Published Online: October 8, 2008

Ask the Mentor

Co-Teaching in the Multi-Level Classroom, Part I

Mindy Fattig is a nationally-recognized educator and co-author of Co-Teaching in the Differentiated Classroom with middle school teacher Maureen Tormey Taylor, which was recently published by Jossey-Bass. Fattig is the director of special education for the Del Norte Unified School District in California, an instructor in special education at Humboldt State University, and an education consultant. Her multi-level instructional model, which transformed a middle school, won a California State Model School in Special Education and a National School to Watch for its co-teaching program.

In the first of two installments, Fattig discusses how to overcome the resistance to co-teaching and why the co-teaching classroom is the ideal setting for inclusion.

How do you handle the division of responsibilities in a co-teaching classroom? As the regular education teacher, I find myself doing all of the grading and the majority of the planning. I don't think that the special education teacher I work with would mind doing more. I just don't know the best way to delegate some of the workload to her. After all, in the end, it is my name that goes on their report cards, permanent records, etc. I want things done right, but I don't want to work myself to death anymore.

There are a couple of ways that you can build that "equal" relationship with the special education teacher when it comes to classroom responsibilities. One way to begin is for the special education teacher to grade only the special education students' papers. After all, she is familiar with the students' individual needs typically more than the general ed teacher. This way she can grade according to quality rather than quantity or whatever is delineated on the student's IEP. As a special education teacher, I wanted to do more and to be equally valued as a credentialed and knowledgeable teacher.

Another way to go about this is for the special ed teacher to grade papers that are straight multiple choice or rubric driven--where it is a clear-cut answer. I know I was much less knowledgeable about the content than the general ed teacher.

However if you share the grading, it is always helpful for the two of you to sit down and decide how you are going to grade (rubric vs. percentage, etc). Grade a couple of papers together so that it doesn’t become so subjective. In regards to planning, it is critical that again the two of you find time to plan together. You can meet once a week during a prep period, after or before school, or at lunch, but you need to meet. If possible, ask your principal for a half-day release so you two can meet and plan the upcoming units or month. You both will reap the benefits; in fact, the time you invest in planning more than doubles the benefits that you as well as your students receive.

The general education teacher brings content knowledge and the special education teacher brings differentiation strategies. Your mutual competence benefits every student. It is hard for a special education teacher to not feel like a "glorified aide," but by sharing the responsibilities of grading and planning you can become co-teachers. It is especially rewarding when a student asks the general ed teacher why his answer was marked incorrect and that teacher responds, "You need to ask Ms. Smith, since we both graded papers."

Our district is trying to incorporate co-teaching into our schools. I teach at a middle school and have attended many workshops regarding the co-teaching model. I have been asked to present my knowledge and insight to my colleagues. (Many are struggling with accepting this model.) Do you have any suggestions or ideas for me to make my presentation meaningful? I would appreciate all advice.

If co-teaching is not happening yet at your school, I think it’s important to consider that there are many misconceptions when it comes to co-teaching. That said, the main areas that I would present are: common terminology/vocabulary, model sites, research, and next steps.

The first thing I would suggest is to explain the terminology and clearly define terms so that creates a common understanding right away. Then I would look for schools that are successfully implementing the co-teaching model with (if possible) similar demographics as your school. Highlight the overview of the various programs and any other information that you can gather from the school sites on how they began, pitfalls, etc. Then I would bring in some current research articles. You can present the research in many different ways depending on time allocated. For example, you could provide a summary and hand out the article(s) in entirety for the teachers to read at a later time. If more time allows, you could have the teachers pair off, read, and discuss the article as a group. After adequate discussion, have each group select a representative to share their article and their discussion. This technique is called "jigsawing."

You could wrap up your presentation by getting feedback. So that no one staff member is put on the spot, you could provide an exit card at the end of your presentation so that everyone has the opportunity to answer questions on index cards before they leave. Possible questions could be: (1) What was your knowledge of co-teaching prior to the workshop scale of 1-5 and now after? (This gauges knowledge base.) (2) What are some possible ways for co-teaching to begin to be implemented at our school? (This gauges application possibilities.) (3) Would you be interested in a co-teaching position? (This gauges interest). I would share the results with the administrators of the school so they can get an idea where in the process their staff is when it comes to co-teaching.

The most important thing when giving staff information is that they walk away feeling that their time was valued and that the information applies to them. You may need to explain that your purpose or goal for the workshop is strictly informational. It is considered good practice if your administrator can wrap up the presentation by sharing with the staff what she feels about co-teaching so there are no surprises or no lingering concerns so the staff can feel reassured that co-teaching is not going to be sprung on them after your presentation.

If you are already co-teaching, I would suggest presenting a co-teaching model to the staff. As I look back on all the presentations that I have done across the United States this is what people have connected with the most. (The best teaching and learning occurs by modeling first.) One of my co-teachers and I planned and presented the workshop together using a similar model to what we use in our classroom. My general ed co-teacher presented her struggles and challenges in the classroom and how she overcame them and I presented the challenges from a special education teacher perspective. But just as we do in our classroom, we would chime in during each other's presentations when we felt we had something to add to clarify each other’s presentations. A sample question we might have asked each other would be, "So let me see if I understand what you just said…" or "I am not clear of what XX means, could you describe it in a different way"

It is a good idea to make presentations interactive because it is much more engaging. Have the participants get a number at the door and give away little prizes throughout, throw little squishy balls when someone wants to speak. Build in cooperative activities, pair share and all the other successful strategies that you may naturally implement in your class for student engagement Perhaps model a co-teaching activity that you would use in your classroom. If your goal is to show them how to co-teach and to have the audience members apply co-teaching in their classroom, then you need to give them strategies. Allow them time to plan with their potential co-teachers and offer them your support. One idea would be to have the co-teachers break down a lesson and then plan how they would co-teach it for next week.

Do you feel co-teaching and inclusion works for all students? Are there some students who benefit from a pullout program or self-contained situation?

I get asked this question a lot throughout the country and it is a heated issue on both sides. To address the full inclusion issue: Some people feel that full inclusion is possible and can be beneficial for children and others feel that some students are best served in a more restricted setting. I always refer back to the child’s IEP to determine what is appropriate since each child is unique in their education and social needs. With that said, I have seen very successful inclusion with severely disabled students at all grade levels, but it does take a lot of planning, team meetings, often with varying levels of aide support and curriculum modifications.

I have also seen inclusion that is literally just a child taking up space in the general ed class with zero academic learning taking place for that child. I can say that I am neither against nor for the term "full inclusion." Inclusion is great if it is educationally and socially beneficial to the student and their peers. Successful inclusion also involves education of the general education teacher. In a co-teaching situation, the team also needs to know who is expected to modify the curriculum. If it is the Instructional Assistant, then who does that IA go to with their questions or concerns?

All of these questions need to be addressed for a successful experience. On the flip side, students have flourished in a special day class. I have seen such a progression with the smaller classroom and more "at level" instruction. In regards to co-teaching, I have seen it be successful for both students and teachers in a mixed ability/grade classroom, a small rural school with limited resources, a large urban school, and with severely handicapped to mildly learning disabled children. For the educational settings where the teachers reverted back to a model prior to co-teaching and deemed that co-teaching had "failed," it has always been due to lack of upfront planning and collaboration time.

Co-teaching can be incredibly beneficial to ALL students. After all who wouldn't benefit from two credentialed teachers in the classroom? In a successful well-planned co-teaching environment, all the activities that can be taught in a pullout environment can also be taught in a co-teaching classroom. It just takes planning and data-driven decisions to determine which students need what at any given time.

How can a special educator effectively co- teach when he is expected to cover multiple classrooms, subjects, and grade-levels? I taught in an elementary school— 4th and 5th grade— for two years. Once a quarter, I took a sub-day to meet with the six different teachers to do "long-term" planning, and every week I met with one or more teachers during each day's planning time. Needless to say, I had no planning time left during the regular work day. I ended up resigning because I felt over-stressed and unsupported by the administration. I am hoping to try teaching in a different state and would like to have a positive co-teaching experience this time around.

I can completely relate to your situation. The first year that I implemented a co-teaching model at my middle school I went on blood pressure medication two months into it. I, too, was doing multiple grades, planning, and trying to meet all the students and teachers needs. It was and is impossible. Do not feel bad that you were over-stressed. It was not you but the environment that made you feel overwhelmed and unsupported.

My first lesson that I learned was that I cannot co-teach with more than three teachers at a time. Wow, you had six!

To be effective you need to be focused, not spread out. I grouped the special education students into those three teachers' classes and planned with those teachers. I would recommend selecting one grade so you can really focus on the curriculum and modifying it. It was nice that your administrator gave you release days but it seems like it wasn’t enough.

What I would suggest for your next school (or how you could have ameliorated the situation at your old school) is to first limit the teachers with whom you co-teach and/or the grade level where you implement co-teaching. The second issue to consider is administration support. I recommend speaking to your administrator right away at your next school, assuming the issue is pertinent, and let him know about your experiences with an unsuccessful co-teaching program and what you learned from it. Tell him that you want his school's program to be successful and all you ask for is his support in the process. I do admire your commitment and I recommend first and foremost, finding a position where co-teaching is a valued model or where they want to implement co-teaching since any school would be lucky to get your expertise and experience.

How can I help get teachers back on board with an inclusion approach? In the past, the so-called "inclusion" looked more like hovering (when it actually happened at all) and so thoroughly embarrassed the students that the teachers got fed up with the whole idea. What are some strategies we can use so we can all move forward after our first and failed, half-hearted attempt?

It is really difficult to get teachers to "buy in" to inclusion especially if they have had negative experiences in the past. I am continually up against the negativity that the term "inclusion" engenders in teachers based on the failed attempts of the 1970’s. If done gradually and with teacher input, it will work. Again, the most effective way to make any program change is to move slowly. If I didn’t move slowly when first implementing inclusion, I would have had immense negativity from the staff. Try to include students on a grade level where you have the most willing teacher to co-teach with. Let him know what kind of support you and/or the Instructional Assistant will be giving.

The general teacher needs to have ownership and, by this, I mean they need to be included in all aspects of the program. This means that when scheduling students, both the special ed and general ed teachers need to have input in the student mix. We all know that certain kids are kind and helpful and, truth be told, others are not. We should have input into the class make up to set students up for success right away.

How you go from one class or one grade, as we did, to the whole school is a slow year-by-year process. The most important part in turning reluctant teachers around when it comes to co-teaching— or anything else for that matter is to celebrate the successes. At staff meetings, give data showing how the students are improving. Tell stories about a wonderful co-teaching or inclusion experiences so it almost feels like they’re missing out. The positive attitude will spread.

What model do you suggest implementing to create time for collaborative planning, particularly in an elementary school setting where teachers have lunch and recess duties?

Planning time is one of the most vital parts to making inclusion/co-teaching effective. At elementary sites you need to fit planning time in whenever and wherever possible. Some sites that I worked with (as a consultant) collaborated during PE and/or music time when the students are with another instructor. Some met before or after school. Of course, do not make this a habit since you can burn out easily – I know from first hand experience.

The other popular option is release days. Now, I know I don’t like to be out of the classroom very much since it just takes more time to write sub plans; however, if that is your only option to plan, you need to do it. Committing one day or even a half day every quarter (when you can get a sub) to plan out the scope and sequence of the lessons ahead can do the trick. Don’t overlook including which lessons you will need to differentiate for your students.

Finally, some schools have one day a week for early release where the students go home an hour early. This is an ideal time to collaborate and plan. Regardless of when you plan, you have to do it. Make sure that collaborative planning time is scared, too. Remember: (1) nothing interrupts it, and (2) you have a goal to accomplish.

We often hear from teachers, even high performing teachers, that having low performing students in their classes pulls down the performance of the whole group. What is the proper response?

Instantly, two thoughts come to mind: low expectations and team building. I have seen low performing students rise to the occasion and exceed my expectations if I hold it to them and give them support. The concern that I have when I hear a teacher express this is that the expectations are too low. However, if a teacher uses flexible grouping lesson by lesson and does not assume a student has prior knowledge because he is a "higher" student but really assesses and groups based on need sometimes and other times by interest, the students will get what they need.

Use team building activities where everyone works together to solve a real life problem using the content from your class. Have the students set goals from themselves both academically and socially each quarter/semester and revisit the goals with the students to see if they reached them and give them support or guidance on how they can reach them. Create a classroom of understanding that we have no low or high kids but just kids. Kids that learn more working together than alone.

We started co-teaching one month ago at our high school, after training and planning for it last year. I am an administrator with a good rapport with my teachers. Daily, they are coming in to express their own frustration or the frustration of others who don't want to seem like complainers. Do you have any suggestions on how we can get them through this initial stress?

Let me begin by saying it is common to experience high frustrations your first year. Change is difficult and you don't know what you don't know until it happens. It sounds like you need to work on some team building activities with your staff. Get them to trust one another so they can open the communication among themselves. Something as simple as sharing a personal and professional goal with the group, or giving a release day to co-teachers to plan and work out some of the frustrations with you can establish trust. Or have them write down what is frustrating them and what is going well and then encourage open and random sharing. Finally, always focus on the positive.

I can imagine that the stress is high right now as we are living in stressful times, but there are also many positives that need to be celebrated and shared. Even the little insignificant ones need to be significant right now. Just remember, together we are stronger than we are alone.

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