Fill in the blank: The marriage between co-teachers is like ______. In my workshops on co-teaching, I ask participants to complete that simile. The responses run the gamut from horror story to every teacher’s dream: The marriage between co-teachers
is like an elderly couple—constantly bickering about trivial details but dependent on each other. The marriage between co-teachers is like a fine wine—it gets better with age.
For the past 20 years, I have worked with schools on their co-teaching initiatives. I have seen an explosion of interest—not just among special education and general education teachers but among ELL teachers, literacy specialists, and speech and language therapists, all of whom are recognizing the benefits of inclusion teaching. They know that students with a wide range of special needs can thrive when they’re taught in classes with their peers.
No matter co-teachers’ respective expertise, some relationships work smoothly, while others are rocky. Why is that? In my own co-teaching and my work with educators, I’ve found successful relationships boil down to three essential ingredients, which I will discuss in detail.
Choose a Model Early
The beginning of the school year, or even prior to the start of school, is the key time to decide which co-teaching models you want to use.
In the Duet Model, both teachers share everything—planning, implementation, assessment, reteaching, parent–teacher conferences, bulletin boards—literally, everything! Think of this as a well-balanced meal, always nutritious and flavorful, that you will serve to students. It incorporates lots of other models on a daily basis, and every day is a bit different (which students love). This is an excellent model, but be aware that it requires an enormous amount of co-planning time.
The Lead and Support Model works well when a specialist is assigned to co-teach with multiple classroom teachers. In this model, the classroom teacher takes on responsibility for advance planning and then shares her ideas with her partner. The specialist offers suggestions to tweak the plan to make it more accessible for struggling students. Both teachers are then fully involved in teaching and assessing students. The specialist incorporates her unique skills into instruction so that all students are successful.
Once you have identified which of these two overarching models best suits your situation, you can explore the day-to-day plans. Co-teachers might decide to use a parallel model one day, splitting the class into two so that students get more of a chance to participate. On another day, teachers might choose to use a station model, where a small group of students receives intense, direct instruction following the mini-lesson. Whichever models you choose, the most successful co-teaching occurs when the choices have been intentional, with the students’ needs kept in mind.
Have Courageous Conversations
Even with the best-laid plans, there are bound to be occasional relationship challenges. Just as in a marriage, partners may have differences of opinion or develop resentments. If these occur, it is essential to have “courageous conversations”—to be open, honest, and professional about what is happening. These conversations can be uncomfortable, so teachers often avoid them. But doing so comes at a great cost, as it usually results in a loss of instructional quality and student progress.
A co-teacher in Nebraska asked me to suggest specific prompts she could use when she and her partner reached an impasse. Here is what I offered her:
“Help me understand your point of view.”
“What I think you are saying is _____.”
“What have you done in the past that has worked?”
“What if we try this idea for one week and then discuss how it went?”
As part of communicating openly, partners should also clarify who is responsible for specific tasks. A special education teacher at one of my workshops in California told me that she was tired of “being the one to always make copies.” I suggested that she and her partner brainstorm a list of tasks that make their class run effectively and decide who will do what. You can keep track of these tasks on a chart. (Download here.) By having a proactive discussion, you reduce confusion and avoid hurt feelings.
Assess Students With a Fresh Eye
The best co-teaching happens when both teachers believe they are facilitating learning for all students in the class—not just those they are assigned to support. Here are a few suggestions for making this goal a reality.
Use “our students” rather than “your students/my students” in your conversations. Teachers who use “our students” hold high expectations for all students and make sure that everyone is receiving just-right challenges.
When planning lessons, flexibly group students based on formative assessment rather than labels (IEP, ELL, gifted, etc.). During a co-taught lesson last year, my partner and I quickly assessed our students’ understanding of figurative language to decide how to group them. My co-teacher was surprised to find several “gifted” students who didn’t quite get it. If, instead, we had automatically grouped students based on their labels, a few might have fallen through the cracks.
Develop a lesson-planning format together that is student focused. My favorite lesson-planning form contains reminders to consider things such as visual supports, hands-on activities, and modes of participation. To download a copy of the form, visit ideas for educators.com/downloadables.
A true partnership grows as you get to know each other. But for the sake of our students, we need to develop a strong working relationship as quickly as possible. I hope you’ll begin the year with thoughtful planning, embrace challenges as opportunities for growth, and embark on a fruitful co-teaching journey.
Anne Beninghof is a consultant and former special educator. She has trained teachers across the United States and is the author of Co-Teaching That Works.
Image: Illustration by Miguel Davilla