co-taught class, but there is a fundamental problem in most of the kitchens. These cooks did not go to school to cook with someone else. All the methods and strategies they learned focused on a single person managing and controlling the whole show. These cooks did not receive their training with the expectation that they would share the responsibilities of planning, managing, and delivering special meals. They were looking forward to the day when they could whip up wonders with and for their own students. They wanted their own kitchens. But suddenly when they do receive their own work space, they are told they’d have a co-teacher. For many new cooks, there is a measure of puzzlement and apprehension about what that looks like.
It is assumed that two highly qualified teachers would automatically know how to prepare and deliver those extra special meals. The reality is many do not, which leads most co-teachers to adopt the One Lead, One Observe model. This model is recommended to be used only 5% of the time but is often the primary model used by co-teachers. The overuse of this model causes students to perceive one teacher as their teacher and the other as a teacher’s aide.
The overuse of this model also causes the underutilized teacher to feel unneeded and unwanted. Those feelings can lead to disengagement, which causes the “main” teacher to feel like all the class responsibilities fall on them. They may even feel their co-teacher does not value their class or, even worse, that the other teacher does not take ownership of the class. These feelings from both teachers lead to a lack of trust and cooperation. Sadly, many co-teachers have fallen into this trap.
On the elementary level co-teaching occurs and develops organically. Many common spaces are shared, which leads the students and teachers to interact often during recess and throughout the day. This naturally opens opportunities for discussion about classroom management and lessons, and creates bonds, trust, and teachers’ recognition of each other’s strengths and the chance to use those strengths in a co-teaching experience.
On the middle school level teachers do not interact with each other as often, thus organic co-teaching occurs less frequently and takes longer to develop. The majority of co-teaching occurs because IEP students require co-teaching. Thus, our cooks are assigned together. It is not an organic development of a collaborative relationship built on trust. In this situation, both teachers are not always sure what their shared class should look like. They may have differing teaching strategies, teaching philosophies, and behaviors that their partner needs to adjust to. This requires more support to be successful.
How can middle schools make co-teaching more effective? Many things can be said about teacher communication, planning, and collaboration, but an often overlooked third party also plays a role: administrators. Building principals and special education directors can have considerable influence on co-taught classes. Below are seven ideas for principals and three suggestions for directors of special education to bring positive change for co-teaching.
Educate yourself – There is no shame in recognizing the need to educate oneself on any subject. Many principals do not start as special education teachers with an engaging co-teaching experience. Thus, it is not uncommon for school leaders to be unfamiliar with co-teaching. There are multiple resources online and books available from online book vendors on effective co-teaching. Many resources break it down into two major categories: co-teaching models and communication strategies for co-teachers.
Allow for shared planning time – Although not an end in itself, shared planning time is essential for fostering teacher collaboration. Shared planning time allows teachers the opportunity to plan as a team, strategize their instructional time, and determine the roles each will play in terms of material preparation, delivery, and grading. However, giving teachers a scheduled planning time does not guarantee they will know how to use that time together or that they will plan together. This is where they need communication strategies and accountability.
Share instructional strategies – Principals are instructional coaches who share effective instructional strategies, so why not share effective co-teaching models? This includes strategies for effective communication and planning for co-teachers. Also, it’s important to share your vision for what co-teaching will look like in your building.
Seek co-teaching professional development – Teachers who have fallen into the trap of One Lead, One Observe model can feel stuck. This may be the only way they’ve co-taught, and they aren’t familiar with other models. Professional development that focuses on co-teaching models and supports effective communication is a win-win.
Watch what you say – What you talk about, or your silence, speaks volumes. If you make co-teaching a priority, talk about and ask your teachers about their classes. It will become a priority of theirs. Silence speaks as well. If teachers never hear their leaders talk about co-teaching, then it becomes less of a priority and the status quo will be maintained.
Find a role model – If there are dynamic and successful co-taught classes, make them a role model for others in the building. Recognize the team for success or allow them to share an intriguing lesson that demonstrates their collaboration. This could be done briefly at a staff meeting. This could spark desire for change in other co-teachers. If it would be appropriate for your school, have the dynamic duo mentor a new co-teacher group or create a voluntary mentorship program.
Have a vision – Develop a personal understanding of what co-teaching should look like in your building. Share this vision and communicate your expectations to teachers. Then follow up with your co-teachers to find out their needs.
Directors of Special Education
Support the principal - Just as teachers need their principal’s support, principals need the special education director’s support. Principals who attend co-teaching workshops and seminars want to know about planning, supporting, and organizing inclusion classes. They need to be educated to be effective in leading their co-teachers.
Offer training - Consider providing district training for both co-teachers rather than only for the special education teachers. Give them time to learn together, dialogue, and consider ways they can implement new practices, models, and communication strategies in a safe and supportive training. Professional development with both teachers present is a great way to start the collaborative process and allows them a chance to dialogue about how they will apply what they learn when they return to the classroom.
Take time to talk with teachers – How you talk about co-taught classes influences the priorities of your special education teachers. Every year special education teachers listen to new information related to deadlines, funding, and other IEP concerns. While these kinds of meetings are important and create teachers’ priorities, little time is spent talking about what the classroom situation looks like. Ultimately it’s about the students. Take more time to talk to your teachers about their students and their learning. Make the students and their needs a priority. Balance the discourse. As for co-teaching, talk about it, or at least ask about it. Ask building principals how their co-taught classes are going. Get involved. What you talk about—or your silence—speaks volumes.
Co-teachers, for the most part, have been left to figure out how to lead in collaboration with another person. This can be a sink-or-swim situation for many, but the administrator’s role in the co-taught kitchens could greatly assist those who are struggling to make it work. Ultimately, students are the ones who benefit when you expand your knowledge and invest in your cooks.
Shawn Hemminger is a special education teacher at Central Middle School in Bartlesville, Oklahoma.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, April 2018.