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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

The Power of Two: Co-Teaching in the Classroom

By Peter DeWitt — December 13, 2011 5 min read
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Too often, a special education teacher or Academic Intervention Service (AIS) provider acts as a very expensive pointer in the classroom.

I moonlight as an adjunct professor at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY. It’s my alma mater and I received my undergraduate degree as well as my administration degree from the college. Teaching graduate students can create a reciprocal relationship because professors can get as much from their students as their students get from them.

This semester I taught a course in action research. Action research is where a teacher investigates an issue they are having in their classroom and research how to change the issue. In addition, they can also investigate how to make a good instructional practice even better. Scott, one of my graduate students, investigated co-teaching because he wanted to make his experience in co-teaching more enriching. His study made me reflect on my teaching days.

When I first began teaching elementary school I was asked to teach an inclusion class. The challenge of teaching students of diverse needs was something that made me nervous and excited all at the same time. At the time, many special education teachers taught their students in the hallway, which was horribly segregating. Special education students did “time” in the general education setting and then went to the hallway to get their direct instruction.

I wanted something different for them, and so did the special education teacher that I was fortunate enough to work with in the classroom. Anna was from the Bronx, and I was from upstate, New York. My idea of the city was Albany, and as you can imagine, Anna’s idea of a city was much different. Our colleague Joanne was the speech pathologist assigned to our room and I was eager to learn from her because she had many more years of experience than I did.

Anna and Joanne knew much more about meeting the needs of students than I did, and our daily interactions became my professional development. I know we all have a habit of remembering things more fondly than they were, but the few years that I spent with them were some of my greatest teaching years that helped shape the educator I have become.

Through the first year we worked together, we learned a great deal from each other and had many laughs. My weakness was their strength and vice versa. We spent our lunch time talking about meeting the needs of our students. I never once felt that the classroom was my class; I knew it was our class.

The students benefitted from our interactions because they had different adults who were ready to help meet their needs. It was a good opportunity to have an adult in the class who could offer advice if I did not handle a situation appropriately. The term “critical friend” gets used a lot, and that is the best way to describe the co-teaching experience in our classroom. It helped prepare me for when I taught inclusion in other grades and schools.

As I moved on to another school, I began teaching with Kyle, who was another special education teacher. His strength was math, while mine was ELA. Kyle would teach math to the class and I would pull students to the back of the room who were struggling or we would team teach and tried to be as fluid as possible. I felt, and still feel, as though we created an enriching classroom environment where we were role models for our students.

Too often, a special education teacher or Academic Intervention Service (AIS) provider acts as a very expensive pointer in the classroom. As the teacher lectures, the co-teacher walks around the classroom pointing at a student’s paper to get them on task. Co-teachers are very often misused, because their job is to make sure a student behaves, instead of acting as another professional who can help engage the student.

Co-teaching can be a powerful relationship because having two professionals in the same classroom can provide, not only an enriching experience for the student, but for the other adult in the classroom. One teacher may be excellent with classroom management while the other excels at creativity in the classroom. Even the most diverse relationships can become a great combination.

Co-teaching allows two colleagues to spend a common planning time together to create student-centered lesson plans that will benefit all students within the classroom. The special education teacher can offer great insight into meeting the needs of struggling learners. In my experience, no teacher understands how to differentiate instruction like the best special education teachers.

Individual Education Plans (I.E.P) are a legal document that requires special education teachers to collect data on student progress. Special education teachers are experts when it comes to progress monitoring and understand how to interpret the data to see where students are growing as learners and where they need help. The experience that a special education teacher brings into the co-teaching relationship in invaluable.

Lastly, the co-teaching experience brings in another set of eyes into the classroom. With classes of 25 or higher in many schools across the United States, co-teachers can become important observers of student progress. When taking a break from team teaching, a co-teacher can work as an observer to see which students are able to maintain the momentum of the class and which ones are at risk of falling behind.

In the End
Although I will always be an educator, there are days when I really miss being a teacher. My time in the classroom, the students I taught, and the teachers I taught with provided me with the best professional development on a daily basis. I was fortunate because I worked with teachers who were not afraid to speak up if they thought I could do something differently.

The co-teaching experience can be beneficial for students and staff when it is done correctly. Teachers need to work hard with each other to maintain fluidity and must have open communication with one another so they can deal with the natural struggles that come with working closely with another adult in the classroom. Egos need to be put to the side because in the end, co-teaching is about creating the best possible learning environment for students.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.