Co-teaching is a buzzword throughout many school districts and in the world of special education. As someone who has co-taught in multiple schools, across multiple subjects, with multiple teachers, I have experienced the range of co-teaching situations — from the good to the bad to the ugly. While there are many factors that influence a co-teaching relationship, one often overlooked factor that has been influential in each of these situations has been the role of the administrative team. From my experience, administrators who want to create successful co-teaching classrooms in their buildings or districts should follow five guidelines:
1. Decide on a philosophy and communicate it.
Within your building and district, determine your philosophy on co-teaching, and communicate it with staff and parents. Train staff on co-teaching, and why it is beneficial to both students and teachers. Send out a letter introducing parents to co-teaching, and explain why they will be lucky to have their students in a co-taught room. Information is powerful. When administrators, staff, students and parents are all on the same page, co-teaching works more effectively.
2. Drink the Kool-Aid.
If you’re going to institute co-teaching classrooms in your school, you need to believe that co-teaching is best practice. Teachers pick up on the attitudes and beliefs of their administrators. Energy is contagious. If you show enthusiasm, teachers are more likely to exhibit enthusiasm, as well. If you show indifference, no teacher will want to take on the extra work to co-teach. When administrators are passionate about an idea, (good) teachers want to be involved.
3. Make it the expectation, not the exception.
Every teacher should be expected to co-teach when called upon. In fact, principals should expect all teachers to volunteer to co-teach. You should not have to beg teachers to co-teach. Additionally, it should not be acceptable for teachers who complain to be exempted from professional responsibilities. I was in a district where a teacher complained because co-teaching would force her to change the period that she planned. So the principal required the other grade level teacher to co-teach, instead.What message did this send to the staff? You want to set up co-teaching relationships that are positive and beneficial for both teachers and students. But let’s be honest, co-teaching is a lot of work, and many good teachers can get frustrated when workloads appear inequitable. Set the expectation that, as part of their professional responsibilities, any teacher should be ready to co-teach when asked. Teachers will internalize expectations as part of their teaching responsibilities, and some will hopefully realize that there can be repercussions for not being a team player.
4. Help teachers find extra time.
The biggest concern with co-teaching is finding common planning time. A great approach to supporting co-teaching is to help teachers find extra common plan time. Can you allow those teachers common plan time instead of teaching advisory? Can you get substitutes and provide them with an hour or two of planning on a half day? Can you help arrange their schedules to be more accommodating? Or give the co-teaching teachers fewer preps? Either way, helping them find time to co-plan (not just assuming they’ll figure it out on their own), not only shows your support for co-teaching, but helps facilitate better co-teaching experiences for the teachers, and in turn, the students.
5. Show your support.
A large aspect of co-teaching is parity between teachers. This creates a co-taught classroom, not one where the special-education teacher is seen as an assistant or aide. I once had a student in an inclusion classroom ask me if I wanted to be a “real teacher.” Ouch! Much of the appearance of parity can be done by simple administrative tasks. Give teachers access to a joint, online grade book, so they are both in charge of grades. Have both names show up on the class roster and schedule that the students and parents see. Have joint parent-teacher conferences. Communicate with both teachers in regards to department meetings, student concerns, etc. This sends a strong message about the importance of both teachers in a co-teaching relationship. Parity between teachers can be that subtle difference maker between a truly successful co-taught classroom, and an inclusion classroom with two teachers.
Pauline Zdonek (@PaulineZd) is a special-education teacher in the Chicagoland area. She has her master’s degree in elementary and special education, and has taught in both urban and suburban school districts.