Special Education

Co-Teaching for Rookies: Building Trust and Looking at the Big Picture

By Christina A. Samuels — August 14, 2015 4 min read
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This time last week, I asked readers to share their tips for an educator new to co-teaching who had asked On Special Education for advice. As a reminder, here is “bedruzba’s” message:

I am about to enter my first year co-teaching in 6th grade. I myself bought Marilyn Friend's book about co-teaching to help get me started. I guess that is one of the challenges. Teacher training for co-teaching is limited because it is still a relatively newer way to teach. Some teachers are simply thrown into co-teaching with little guidance. Why? Because the administrators asking them to co-teach have not had the opportunity to do so themselves. Therefore, the special education teacher ends up being the helper. I am determined not to let this happen to me this year. Luckily I appear to have the chance to work with teachers that WANT to co-teach. This is important as well. It takes two to co-teach. It one teacher is reluctant to give up control and cooperate, it won't work. Any suggestions for me as I embark on this new venture? I want to have my students be independent learners yet I need to make sure that my specially designed instructions help them to be successful in the co-taught classroom.

Well, the On Special Education audience came through (as did the audience of the Council for Exceptional Children’s “Special Education Today” free e-newsletter, which gave a welcome signal boost.) I received so many excellent comments that I’m going to divide this up into two parts. The advice generally split along two themes: overarching advice about how to philosophically approach a co-teaching partnership, and more focused, nitty-gritty advice on how to organize a classroom or deal with parents as a team.

Today’s post will be about the big picture advice that I received. Monday, I’ll share the advice that focuses more closely on day-to-day arrangements.

Mary Schlieder, the 2008 Nebraska Teacher of the Year and a high school math special education teacher, said: “Work hard to have both teachers viewed as equals. The special education teacher should not act like a para in the back of the room.” Also, “Even if the special education teacher doesn’t know the content well yet (for example, high school level courses), he/she can still lead warm ups, reviews, provide game-based learning activities, and take homework questions that first year while learning content. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes in front of the kids! It’s good modeling for them and they’ll appreciate you for it.”

Andrea Oliver in Middletown, Pa., co-taught for eight years as the special education teacher and has been co-teaching for three years now as the regular education teacher. She says, “Make sure you both agree on discipline. There is nothing worse than telling a student no and then they go to the other teacher and get a yes from them. Policies need to be consistent (getting out of seat, using the bathroom pass, homework grades, etc).” Also, “discuss things as they happen so neither of you becomes angry with each other. You are going to spend so much time together that you don’t want any hard feelings towards each other.”

During professional development classes, teachers may be gung-ho for co-teaching, but it’s challenging to implement all those practices back in the real-life classroom, says Rachel LaDuke-Grube, who teaches at River Valley Middle School in Jeffersonville, Ind. "[Teachers] claim time, student interest, etc., as excuses for the lack of actual ‘co-teaching’ going on their rooms. Both special and general educators are guilty of this! I have seen actual ‘co-teaching’ work, but only with teachers who were friends and co-workers years before beginning to co-teach, which leads me to believe that the most important issue is trust between two teachers....but trust isn’t built in a day, so I would also say meet early and meet often with promises of truth—even when it hurts—and confidence that what happens between teachers will stay between teachers!! Like any relationship, there will be ups and downs, but the more you work to respect, create, and evolve together the better it will get!!!”

Another special educator writes: “Communication is the key! If you have a common prep period use it at least once a week to plan the week—included in the planning is who will take on what role. Special education teachers often feel that they don’t necessarily know the curriculum as well as the general education teacher; however, that is the whole idea of planning—when you plan to discuss who will take on what role, the special ed teacher has time to research. The special education teacher also has time to do what they do best, come up with ways to make this curriculum understandable to all students.”

A special education teacher who is moving into her first year as an administrator writes: “My biggest advice would be for the special education teacher to make sure he/she builds relationships with EVERYONE in the classroom. When the gen education teacher is confident that the special education teacher is really invested in the classroom, mostly the students, and that the special education teacher knows the content, and is assertive, the general education teacher will relinquish control slowly but surely.”

Laura Vail of Commerce Middle School in Commerce, Ga., suggests “if you have administration backing, see if you and your general education teacher can stay together longer than one year. It is hard to build a relationship in one year. It usually takes more than one year to build a lasting relationship.”

Many of the comments I received talked about the importance of clear, frequent communication between teachers. Beth Lakretz, the president of Lakretz Creative Support Services in Baldwin, N.Y., came up with a handy bulleted list of questions for general educators to ask themselves, but many of these would be useful for special educators as well.

  • What am I willing to let go control of?
  • How can we co-create a classroom that is “ours”?
  • What’s a non-negotiable for me?
  • What questions do I need to ask about the students with disabilities included in my classroom?
  • What’s my comfort level with the types of students I’ll be working with, and what do I need to ask of my co-teacher?
  • When/how do I like to plan? Find out the same about my partner so we can make it work.

And finally, some comments from Twitter:

Here is the second part of this series: “Co-Teaching for Rookies: Classroom Organization and Managing Details.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.