Published Online: April 17, 2013

Teaching Secrets: 5 Ways to Make Co-teaching Work

Meet Jason. He's sociable, respects his teacher, and turns in his homework (most of the time). He also dreads the day he has to answer a question. He wishes he could fade into the background of school.

Teachers don't talk much about students like Jason. It's easy to think, "Well, he’s a good kid, he sees the reading specialist in a small group, he will be just fine." But when teachers collaborate effectively, kids learn more.

This year, I've tested that idea, co-teaching a 7th grade reading class with our response-to-intervention reading specialist. I've found that with this set-up, students like Jason can advance more quickly.

Here are five lessons I've learned from our collaboration:

1) Trust is a must. It takes time, is forged in shared experiences, and is crucial to deepening and individualizing classroom instruction.

Don't try to change your colleague's teaching style or personality. Instead, embrace the positive impact that your co-teacher can have on your students, and compromise, blending your styles.

2) Recognize that things will go wrong. Stand by one another to work through challenges and failures.

Communicating feelings, thoughts, and ideas may make you feel vulnerable. However, it is the only way to get the maximum benefit of your co-teacher's opinions, ideas, and support.

3) Clarify role definitions. Make sure each co-teacher has a specific role. For example, I focus on content: planning curriculum, grading papers. Meanwhile, the reading specialist focuses on helping students adopt successful reading strategies: techniques, tools, and realizations that they can draw upon in our class and others.

4) Communicate and reflect. For my co-teacher and me, our workday is one long (really rich) conversation. We are constantly strategizing on-the-fly about adjustments to a lesson.

We challenge ourselves to analyze data from a variety of sources—and to use those data as well as our own reflections to make changes and differentiate learning.

Our reflective conversations include these kinds of phrases: "This is what I am noticing ... ." "I am thinking about doing this ... ." "What do you think?" Reflective conversations must be honest; don't hide the truth from your co-teacher.

Since we started co-teaching, I am more aware of my RTI students' needs and their development over time—but also more attuned to the growth of all of my students.

5) Actually try it. It's easy to come up with excuses not to collaborate ("It will not work with our schedule ... I'm afraid of being judged ... "). Push those excuses aside, and start small. Begin with a conversation. Co-teach a single lesson together, setting specific roles for whom will teach what. See how it goes.

After reflecting on the lesson with your co-teacher, take the idea to your administrator. Co-teach another lesson and invite your administrator to observe, then open up a conversation about how this model could benefit your students. Talk through the logistics of making the co-teaching model successful at your school.

Walls make teachers feel safe. (This is my classroom, my space, my stuff ... .) As you'll discover, tearing down those metaphorical walls is scary.

But it is also worthwhile. Remember my student Jason? He has made outstanding progress this year. Working together, my colleague and I have developed a full picture of him as a learner, identifying the strategies that work best for him. He no longer needs additional support in a small-group setting—and he often raises his hand to participate.

What tips do you have for co-teaching? How has collaboration improved learning in your classroom?

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